Education Commissioner Seeks Deeper Learning For More Mass. Students

Jeff Riley, in a WBUR file photo (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Jeff Riley, in a WBUR file photo (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley says that while Massachusetts should be proud of its "first in the nation" status on several educational measures, the state still has a lot of work to do, particularly when it comes to closing the achievement gap between white students and their minority peers.

Along with a report called "Our Way Forward," Riley proposed several ideas to the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Tuesday to move the state beyond what he called "stagnant" progress on NAEP scores, a national standardized test, and third grade reading skills.

"My fear is that we may be like Blockbuster video in 1992 — thinking we’re the next great American company when in fact we’re about to be overtaken by Netflix," he told the board during its final monthly meeting of the school year.

The 13-page report was the result of a yearlong listening tour that Riley set out on shortly after taking on the role of commissioner. After speaking with students, teachers, parents and other education leaders, he says four main themes emerged.

1. Deeper Learning For All

Riley says many of the educators he spoke with believe the MCAS, and the state's reliance on those scores to measure accountability, has narrowed the curriculum many schools can cover. He added that many educators told him they feel rushed and only have enough time to offer shallow coverage of a subject matter before testing begins in the spring.

Riley explained he's seen many examples of deeper learning that engage students and encourages them to think creatively, but that those are only available to a limited number of students.

"There is evidence that deeper learning experiences are more common in affluent communities and honors-track classes — school settings to which our underprivileged students, English learners, and students with disabilities don't always have equitable access," he said in the report.

He encouraged districts to be creative with their curriculum — once they've demonstrated they can meet state standards — through things like shifting the length of class periods and creating better systems for teacher sharing and professional development.

2. Provide Holistic Support To Students

Riley says during his visits to more than 100 schools this last year he consistently heard that students' emotional wellness needs are intensifying.

"Robust support services are especially necessary for students who have unique challenges or are suffering from and distracted by trauma and toxic stress," he wrote in the report.

He acknowledged that most districts will need help to deliver the necessary services to these students, so he encouraged officials to pursue partnerships with local nonprofits, universities and employers to offer wraparound supports for kids, like athletics, robust arts programming and after-school and summer learning programs.

3. Innovation Sharing

Riley's report points out that there aren't enough avenues for teachers and school leaders to share with others information about successful programming. He plans to launch a pilot program to incentivize innovative successes and share news of them. Riley says districts can also expect continued support in pursuing state priorities like improving educator diversity, expanded access to early college programming in high schools, and learning programming during school vacation (also known as Acceleration Academies).

4. State As A Partner

Riley adds districts made it clear to him that they need more individualized support from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), and to feel more like the state is a partner rather than just a regulatory overseer. He pledged to set a tone of collaboration and compromise in the public education system and find ways to streamline a school's administrative tasks.

Board Reaction

Riley reminded the board that this roadmap does not replace the strategic plan that the board creates with DESE every few years. "This just marks where we’ve been and posits where we should consider going," he said.

The proposals received mostly positive feedback from board members.

Ed Doherty said the report, in many respects, is on target. But he pointed out that many of the proposals are going to cost money. "I would hope that we, as a board, can have a voice in saying to the public that we need additional resources and not just another band-aid to public education," said Doherty.

He pointed to several proposals being considered on Beacon Hill right now that he believes would provide the necessary funding, like Boston Democratic Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz's Promise Act. Doherty said her plan would "add much more money to our public schools than the budget being proposed by the governor."

Margaret McKenna said she was encouraged by what she read in the report. She specifically complimented the report's focus on making sure DESE is seen as a partner and not just a regulator. "There is a sense in the community that that's already happening. ... DESE is changing and seen as a place you can go to get support," she said. "I think that's an incredible evolution."

Riley wants to roll out a number of initiatives outlined in his report among a small number of districts in a pilot program. He hopes to take applications from interested school districts this summer, and launch the effort in the winter.

Reaction to the "Our Way Forward" plan wasn't the only positive feedback Riley received during the board meeting.

Board members also released the results of the commissioner's performance evaluation of his first year on the job. Overall, Riley earned a 4.1 out of 5 rating, which vice chair James Morton explained meant the board was "very satisfied."

Riley's review score broke down into four categories:

  • Facilitates Student Growth and Achievement: 3.8 out of 5
  • Management and Operations: 3.75 out of 5
  • External Relations and Communication: 4.5 out of 5
  • Board Support/Effective Interactions: 4.75 out of 5.

Board members unanimously approved the results of the evaluation, as well as a 2% salary increase for Riley for next year.


Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



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