On June 14, “pablo” and “sabutai” sat down with Massachusetts’s Secretary* of Education, Matt Malone to conduct an hourlong interview arranged through the editors of BMG and the Secretary’s* Office. Matt, who before taking his current as position of Secretary seven months ago, worked as a special assistant to the superintendent in Sand Diego, and before that Brockton superintendent. He fielded questions from us on a range of issues. Below is a paraphrased summary of that conversation; remarks within quotations are verbatim.
The first few questions were asked by “sabutai“, a classroom teacher.
-Last month the Economist ran a column averring that teaching is going to die, that the profession is going the way of the travel agent, for similar reasons. What is the accuracy of that statement, and where does online learning fit in?
MM: First, that sentiment is more applicable to higher education due to higher demand for online learning at that level. There is a growing demand for online K-12 learning as a component of education for those ages, but it’s not yet on the scale of online universities, or traditional universities offering online programs and components. There will still be a need for face-to-face interaction for instruction, sports, performing arts not to mention connections for the future … but expect online learning to be a growing component of a hybrid experience. “Human interaction is critical” to the wider experience of education, to the relationship between students and between students and educators. Flipped classrooms [where instruction is by recorded video at home and practice/homework is completed in class] and the use of online information and lectures will emerge as part of education. The role of technology in teaching will increase, not least of all because students are “nativists” to advanced personal technology and new tools will be needed to engage students. There will always be a value in the art, “the beauty” of teaching.
-Oklahoma recently pulled out of PARCC. Indiana is looking at pulling out, Alabama and Pennsylvania just left. Why have they left? [ed note: PARCC is a coalition of about 18 states writing a new national curriculum and connected battery of tests to go with it. Massachusetts is a member, Georgia has also left since this interview.]
MM: It’s not possible to speak about other states’ choices. There are a lot of unknowns in the process, but as more “meat” is put on the bones in this effort, more states will buy in. Massachusetts will hopefully stay in. The new curriculum has “a huge focus on non-fiction…which makes a difference in achievement.” The PARCC tests will be a much more rigorous, and “I’m not scared of that”. It is a way of to “focus on student learning and outputs…how do we know that they learned it?” At present one quarter of students who pass the MCAS still must take remedial courses at college; PARCC will set a higher standard. It will be good to rank students across the country on the same test. It’s a way to ensure that lagging states can learn from leading states (quite probably Massachusetts), and part of that is identifying which states are in which category.
Cost is a concern — all PARCC tests are supposed to be administered by computer, something beyond the resources of most schools. How is a school going to test this many students using recently built computers?
-All the schools that were designated at Level IV three years agos are located in Springfield, Fall River, Worcester, Boston, Holyoke, Lowell, New Bedford, Lynn, and Lawrence. [ed. note: “Level IV” is the designation for the lowest-performing schools, up to 4% of the total, in the state.]
MM: What city isn’t on that list? Brockton. What makes Brockton and others like Lowell more successful has many factors. These include leadership, and the fact that Brockton teachers have grown up in Brockton (“in some ways it’s kind of a throwback to the fifties, but that’s what works is tradition, the way we’ve done it”) as well as “strong leadership and wicked strong governance support in funding.” Collaboration between union and administration is also having an impact.
That said, “Brockton’s results have gone down at the elementary level, because look at the demographics change over the last several years. The highest percentage of African-American students in the Commonwealth are in Brockton, the highest percentage of Cape Verdean second-language learners are in Brockton, the second-highest percentage of Haitians are in Brockton. Brockton is 74% is non-white now, that’s in twenty years that’s shifted. What’s happening is the demographics suggests Brockton wouldn’t be doing so well. But what’s happening in Brockton is the opposite, they’re closing gaps with the state.” Collaboration, investment in resources, and focus on literacy have kept scores from going down even more during these changes in Brockton.
It is known certain districts and demographics “are going to be ranked lower” and “we know” what groups are ranked lowest. So the question becomes how to reverse or arrest decline for urban districts and those groups. Brockton is doing that, whereas other districts are being overwhelmed due to a lack of leadership, consistency, or good budgeting. Revere, Malden, and Lowell are other examples of districts that are doing well. “Urban redesign is hard, slow, tedious work…the conditions to get it right are investment, collaboration, and sustainability.”
One part of the solution may be an attempt that has been supported in the past to expand the accountability system to put more state oversight on more schools.
-Half of new teachers quit within five years. If this were true of medicine or law, it would be called a national crisis. How do we stop that…or do we stop that if one argues that we are getting the best of the best by driving off half of the workforce so frequently?
MM: There’s a train of thought that says it doesn’t matter. We can make a difference if you put young people who “get results, and then they cycle out and they’re gone” and you get new ones. Not saying whether agree with that or not, but these people are getting results and the five-year turnover may not be a problem.
But other districts have found success sustaining and supporting personnel in a way that makes it a career choice where people don’t want to leave. The middle ground between the two is finding a “rewards and compensation system that makes sense” that is based on a “professional knowledge system, what you’re doing.” A system that allows for teacher leadership, educators coaching other educators within the same school system — a sort of fellowship that offers paths to move up into leadership. One aspect could be higher pay for those who volunteer to teach in the toughest schools.
One source of high turnover is that “the problem with our industry is that it’s very hard, and a lot of people don’t understand that until they go into it”. Younger generations aren’t looking at teaching as a lifelong vocation, and “we have to get away from looking at this as a bad thing that we’re losing people after five years…it’s an opportunity to construct a system to retain the people we want to retain.” It’s a problem that people may want to leave after ten years but feel they can’t. Leadership turnover, superintendents and principals, is enormous [ed. note: over 25% per year in both fields].
-On a final note, a questions was asked about the decline of time and resources devoted to social studies instruction in Massachusetts because it’s not subject to a standardized test.
MM: Important to support social studies as blending into other classes – use of data and projections in math, non-fiction explanation in English/language arts. Profess to get angry about hearing systems that are cutting arts, science, and social studies — “small-minded people are making decisions based on that construct.” The more non-fiction, the more arts students are involved in, the better they’ve done. It is the responsibility to educators to advocate for these priorities in the schedule, and Malone would much rather see longer school days to make time for these subjects and more hands-on learning. Another approach may be finding time by removing administrative duties from educator workloads.
Pablo focused on a few issues of concern to school administrators and school committees.
School districts have been faced with a daunting series of mandates in the past year. Districts have been required to implement a change to the common core standards, adopt a new educator evaluation system, prepare for PARCC testing, and conform to a demanding set of mandates pertaining to educating second language learners. Malone, who moved to the secretariat after serving as superintendent of schools in Brockton, said he is very concerned about the strain of mandates on local districts. It was a perfect storm of mandates even before the federal Department of Justice found Massachusetts to be deficient in teacher training for teachers providing sheltered English immersion.
Malone said he is guarding the door against any new mandates, he is determined to make sure there are no new mandates for the next 18 months. He also said that the new requirements were all about good practice, and urged districts to be calm and “roll it out right.” He said he wouldn’t be sending the evaluation police out to districts, and districts should slow down work on District Determined Measures (a component of the new educator evaluation system).
Malone was asked about the lengthy delays for educators seeking licenses from DESE. (Primary licenses come with a $100 fee, additional licenses cost $25, and applicants can wait several months before there is a determination on their license application.) Malone acknowledged the problem, citing staffing cuts at DESE. He said the department is working to cut wait times, and has instituted a system where employers can request immediate determination for potential and current employees.
Massachusetts law prohibits practicing licensed educators and school committee members from serving on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Educators are the only profession or trade that is prohibited from serving on the board that governs their licensure, and the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association have all called for an elimination of this prohibition. Governor Patrick, in a meeting in Arlington four years ago, said he would support removing the prohibition. When asked if there could be action from the administration to remove the prohibition, Malone asked if there were any bills filed to support the change, and said he would look into the prospects of making the change in this legislative session.
Under education reform, Malone acknowledged the need for an adequacy study to determine the cost of providing a basic education (foundation budget), and said the administration has backed such a study. He said the latest attempt to conduct a study was supported by the administration and died in the legislature.
In a discussion about charter schools and inter-district school choice, Malone acknowledged that funding and governance for charter schools could be improved. Malone did not endorse a specific plan, but acknowledged there are funding inequities. He discussed his concern about the current school choice program, and expressed concern about the predatory practice of certain districts. “When I was in Swampscott, we didn’t do choice because it would hurt our neighbors.”
Pablo’s final note was focused on higher education, particularly the reliance on part time instructors in state higher education institutions (UMass, state colleges, community colleges). Malone said the problem is on their radar, as Malone is concerned about people cobbling together a living by teaching at multiple schools without any benefits or health insurance.
*Correction 8/9/13 from Commissioner. Commissioner of Education, a post held by Mitchell Chester, is a different post. Sorry.