Massachusetts' System for Differentiated Recognition, Accountability & Support
Since 2009, Massachusetts has defined its approach to district engagement based on the premise that district accountability and DESE assistance must be closely linked to produce continuous and sustainable improvement. Districts are only as strong as their weakest school, Those requiring minimal state intervention are placed in Level 1; those requiring the most intervention are placed in Level 5.
Massachusetts' state system of support enables the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) to provide comprehensive assistance to districts that is differentiated by need, provides structured opportunities for teachers, administrators and district leaders to engage in activities including coaching, action research, facilitated work teams, professional communities of practice, and resource networking. DESE's Conditions for School Effectiveness and District Standards and Indicators provide processes and tools to support evidence-based practices across the Commonwealth.
DESE will commend schools for high performance, high progress, and for success in closing proficiency gaps; these "Commendation Schools" will serve as demonstration sites for effective or promising practices, and many will receive incentives to collaborate with Level 3 schools that have been unsuccessful in meeting the needs of their lowest achieving students.
The amount of flexibility and autonomy each district receives is determined by its classification on the state accountability system.
- Level 1 districts are granted considerable autonomy and flexibility and have access to the online tools and resources available to all districts.
- Level 2 districts are granted some autonomy but must perform an annual needs assessment based on the state's Conditions for School Effectiveness to implement and/or improve conditions in their schools that are not effectively supporting the needs of all students.
- Level 3 districts receive priority assistance from the regional District and School Assistance Center (DSAC) and engage with the DSAC in both the needs assessment process and in the identification of interventions.
- Level 4 districts must rapidly implement all 11 Conditions for School Effectiveness in their Level 4 schools, are assigned a liaison from DESE to engage their leadership team in system-level analysis of district support activities, and are closely monitored for efficacy and impact.
- If a school is placed in Level 5, the most serious designation on DESE's framework, DESE will engage a receiver to oversee management of the school.
DESE's framework for district accountability and assistance provides an array of supports, services, and opportunities for schools and districts to engage in professional learning communities focused on establishing high expectations for all students, a common language to discuss school improvement efforts, and a knowledge base from which all educators can benefit.
DESE provides multiple resources and tools, many of which are available online, and are accessible for use by school and district leaders, other educators, school committees, and the public. To support the use of these tools DESE provides a network of regional assistance through our six District and School Assistance Centers (DSACs). In collaboration with partner organizations, DSACs use a regional approach to support self-assessment and planning, provide regional opportunities to learn about and share effective practices; and train, model, and facilitate the use of our resources and tools. Districts have a strong incentive to participate in DSAC activities because they add value and needed capacity, provide customized professional development and other supports; and serve as a venue for networking opportunities. Further, the relationship between a DSAC and a district is collaborative, not evaluative, fostering trust and an atmosphere of support.
Each DSAC is led by a Regional Assistance Director (RAD), a recently retired superintendent selected based on his or her prior record of accomplishment. Most RADs have operated one or more districts in the region and brings a deep understanding of the local, civic, cultural, economic, and educational context and the ability to meaningfully engage local stakeholder groups in the work. The RAD works directly with the region's superintendents, providing opportunities for honest conversations about strengths and needs. Each RAD is supported by a team that includes a former principal, a data specialist, a mathematics specialist, and a literacy specialist, with the availability of additional support from DESE specialists as needed. Each DSAC serves as a forum for regional networks of school and district teams on various topics, especially the education of English language learners and students with disabilities, and for developing strong instructional leaders.
Other available tools and resources include:
- The District Analysis and Review Tools (DARTs) report on more than 40 quantitative indicators to allow all stakeholders to gauge the overall health of school or district. Users can track pertinent data elements over time and make sound, meaningful comparisons to the Commonwealth or to comparable districts. The DARTs provide a snapshot of school and district trends and allows users to examine trends over the most recent five years of available data; view school- and district-level data on easily accessible graphical displays; reflect and self-evaluate; locate comparable schools and districts elsewhere in the state based on student characteristics; and make comparisons to enable a district to collaborate with a similar district that has shown promising trends.
- Online models and self-assessment tools for district and school improvement that are aligned with DESE's 11 Conditions for School Effectiveness and six District Standards and Indicators;
- The Early Warning Indicator Index system, a data-driven system to identify high school students who are at risk of not graduating on time. DESE is using federal Longitudinal Data System Grant Program (LDS-2) funding to expand the system to identify K 12 students that are potentially off track for their grade level or developmental age, including those students who are not on track to graduate with their peers and are identified as potential dropouts.
- DESE provides targeted grants to enhance district and regional capacity to plan, implement, and sustain practices to improve student performance that are aligned with the 11 Conditions for School Effectiveness. One of DESE's goals as an agency is to guide school and district leaders to think more strategically about how best to maximize the various grants they receive, either through entitlement or competitive opportunities; ensure that grant resources are used in ways that directly contribute to attainment of agency goals; and create new practices within the agency itself to improve DESE's practices around grant development, assessment, and award determination.
- The Commonwealth's professional development programs will be scaled up through the DSACs, through train-the-trainer models, and through online webinars and courses. In addition, the quality of external professional development will be heightened through the establishment of new, more rigorous criteria for professional development providers in literacy and mathematics.
- DESE's foundational professional development course menu, offered through the DSACs and other sources, is designed to build educator effectiveness in five critical content areas: 1) instructional leadership, 2) sheltering content for English language learners, 3) inclusive instructional practices for students with disabilities, 4) mathematics, and 5) literacy.
- A Behavioral Health and Public Schools Self-Assessment Tool that allows districts and schools to evaluate their practices and strategies for supporting positive behavior and health of students.
DESE's district liaisons serve as project managers, and provide a direct communication link to ESE and coordinate support to the Commonwealth's 10 largest urban districts to enhance their capacity to support every school, with a particular focus on their Level 4/Priority schools. Working with senior district leadership, the liaisons facilitate the development of professional learning communities in each school, support the use of multiple forms of data to inform system-wide action planning, and provide resources for systematic observation of classrooms, discussion of evidence, and action planning to improve teaching and learning and make effective use of collaborative planning time.
The senior leadership of the Center for Accountability and Targeted Assistance and the district liaisons further this work by convening a monthly meeting of the Urban Superintendents Network (USN). The USN is chaired by superintendents from three different regions of the state and provides leaders from 23 urban districts with an opportunity to share ideas, concerns, and solutions to common problems with each other. Commissioner Chester uses the USN as a resource to gain input on policy decisions, including pursing this waiver opportunity, and practical implementation challenges such as implementing the educator evaluation framework.
As Massachusetts' districts progress towards the goal of halving the proficiency gap for all students, they will steadily progress toward the full implementation of the 11 Conditions for School Effectiveness in all schools, with priority given to schools in Levels 3 and 4.