Mass. ed guidance scores well in MIT report

Updated: May 20

This article originally appeared in Commonwealth on April 15, 2020 by Michael Jonas.


Author says people are 'underestimating of how difficult this is'


WHILE MASSACHUSETTS SCHOOLS are scrambling — with mixed results — to try to continue lessons for students who are now sequestered at home, the state gets good grades from a new review of the guidelines issued by all 50 state education departments to help districts structure remote learning amidst the coronavirus pandemic. 

The guidance recommendations issued in late March by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education tied with two other states for second best after Texas on a set of 21 indicators established by the Teaching Systems Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among the factors the report looked at were whether the guidance discussed teaching new material versus focusing on enrichment and review; issues related to English language learners and special education students; digital and non-digital kinds of home-based learning; and discussion of the mental and physical wellbeing of students.  “We thought the state guidance was good. It was among the more comprehensive that we reviewed,” Justin Reich, an assistant professor at MIT and lead author of the report said about the Massachusetts guidance to districts. 

The state recommendations were endorsed by a broad set of stakeholders, including the state superintendents’ association, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, both major teachers unions, and the state charter school association.  State education commissioner Jeff Riley said it was “gratifying to see the collaborative work” of those groups recognized as setting a good platform for districts.  The MIT report offered three broad recommendations to states during the pandemic:

1. Place “equity at the center of remote learning plans,” with particular guidance for special populations;

2. acknowledge “the challenges and constraints of home-based, remote learning;” and

3. provide clear communication to “multiple target audiences” involved with schools and learning. 

The Massachusetts guidance recommended that districts have students engage in “meaningful and productive learning” for about half an average school day.  It also said state education officials “strongly recommend” that schools focus on “reinforcing skills already taught this school year” as opposed to emphasizing new learning. It acknowledged that some teachers may decide to continue introducing new material, especially for high school classes, but said districts should consider in those cases “equity of access and support for all students.” 

Reich, the director of the MIT research center that produced the report, said whether to emphasize enrichment and review of past material or to introduce new subject matter was the biggest divide among the various state guidelines. 

The state education department has little authority over the day-to-day operation of school districts in Massachusetts, which are largely under the control of local officials.  Marty Walz, a former state lawmaker who co-chaired the Legislature’s education committee, nonetheless thinks Riley could have recommended more aggressive learning standards. 

“Part of that is a lack of power,” she said of the approach the state took. “But he could have set forth much stronger expectations for what students should be doing.”  Reich said he leans toward the emphasis on review and enrichment over introducing new curriculum material based on state standards.  “Lots of new things can be learned through enrichment,” he said. Education officials have cited everything from cooking projects to gardening as activities children can learn from. 

“I continue to think that people are underestimating how difficult this is,” Reich said of the effort to switch regular classroom learning to homes, where parents, who may be working full-time, caring for other children, or dealing with a sudden job loss and financial strain must play a key role, especially for younger students.

While the state recommends at least three hours of learning time each day, it’s not at all clear that districts are meeting that goal, and there have been lots of reports of students having trouble with everything from technology to limited contact with teachers.  Meet the Author

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