The Gardner News
Some question unfunded mandate of new push for social, emotional learning
FITCHBURG People from some of North Central Massachusetts’ most challenged school districts met Tuesday at Fitchburg State University with Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, to find ways to ensure that they remain on an upward trajectory when serving students in kindergarten through high school.
The commissioner said he has been to schools throughout North Central Massachusetts and was aware of the “smart things” happening in the districts.
Chester said Massachusetts education is first in the country, and has been first since 2005 in grade 4 and grade 8 assessments in reading and math.
The state is also globally competitive in reading (No. 1), in science (No. 2), and rates No. 11 in math out of 72 countries and educational systems. In science, only Singapore tested higher. The United States came in 45th in reading, 40th in science, and 30th in math. Tested were 15-year-old students across the globe.
Chester credited teachers for the increase over the years in student proficiency.
“These are the fruits of your labor,” he said. “I want to make a point. For me, it is not the test scores. For me it’s what they represent, whether or not students have strong literacy skills or math skills and can use those skills to solve problems in real-world situations.”
Chester said the state should look at educational systems around the globe to see where growth and innovation are occurring. He said we are already seeing the impact of globalization, and it is worrisome.
“We owe it to our students, we owe it to their future, we owe it to the future of the commonwealth not to become complacent in this world where increasingly where you grow up is less and less of a determinant of where your opportunities are going to be.”
He said technology is creating an interconnected world and a shrinking globe.
The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System developed in 1993 has shown that the state is narrowing the 10th grade achievement gap. By 2
“Back when we first gave that test, there were a lot of doubters. A lot of people didn’t think our schools were up to delivering better results than that 24 percent and 38 percent proficient (for English language arts and math) People didn’t think our students were capable.”
Chester pointed to the 2015 assessment numbers that showed a 91 percent proficiency statewide in English language arts, and a 79 percent proficiency in math. Also added was a 72 percent proficiency rating in science that was only at 57 percent when the state first began testing in 2007. He said the numbers represented more students reading better, knowing how to apply math and understanding science.
He noted the dropout rate since the beginning of MCAS testing has been cut in half.
“Tremendous progress,” he said.
The state budget last year for K-12 education was $5.2 billion with a little over 88 percent going to local aid.
Chester revealed that students not reaching potential are oftentimes from low-income households, from racial or ethnic minorities, or students with disabilities or with language barriers.
“Those gaps exist, and they are not trivial. The good news is a lot of places are proving that those gaps don’t have to exist, and are making tremendous progress in that regard.”
Chester said that a concern is that more than one third of students who enter the state’s public campuses are placed in remedial classes.
“More than one in three students that have done what we have asked to get a high school diploma get to college and are told, ‘you are not ready.’ When you break that down to our two- and four-year campuses, it’s shocking.”
One of the Department of Education’s priority areas to support teaching and learning includes the social, emotional and health needs of students and families.
Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale said supporting the initiative was “quite a challenge.” He asked if the state was addressing that initiative in the budget.
“That is certainly a real issue in the Fitchburg Public Schools, and I am sure that there are similar issues in other school districts as well,” he told Chester.
Chester said that the governor has released his budget. It will move to the House of Representatives which will produce its own budget in March. It will then move to the Senate. They will have a sense of the revenue flow, and then the House and Senate will have to reconcile the differences. The budget is then sent back to the governor. He can accept some things and veto or change others and will send it back for a couple more rounds.
Chester noted that the mainstream educational community has become more accepting of schools addressing the issue of social and emotional health.
“We’re committed to supporting it. How it will play out in the budget is not clear at this point,” said Chester. “I’ll be the last one to let us rest on our laurels. I’ll be the guy that will cheerlead everything I put up there and showed you about the system. But I also know that there are too many kids that are not enjoying the success. I am bound and determined to get us to where everybody is.”
Parent Sheila Tallamraju said she has been watching the federal Senate hearings to appoint Betsy DeVos as education secretary.
“I am questioning how she is going to be a support system to the public schools,” said Tallamraju.
Chester said the Senate would have to confirm DeVos.
“I try to be as opened-minded as possible. I do not know Secretary DeVos. She is not someone I have interacted with over time. I read a lot of press about her. A lot of that press raises concerns. The good thing is that we have a federalist system of government. Education is not mentioned in the United States Constitution. What happens to things that are not mentioned in the Constitution? They are the purview of the states. So we have this interesting tension between the federal government wanting to have a role in education, with no Constitutional mandate.”
Chester said money is received by the states as they agree to mandates for students with disabilities.
Winchendon School Committee member Larry Murphy asked how the district could close the gap between students at risk in low income communities so the district could reach a level one rating.
“I am interested in fairness and equity for all and what I am concerned about is that I think the competition that has been created between public schools, vocational schools, charter schools, school choice…the competition that has been created has created an un-level playing field. I want to get your opinion about how we can…instead of competing, collaborating.”
Chester seized on Murphy’s suggestion of collaboration and said that Murphy put a thorny issue on the table. He applauded Winchendon for their success in increasing their student scores.
He said he was aware of the dynamics that play in the area. Chester said that there have been discussions on how to access high level technical vocational programs without students having to make a decision to leave the district. He said he is also encouraging superintendents to have conversations with charter schools that might be able to help with the performance of the lower performing schools. He said in Lawrence they brought in three charter schools to take over the lowest performing schools.
“You have to keep exploring ways to think about how to collaborate while getting the most out of it. There are no easy answers,” said Chester.
Natalie Nelson, parent and organizer of the Ashburnham Westminster parent group said that the area is a forgotten zone past Route 495. Her concern is the mandates including regional transportation.
“They cut into the budget and are not sufficiently funded at the state level so we have been facing budget cuts consistently and have had no growth in budget.”
Nelson gave a list of recent cuts and impacts on the students’ social and emotional well-being. She did not want to seek who was at fault, but felt it would take collaboration to make a difference. She asked how they could have a voice in Boston.
Chester encouraged her to work with legislators, and said that Western Mass has advocacy people high up in state government that are tuned into the needs of what is beyond Route 495.