The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Commissioner's Performance Review for FY2017

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Penny Noyce, Chair of the Committee on Commissioner's Performance Review
June 16, 2017

Each year, the chair of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education establishes a committee to evaluate the performance of the Commissioner. For reviewing Commissioner Mitchell Chester's ninth year of performance in FY2017, the committee consists of Penny Noyce (committee chair), James Morton (Board vice-chair), and Paul Sagan (Board chair).

The committee met in the fall of 2016 and, after consultation with other members of the Board, elected to continue to use the existing performance criteria for the Commissioner's evaluation.

The committee also asked Commissioner Chester to identify his goals and objectives for FY 2017. On January 7, 2017 he sent a memo to the Board listing his goals and objectives for school year 2016-2017:

Advance academic achievement for all students:

  • Promote improved achievement for all students with a focus on improving third- grade reading levels and middle grade mathematics achievement
  • Narrow proficiency gaps based on race/ethnicity and income status
  • Continue to advance education for students in the Level 4 and 5 schools.

Provide tools and resources that support/promote district and school efforts to advance education:

  • Revise and strengthen the ELA and Mathematics standards and frameworks
  • Deliver a high quality Next-Generation MCAS
  • Launch the review of the History/Social Studies/Civics framework
  • Continue to implement the workgroup recommendations for civic engagement and learning
  • Work with educators to support social/emotional learning
  • Revise the educator evaluation regulations based on feedback from the field
  • Expand digital learning opportunities to enhance and augment teaching and learning

The FY2017 evaluation is structured around four dimensions:

Attachment A Download Word Document includes a detailed description of the performance criteria used to evaluate these dimensions of the Commissioner's work in FY2017.

The committee gathered data from various sources, including student performance results, the Commissioner's self-assessment, and input from other members of the Board, the Commissioner's leadership team, including district receivers, and selected external constituents. This memo highlights some of the accomplishments of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) under the Commissioner's leadership in FY2017. It also reviews the Commissioner's performance based on the Board-developed criteria and goals, identifies challenges and opportunities, and makes a recommendation to the Board in relation to his performance.

2016-2017 Highlights

The Commissioner, Board, and DESE continued to make excellent progress in FY2017, particularly in the areas of curriculum and assessment. Massachusetts remains a national leader in K-12 education. The success of the ongoing work is evident in outcome measures including the most recent student data on high school graduation, MCAS scores, Advanced Placement results, and results on national (NAEP) and international (PISA and TIMSS) student assessments. Significant actions and accomplishments in FY2016 include the following (see Section A, below, for additional details):

Student performance. Massachusetts ACT scores topped the nation, with an average composite score of 24.8 out of a possible 37, up from last year's 24.4. Massachusetts 4th and 8th graders were again in first place nationally in reading and mathematics performance and tied for second place nationally in science performance on the 2015 NAEP exam. On the 2015 international PISA exam for 15-year-olds, Massachusetts shared the top spot in reading with eight nations, and tied with ten nations to come in second, after Singapore, in science.

AP results After ten years of growth, Massachusetts now leads the nation in Advanced Placement participation and performance. Approximately 44 percent of the class of 2016 took at least one AP exam, and 31 percent of the class scored a 3 (out of 5) or higher on at least one exam.

Graduation rate. For the tenth consecutive year, the state's graduation rate rose, with 87.5 percent of the cohort graduating within four years. Improvements occurred among low-income students, English language learners, and urban students, with a narrowing of the graduation gap for Hispanic and African-American students. The dropout rate, at 1.9%, is the lowest it has been in decades.

Student assessment. On an accelerated timeline, spring 2017 saw a smooth launch of the next-generation MCAS in grades 3-8. Consistent with the Board's recommendation to move to statewide computer-based testing, 497,988 tests were completed online during the April-May 2017 testing window. Overall, the online test administration went very smoothly, and the few technical issues that occurred locally were quickly resolved.

ELA and Mathematics curriculum standards reviewed and updated. Under the Commissioner's leadership, DESE engaged the field in reviewing and updating the English Language Arts and Mathematics curriculum frameworks based on six years of experience. The Board adopted the updated curriculum frameworks in English Language Arts-Literacy and Mathematics in March 2017.

Digital Literacy and Computer Science standards adopted. With input from educators and industry representatives, DESE prepared and the Board adopted voluntary Digital Literacy and Computer Science standards aligned to state standards in ELA, science, and mathematics.

History-Social Science standards and Civic Engagement. The Commissioner launched the review and update of the History-Social Science curriculum framework, with a view to strengthening civic learning and engagement for all students.

Reorganization. In an environment of decreased resources, the Commissioner sought input from an outside group and managed a reorganization of the Department that led to greater integration and coordination of services. Among other changes, the Commissioner created an Office of Student Support to align DESE's efforts to support the social-emotional health, learning, and safety of students.

Educator evaluation. After extensive public input, and following recommendations from the Commissioner, the Board voted to amend the Educator Evaluation regulations to maintain student learning as a central consideration while eliminating the separate student impact rating.

State receiverships. Lawrence, in its second term of receivership, continues to work on high school redesign, while seeing gains in graduation rates and in percentages of students achieving at the Proficient and Advanced level. Holyoke, in its second year of receivership, is implementing a common 9th grade academy and expanding its dual-language program in early elementary school. Southbridge, in its first year of receivership, is working on an extended school day and year, greater flexibility in hiring, and a revised compensation system, among other initiatives.

Level 4 and 5 schools. The Commissioner and his team continue to implement, monitor, and refine the process for Level 4 and 5 schools. Three Level 4 schools met their turnaround goals and exited "underperforming" status. Three of four Level 5 schools are making good progress, while the Commissioner has negotiated new leadership and management for the fourth.

ESSA State Plan. After extensive public outreach, DESE developed and submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in April 2017 the Massachusetts plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, advancing the Commonwealth's commitment to equity and excellence.

Commissioner's Performance Evaluation

Based on the criteria in Attachment A Download Word Document and our review of all the information, the committee evaluated the Commissioner's performance as follows:

  1. Facilitate student growth and achievement (30%)

    1. Department staff, Board members and receivers universally agree that the Commissioner provides moral leadership, commitment, and vision to the priority of improving student achievement in order to offer young people the best possible chance at a successful and rewarding life. His expectations are high and his knowledge of teaching and learning is characterized as exemplary.

    2. The next-generation MCAS, despite a very tight timeline, was successfully rolled out in schools in April and May of 2017. Students in grades 4 and 8 took a computer-based exam. Technical glitches were few and quickly resolved. With input from stakeholders, DESE drafted and the Board adopted descriptions for performance levels on the new exams, and plans are underway for standard-setting over the summer.

    3. Under the Commissioner's leadership, DESE upgraded the 2010 curriculum frameworks in English Language Arts and Mathematics, incorporating feedback from the field and the public. In March 2017, the Board voted to adopt the revised frameworks.

    4. In order to expand digital learning opportunities and help prepare students for the civic, workplace and learning environment of tomorrow, the Commissioner led DESE through a process to develop digital literacy and computer science standards, which the Board adopted in June 2016.

    5. The Commissioner has launched the review of the History and Social Science standards. In addition to incorporating civic learning and engagement into the state definition of college and career readiness, DESE held its second statewide forum highlighting successful civic learning initiatives in schools and districts.

    6. Along with the Higher Education Commissioner and Board, the Commissioner is leading DESE in efforts to expand early college access for high school students, especially in underserved areas.

    7. After extensive public input, the Commissioner led DESE in a timely and thoughtful submission to the U.S. Department of Education of the Massachusetts plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

    8. The Commissioner led DESE through a sometimes contentious revision of the educator evaluation regulations. While removing the separate student impact rating, the new framework maintains an emphasis on the importance of student learning by incorporating it into the standards of effective practice. Through statewide dissemination fairs, DESE continues to help educators and districts share promising practices and learn from each other.

    9. In recognition of the role of social and emotional factors in student learning, the Commissioner formed the Office of Student Support in the summer of 2016. The new office will focus on fostering a safe and supportive school climate and effective ways to engage families.

    10. Evidence of student growth and achievement in Massachusetts in FY 2017, under Commissioner Chester's leadership, includes the following:

      1. In the National Assessment of Educational Progress, in both grades 4 and 8, Massachusetts 4th and 8th graders were again in first place nationally in reading and mathematics performance and tied for second place nationally in science performance on the 2015 NAEP exam.

      2. In spring of 2016, some students took MCAS and some took PARCC exams, and while it was not possible to aggregate statewide results, DESE commended 49 schools for high achievement, strong progress, and/or narrowing proficiency gaps. Three schools previously designated as Level 4 showed sufficient sustainable progress to exit that status. Five new districts joined the ranks of those in which all schools are Level 1 or 2.

      3. The state's four-year graduation rate improved for the tenth consecutive year, with 87.5 percent of students who entered as ninth graders in 2012-2013 - or who transferred into that cohort at any time during high school - graduating within four years. This is an increase of 7.6 percentage points from the 2006 cohort, when DESE first began calculating the cohort graduation rate.

      4. In 2016, Massachusetts became the state with the largest percentage of students taking and performing well on Advanced Placement exams. Approximately 44% of the class of 2016 took at least one AP exam in high school. Almost three-quarters of these students saw notable success, with 31 percent of the class receiving a score of three or above on at least one exam. A score of three out of five is widely recognized as demonstrating readiness for success in a college course in that subject.

Rating: The Commissioner's performance was outstanding, receiving a rating of 5 out of 5.

  1. Management and operations (25%)

    1. In FY2017, the Commissioner carried out a strategic restructuring of DESE to ensure attention to the highest leverage initiatives while adjusting to reduced resources and staffing due to budget constraints. Following last year's organizational review by Parthenon-EY, he aligned fiscal and personnel resources focused on the five core priorities: curriculum, instruction, and assessment; educator effectiveness; accountability and assistance; technology and data; and a safe and supportive learning environment. Staff report broad satisfaction with the reorganization and a sense that communication across different divisions within the department has truly improved.

    2. The Commissioner has assembled and leads a highly effective staff that shares a sense of direction and is responsive to the field even when Board policy requires DESE to take actions that are unpopular with some constituencies.

    3. The Commissioner receives uniformly stellar reviews from members of his leadership team. They consistently express high morale and a sense of shared mission. The Commissioner encourages dialogue, debate, and learning from evidence. His leadership team appreciates his strategic thinking, his clear and unwavering guidance, his work ethic, his skill in finding a middle course without compromising values, his keen insights into teaching and learning, his calm demeanor, and his passion for improving education for all students in the Commonwealth.

    4. The Commissioner communicates high expectations for DESE staff and encourages their continued growth and professional development. He expects and models collaboration across work groups. Staff members look to him as a mentor.

    5. The receivers whom the Commissioner oversees feel supported and pushed to achieve their best. They are confident that the Commissioner will back them up in their turnaround work when they need him, and they find him an honest, rigorous and helpful thought partner.

    6. The committee recognizes that diversity efforts within DESE suffered a setback with the early retirement of several high-level staff members in 2016-2017. Because of budget contraction, many of these positions have not been filled. Nevertheless, the committee recommends continued efforts to recruit and promote a diverse staff.

Rating: The Commissioner's performance was outstanding, receiving a rating of 5 out of 5.

  1. External relations and communication (25%)

    1. The Commissioner maintains a visible public profile throughout the state to explain DESE's goals and initiatives and hear from the field about priorities, progress, and the challenges they are facing. This year, the Commissioner put a new strategy in place to increase the number of parents, school committee members, and citizens that heard from him about DESE goals and initiatives. To accomplish this, he held four community forums around the state. Each was hosted by one or more local school districts and included a question and answer session with the audience. The Commissioner also meets regularly with the Secretary of Education and with the Commissioners and Board Chairs of Early Education and Care and Higher Education. He visits schools around the Commonwealth almost every week of the school year, meeting with students, teachers, and administrators and often with parents and local elected officials as well.

    2. The Commissioner successfully navigated a challenging environment in the past year. He was diligent in making sure that the public, and especially educators, had ample opportunity to debate and provide input on such matters as the revision of the ELA and mathematics curriculum frameworks, educator evaluation, and the state plan required by the Every Student Succeeds Act.

    3. The Commissioner has dedicated time and resources to maintaining productive relationships with the Legislature through regular meetings and communication with the Education Committee co-chairs, legislative leadership, and legislative policy staff, to explain and advance Board priorities. He has played an important and helpful role in developing the state education budget.

    4. The Commissioner or DESE leaders under his direction meet monthly with 24 urban school district superintendents through the Urban Superintendents Network to identify and share practices and policies that are advancing student learning and closing proficiency gaps. DESE also convenes professional learning networks around issues of common interest, such as reducing over-reliance on student suspensions, and convenes a superintendent advisory committee to discuss DESE project updates and answer questions on timely topics. The Commissioner also began hosting conference calls with superintendents and other district leaders at the start and end of the school year to provide an update on topics of wide interest and give participants the opportunity to ask questions.

    5. The Commissioner meets regularly with officials of Massachusetts and national foundations that have an interest in education. The Commissioner also attends public events to provide remarks, give keynote addresses, and participate in panel discussions. As an experienced state school chief, he responds to Massachusetts and national media requests for interviews on a wide range of educational matters.

    6. The Commissioner does an outstanding job of representing Massachusetts on the national education scene, enhancing the Commonwealth's position as a national leader in education reform and student achievement, and creating opportunities for the Commonwealth to learn and benefit from best practices. He continues to serve as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, the independent, bipartisan organization that oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation's Report Card. The Commissioner is also a member of Chiefs for Change.

    7. The committee encourages the Commissioner to continually coach his staff to proactively engage the field with a sense of appreciation and encouragement. While the Department has a regulatory oversight role, it will have its most beneficial effect by offering support, inspiring examples, and technical assistance.

Rating: The Commissioner's performance exceeded expectations, receiving a rating of 4.75.

  1. Board support/effective interactions (20%)

    1. The Commissioner provides outstanding support to the Board. Through his weekly reports, monthly calls, constant availability, and responsiveness to requests for information, he assists Board members in understanding education issues and carrying out their responsibilities.

    2. The Commissioner and Board chair led a successful Board retreat in November 2016, at which the Board reiterated its priorities and planned and previewed initiatives for the year.

    3. The Commissioner assembles staff and resources for highly informative special meetings of the Board on Monday evenings as well as for the regular meetings. Special meetings in FY2017 have provided opportunities for in-depth discussion on topics such as student assessment, school and district accountability, curriculum frameworks, the ESSA state plan, and other topics.

    4. The Commissioner fully supports the Board's committees and task forces with staff and materials. He takes seriously the results of the Board's deliberations and decisions and follows through on his commitments.

    5. At times, Board members can perceive the Commissioner as being tenacious in his adherence to ideas, but he is never defensive and is always open to disagreement and debate. Once the Board makes a decision, he carries it out without reservation.

Rating: The Commissioner's performance was outstanding, receiving a rating of 5.

Conclusion and Recommendation

Commissioner Chester's performance in FY2016 has been outstanding, receiving very high marks (more than 4.9 in total out of a possible 5) based on the performance criteria for 2016-2017. Despite resource constraints, Massachusetts continued to make steady and significant progress in K-12 education in the past year, which can be difficult to accomplish in a system already performing at a high level. Along with the work of teachers, administrators, and Department staff, these accomplishments reflect Commissioner Chester's dedication, contributions and leadership. Both the Commissioner and the Board acknowledge that substantial work remains to close those achievement gaps that persist. We are confident that policies and practices already underway (for example, the early college initiative and current turnaround efforts) will offer continued progress in this domain.

Based on the evaluation of his job performance, the committee affirms its strong endorsement of the Commissioner and recommends that the Board do so as well. We would prefer to underline this endorsement with a substantial salary increase, but we are limited by budget constraints. The committee has reviewed the most recent memorandum, dated January 6, 2017, from the Commonwealth's Chief Human Resources Officer concerning the management performance evaluation program and benchmarks for merit pay distribution for state executive branch managers. Following the benchmark in that memo for state executive branch managers whose performance receives the highest rating, the committee recommends for Commissioner Chester: a salary increase of 1.5%, effective July 1, 2017; a one-time bonus of $1000 (especially in view of the successful launch of the next-generation MCAS tests this spring); and two additional days of paid leave for fiscal year 2018.

The Committee on the Commissioner's Performance Review salutes and thanks Commissioner Chester for his commitment and dedication to the advancement of education for the students of the Commonwealth.