Riley casts vision for education change

Says 'deeper learning,' new assessments should be part of next chapter

WHEN JEFF RILEY took the reins as state education commissioner early last year he suggested it was time to turn the page on 25 years of education reform efforts, pointing to stalled achievement scores, a stubbornly persistent achievement gap, and an unhealthy focus on testing. But exactly what he had in mind for the next chapter was not clear.

After visits to more than 100 schools across the state and meetings with leaders across the education field, Riley has molded that vision into a project that involves recruiting a set of districts and schools to serve as proving grounds for a rethinking of schools as places that promote deeper learning, experiment with new evidence-based practices and assessments, and provide holistic “wraparound” support to address the many out-of-school issues affecting students’ ability to learn.

The proposal, to be presented to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at its monthly meeting Tuesday morning, has all the hallmarks of Riley’s positioning in what he has called “the radical center” in education.

The one-time Boston school principal has long professed his commitment to the rigorous standards and accountability that have propelled Massachusetts students overall to the top ranking on national achievement measures. But he’s voiced strong concern that those gains have come at the expense of exposing students to a rich curriculum and that schools have overemphasized testing, while crowding out art, music, and other extracurricular activities, especially in districts serving lots of low-income students.

“We’ve done 25 years of education reform, we’ve built a solid foundation, but we haven’t fixed all the problems,” said Riley. “We’re looking to create a network of districts and schools and teachers that will help innovate what’s next, a white space to try out new ideas.”

The pilot project heralds perhaps the biggest shift in thinking about state education policy in a generation.

In a 13-page report to the state education board titled “Our Way Forward,” Riley outlines the new vision for K-12 education. The state’s 1993 education reform law, which brought new standards and the MCAS testing system “was necessary — but in the end, not sufficient — to support equitable and high-quality learning environments and strong outcomes for every student in the Commonwealth,” Riley writes.

Even some of those involved in pushing the landmark 1993 reform law say a new approach is overdue.

“There are tens of thousands of kids in the Commonwealth who are nowhere near ready for success,” said former education secretary Paul Reville, who was involved in the early 1990s effort to bring new education standards and accountability to Massachusetts schools. “Our goal was to prepare all children — and all means all — to be successful, and against that standard we’ve failed, so we ought to do some reexamining and rethinking about how we move forward.”

Riley’s white paper points out that while the state’s 2016 high school graduation rate for whites was 8th in the country, it was 43rd for Latino students and 19th for black students. Meanwhile, on a 2017 national assessment of 8th graders, just 28 percent of low-income Massachusetts students scored proficient in math compared with 58 percent of their higher-income peers.

Riley plans to select three to seven districts and 10 to 25 individual schools from other districts to take part in a pilot study being called the Kaleidoscope Collective for Learning. The goal will be for the districts to experiment with ways of delivering instruction that can better engage students, while working with state officials on new ways of assessing student learning.

Riley has described his commitment to standards and accountability while embracing change as “the radical center” in education policy debates that have become increasingly polarized. (Photo by Llyr Johansen)

In making deeper learning a centerpiece of the plan, Riley is drawing heavily on the work of Jal Mehta, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and coauthor of a recent book on the subject, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School.

Mehta, whose book involved an in-depth study of practices at 30 US high schools, says too many US schools focus on rote learning in which students don’t grasp deeper concepts in the material. He says some schools and individual educators do a better job of providing rich learning experiences, but that is “unequally distributed,” with lower-income students far less likely to receive that type of education. “The overall pattern is that students in higher tracks, in more affluent schools are getting more opportunities to think critically and engage in their learning,” said Mehta.

As an example of deeper learning, Mehta said, rather than covering history from ancient Mesopotamia to the French Revolution and studying “a different dynasty or emperor each week,” a course might examine what makes civilizations rise and fall through the in-depth study over the year of five cases.

Mehta said adjusting state assessments to align with a focus on deeper learning is “the most complicated and tricky piece,” since existing standardized exams tend to rely on assessing a broad base of knowledge.

Under Riley’s plan, districts and schools taking part in the initiative would work with state officials to experiment with new assessments in history and social studies, and technology and engineering, areas that are not part of the current MCAS testing.

Based on the results, Riley said he could envision newer types of assessments eventually being adopted for math and English, which have formed the core of standardized academic testing in Massachusetts and nationally.

The pilot project will also encourage participating schools and districts to pursue other innovations, including two that have been implemented successfully in Lawrence, where Riley served as the state-appointed receiver prior to being named commissioner. “Acceleration academies,” which provide vacation learning time to students who are not performing at grade level, have shown positive effects on math and English scores, while a home visiting program in which teachers head out of school buildings to meet with families has also shown some positive effects on student outcomes.

Riley is also calling for a redoubling of efforts to boost diversity in the state’s teaching workforce, citing research showing that having a “teacher who looks like them” can boost achievement among minority students.

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, welcomed Riley’s plan. “I’m enthusiastic about the proposal,” he said. “We’ve done some good work over the last 25 years, but we’re pretty much in stall mode.”

Dianne Kelly, superintendent of the Revere schools, has been part of a separate effort led by Mehta that has enlisted 12 districts in the US and Canada to develop ways of promoting deeper learning throughout their classrooms. “Too much of our teaching is a delivery of information,” said Kelly. “It’s not an exploration of things for kids to discover and bring themselves into the learning. It all becomes very rote, and in our accountability system, which focuses on MCAS, teachers are monitoring coverage” — how much material they can get through — “more than they are paying attention to depth of learning.”

While some have questioned whether a focus on so-called deeper learning or critical thinking skills comes at the expense of gaining a strong foundation in basic skills, “that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Mehta, who insists there is no trade-off.  “You can’t think critically without knowing the content. And the ability to read fluently is pretty critical to any vision of deeper learning.”

Jim Peyser, Gov. Charlie Baker’s education secretary, said the plan is a synthesis of what Riley has been hearing across the state and also reflects the commissioner’s own thinking as an educator, including his time overseeing the Lawrence schools.

Riley is “saying we need a rigorous curriculum” that is combined with “deeper learning experiences in the classroom so that students aren’t just having the ability to pass an assessment on what they learned, but are able to actually carry it forward into their lives and careers,” said Peyser. “I think he demonstrated in Lawrence you can do both of those things, and you need to do both of those things.”

Reville said progress in education in the state has been held back by the deep polarization in the field.

“One extreme says keep doing more of the same because that got us to No. 1, so don’t deviate one iota. And then the other extreme says throw the whole thing out,” he said referring to teachers unions that have called for an end to high-stakes testing and much of the state accountability system. “What we haven’t been able to find is a kind of consensus center to move forward.”

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Michael Jonas

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