A few weeks ago, we were fortunate enough to attend the 2019 LearnLaunch Across Boundaries conference in Boston, where we sat in on a number of keynotes, panels, and presentations examining various topics within education. One of the top sessions featured Jeff Riley, the newly appointed Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Educational for the state of Massachusetts.
Riley spoke about his vision for the future of education in the Commonwealth as well as his perspective on ed-tech, turnaround schools, public policy, student success, social-emotional learning, and data. In this post, we will break down our top takeaways from his presentation and discuss his call for education leaders to “go deeper.”
Does the state need to make changes, or is Massachusetts’ position nationally good enough?
In short, although Riley believes in Massachusetts and acknowledges that (after 25 years of education reform) the state is #1 on various metrics across the country, he sees many achievement gaps that need filling. His stance: we need to plot what the next 25 years will look like and get people back in the room to have these conversations.
The majority of districts in Massachusetts have achieved success through an adherence to federal frameworks and uniting behind the state’s approach to systems, structures, test scores, and accountability. However, Riley pointed out that many factors — from deep learning to collaborative work to communication skills — may not show up in test scores. There are skills and competencies that go beyond what can be put into a test bubble that we need to be emphasizing.
Consequently, he stresses the need to find a way to make connections more meaningful for students. A focus on creating quality educational performance tasks that are married to state standards increases the likelihood that students truly, deeply learn and are excited to be in school (versus walking soullessly from class to class and just memorizing material). Lessons need to be more engaging. Riley is an advocate for student-centered learning, learning through play, and encouraging collaborative learning.
Renew our focus on allowing educators to innovate.
According to Riley, the “dirtiest secret” in public education is the high variation in teacher quality. Other countries — such as Canada — spend far more time training their teachers, and they crucially allow their educators the space and time to share their best practices, lesson plans, and common challenges. With the advent of No Child Left Behind and test scores, Riley feels that Massachusetts has essentially handcuffed teachers and prevented them from innovating. The focus needs to shift back towards releasing teachers from this obsession with test scores and accountability and allow them to share learnings widely.
Many problems need new solutions.
How do we increase the number of ESL students that move to proficiency more quickly? How do we implement evidence-based social-emotional learning programs and measure their effectiveness? How do we reduce the number of student who drop out? There is no shortage of issues that Massachusetts legislators, district leaders, and educators need help with, and Riley believes that innovative thinking about new ideas is key to solving them.
Data is one area that Riley sees as particularly ripe for innovation. As he put it:
“There are golden needles in these haystacks of data that can help us plot the way forward, but we don’t see them right now.”
Between focusing on longitudinal data (to better track what happens to children over time in K-12) and forming more public-private partnerships (especially around data and tracking student success outcomes), Riley sees several ways that the state, schools and companies can work together to improve.
How can entrepreneurs aid in these efforts?
“If you have something that is quality and useful in classrooms, it will spread like a virus. Find something that’s worth walking through shards of glass to get, because there is an incredible thirst from educators in the field to look at your products and see if they work or not.”
How can individuals interested in getting involved with civic service aid in these efforts?
Riley’s advice: it is a great time for young people to immerse themselves in civic engagement, because for the first time in a long time students feel empowered to be involved in the functioning of our society and civic systems. Decisions are made by people who sow up; when young people show up, they’re realizing that they can impact change.
The bottom line: children should feel heard.