What Are YOU Missing?

We are about a week beyond the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) disappointment. Last evening, as I listened in to a conference call sponsored by Mass Education Justice Alliance (MEJA), this question was posed:

What we are missing because of underfunded schools?

When I left active teaching in 2015, I know that underfunding was impacting the public school in which I worked in many ways. Paraprofessional staff had been severely reduced as had ELL support teachers, Reading Specialists, and Science specialists. Library Media Specialists and Instructional Technology Specialists were eliminated. GoFundMe and Donors Choose were the new “normal” for obtaining necessary school classroom supplies. Teacher out-of-pocket expenses climbed (at the time I was spending nearly $1,200 per year on books and paper goods), new curriculum often meant more personal expenditures on trade books and resources for the classroom.

But, as I write this, I know my experiences are three years post-retirement. So I ask you, if you are a Massachusetts Public School teacher, how has underfunding impacted you?

In the Land of Missed Opportunities

pexels-photo-619636.jpegWhat will it take to break through the glass ceiling of education leadership in Massachusetts? The answer to that is still to be uncovered.

On Monday, the Board of Education met to make a final candidate selection for Massachusetts’ next Commissioner of Education. There were three candidates: Penny Schwinn, Angelica Infante-Green, and Jeffrey Riley.  Two of the candidates, both women, were from “out-of-state”; Mr. Riley is a known quantity who has most recently been the Receiver of the Lawrence Public Schools.

One would think that with two women in the final three, there would be a fairly decent chance that the next Commissioner might be a woman, but that would mean ignoring what seems to be an unspoken qualification for education commissioner: “known local quantity”.  Mr. Riley currently holds the position of Receiver in Lawrence Public Schools and has since that city’s schools were put under state receivership. He recently resigned the Receiver’s position and one wonders if that were serendipitous or by design.

By many accounts, Ms. Infante-Green’s interview was quite remarkable; she is a strong advocate of both bilingual and special education. As a parent of two bilingual children, one diagnosed with autism, she understands these two important issues intimately. While I disagree with some of her positions, she would have been a formidable advocate for bilingual students and for the differently-abled. To my thinking, the BESE members’ failure to select her as Masachusetts’ next Commissioner of Education is a lost opportunity: the opportunity to select the first woman to head the Commonwealth’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the first Latina to head Massachusetts’ education.

From each board members commentary, I think many of them supported Ms. Infante-Green’s candidacy, but could not, in the end make that selection. It felt as if many of the eight who selected Mr. Riley did so based on a perception of “earning” the position after his tenure in Lawrence. It was safer. So what we seem to have here is a safe, unimaginative selection; hopefully I will be proven incorrect about that last part.

Instead of breaking that glass ceiling, Massachusetts’ Board of Elementary and Secondary Education chose the safe, known, local candidate. In doing so, have state policy-makers missed an opportunity for greatness? I believe so. Missed opportunity indeed.

Get Ready Massachusetts

IMG_0200Make no mistake about it. The new and improved testing that is coming at Massachusetts schools starting next spring is a debacle in the making.

Thanks to Tracy Novick for making some of the details more apparent to those interested in trying to stay informed about the new requirements. Read her latest post (link in previous sentence) and be prepared. Especially if you teach Grades 4 or 8.

To say that I am stunned that DESE might want to ramp up the move to computer-driven assessments would be an understatement.  First of all, DESE just awarded the test contract to Measured Progress, the company responsible for MCAS 1.0.  As pointed out in Ms. Novick’s post, this would be rather unremarkable except for the fact that Measured Progress’ subcontractor is none other than Pearson. And Pearson is responsible for…. if you’re answering PARCC Testing, you go to the head of the class.  And for bonus points, exactly which Commissioner of Education sits on the PARCC Consortium Board? That’s right, Mitchell Chester. The Massachusetts Commissioner of Education can’t possibly have any influence in selecting a test contractor with a subcontractor connection to the (rejected) PARCC test. That would be preposterous.

For all tested grades, especially 3-8 (Grade 10 is still tied to MCAS as a graduation requirement), a newly developed test for the upcoming spring will be quite an interesting process. I know it was a long time ago, but when I took Educational Measurement classes, it was quite clear that test writing is not for dummies. Assessment items need to be tried out, revised, and normed. That takes time. MCAS 2.0 is scheduled for roll-out next Spring. To create test items, try them out, norm the test, print the test, and deliver the test to school districts in time for a Test Window of April 3 – May 26 (which, by the way, includes a school vacation week in the middle) seems like a mighty big mountain to climb. Unless of course, a portion of the test might have already been developed. As PARCC has.

So why should Grade 4 and Grade 8 teachers be concerned here? As if the above might not be concern enough, Grades 4 and 8 are required to administer this yet-to-be developed test on computers. This spring, many sources reported on documented evidence that students score lower on computerized tests than they do on traditional paper-pencil versions of the same test (see WAPO link here).

So to sum it up, our 4th and 8th grade students will take a yet-to-be developed high-stakes test using computers. The logistical demands for this are an unknown, the technology skill set is unknown, and the test items unwritten. What could possibly go wrong?

To me, the whole business seems like a case study for wag the dog. In my darker moments, the target test groups, Grades 4 and 8, have been selected to tip schools into under-performing categories. Urban students who have less exposure to rich technology experiences are going to struggle with an online test and those test results will not reflect the students’ knowledge of curriculum. The lower results will most likely tip Level 3 and Level 4 schools into lower performance categories which means…..

If you muttered more state take-overs (and privatization), you just went to the head of the class.

PARCC Week, Day 3: Dangerous Liaisons

Who is this Mitchell Chester and why is he so invested in PARCC testing?

IMG_0021Mitchell Chester is the current Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts. Think of that as a district superintendency, but on a state level. He was unanimously selected to be Massachusetts Commissioner of Education in 2008, following a 7-year stint in Ohio as Senior Associate Superintendent for Policy and Accountability in Ohio’s Department of Education.  His career path began as an elementary teacher in Connecticut and progressed through various administrative positions at school, district, and state levels. All of which makes for an impressive resume.

However, here is where I think Dr. Chester has gone off the rails: PARCC.

Mitchell Chester currently serves on the PARCC governing board. Up until November 2015 when he was quietly replaced by the Governing Board Member from New Mexico (Hanna Skandera), he was the Chair of this group whose responsibilities include the following, to quote PARCC.org website:

The PARCC consortium Governing Board makes major policy and operational decisions, including decisions related to the overall design of the assessment system, adoption of performance levels for the assessments, and modifications to PARCC’s governance structure and decision-making process, as necessary.

The Commonwealth’s Board of Education was determining whether or not to mandate PARCC as the replacement for MCAS at the same time that Mitchell Chester was seated on the PARCC Governing Board.

Interestingly, Dr. Chester was replaced as Chair of the PARCC Governing Board shortly after Massachusetts declined to use PARCC assessments state-wide.

At the same time Dr. Chester was Chair of the Governing Board at PARCC – the assessment test proposed as the accountability assessment for the Commonwealth. The Pioneer Institute, an independent think tank, outlines reasons that Dr. Chester’s connections to the PARCC Governing Board were problematic in this post from July 2015.

Move forward to November 2015 when the Commonwealth’s Board of Education was to vote on whether or not to commit to PARCC. By this time, it was clear that the public was not in favor of being railroaded into a PARCC commitment. However, miraculously, just as the Board was meeting to make this decision, Dr. Chester was able to come up with a compromise: Massachusetts would create its own assessment to replace MCAS. The new assessment would be called MCAS 2.0 and would be a hybrid of PARCC and MCAS.

Gradually over the next weeks, the independence of MCAS 2.0 from PARCC was whittled away. At first, the new assessment would only have the look and feel of PARCC; the new hybrid assessment would be developed just for Massachusetts.  Next came the news that PARCC decided states could purchases/contract some of the PARCC test if the whole was not desired. The decision to allow a la carte test items suspiciously coincided with Massachusetts’ rejection of PARCC as their state-wide assessment.

Questions remain concerning the percentage of PARCC test items to be inserted into PARCC, but I have read percentages ranging from 70% to 90% PARCC.   Could MCAS 2.0 just be PARCC with a new name?

For the life of me, I cannot understand how this is not called out as a blatant conflict of interest. While Dr. Chester’s boss, Governor Baker, doesn’t seem to think there is a problem (see WBUR interview and report), the Commissioner’s connections to the PARCC Governing Board seem just a little too cozy.

Here are some weblinks for further reading:

Dear Mitt…

As a citizen of the fair Commonwealth of Massachusetts for quite a number of years – nearly 35 at this point – I feel uniquely qualified to respond to Mitt Romney’s latest education campaign speech.

You see, as a public school teacher in a small urban Massachusetts school district, I wonder how Mitt can call the US public education, particularly this state’s system “third world” when his fiscal policies directly affected the state’s ability to adequately fund education. Draconian cuts to the state’s education aid and education budgets were implemented by the Romney administration so that Candidate Romney can now point to his budgets as being so lean and mean that he was able to cut taxes. And if our education system resembles anything “third world” – and I disagree about that pithy little soundbite – Mitt should look in the mirror for the one to blame.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen the district in which I work decimated financially.  Teachers, paraprofessionals, librarians,  cafeteria, custodial staff, social workers…. all cut heavily and some cut in entirety. Buildings closed. Class sizes are bigger, which means that there’s far more crowd control in an elementary classroom today than there used to be.  Sorry Mitt, but despite your crack “research” from McKinsey & Company, size does matter.

Yes, Mitt, successful education is dependent on a partnership – parent, teacher, and student – who support each child.  There may be lots of reasons for that partnership to fail, but it is insulting and simplistic to think that a child’s school success is dependent upon a two-parent family unit. Forcing your own social prejudices into education policy is just plain ignorant.

Hopefully your flawed and obvious pandering to win votes will be seen for what it is. Garbage.

Art Appreciation

My husband, Adrien, is a photographer. He actually has been a photographer for most of his life, having started out in high school, but was sidetracked by a career in music and in software.  A couple of years ago, he started renting studio space in a revitalized textile mill building in Lowell, MA, Western Avenue Studios, and has been building his photography business ever since.

If you’ve never had a career in the arts, it is quite different from the 9 to 5 corporate world. First of all, as I am always fond of pointing out, unlike my career, you can use the bathroom whenever you want 🙂 Just kidding, Adrien!

What really takes some perseverance is staying focused throughout the cyclical nature of getting commissions and jobs. For example, from the week before Christmas through some time in  late January, not many corporations are interested in scheduling corporate head shot appointments. This creates some down time, which allows Adrien to think about self assignments: photography projects that he works on to develop as a photographer and as an artist.

In addition to working on a portfolio for an upcoming show at the Loading Dock Gallery in Lowell next November, Adrien has been working with a friend of his, Melissa, to create a video of what happens during a professional photo shoot. Here is a link to the stop-action video he created called 396 Square Feet. I think you’ll find it amazing.

Into the frying pan…..

In Massachusetts, there is a bill before the General Court to eliminate or increase the cap on Charter Schools.  I don’t know how things go in other parts of the country, but in Massachusetts, Charter Schools pull their funding from the local budget.  The currently proposed bill lifts the cap on Charters — further privatizing public education.  The following is a letter originally written to my State Representative and State Senator, but truly, it is an open letter to those who are considering this legislation.

Charter Schools

Dear Legislator,

I am a citizen of the Commonwealth, and I am asking you NOT to support lifting caps on Charter Schools.

I am a public educator in the Lowell Public Schools. My students are a diverse group from many different native languages, they come from hard-working families and they come from families experiencing social, emotional and financial traumas.  Five of the 18 students in my classroom are identified as having special needs.  Within this diverse population, there is exciting learning taking place.  And here is one of the reasons why I CHOOSE to teach in a public school:  unlike a charter, public schools have the mission of educating every student.  Shouldn’t education be a right, a given, for our children? We do not hold lotteries to decide who is accepted into our school — we meet the students — all students, not just a selection — wherever they are and move forward.  And we are doing this important work with less and less financial resources; resources that are drained by charter schools.

Academic growth, no matter how it is measured is slowly and steadily taking place. I am proud of my school, my colleagues, and my students. They all deserve your support of public education by the defeat of this attack on public education.


Amy E. Bisson