A look ahead: Five issues to watch in Massachusetts education

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Massachusetts has always been on the forefront when it comes to education, be it progress, reform or innovation.

This academic year, students, teachers, families and legislators will be no less subject to dealing with changes and proposals on education on multiple fronts as communities continue to demand for their students, a high-quality, 21st-century education that's accessible, affordable, equitable, and most importantly meaningful for student success and the economic health and well-being

Here are five key issues to keep an eye on at the state level this year and why:

The student debt crisis

It's no secret that students are swimming in student loan debt for higher education, and that every bit of loan relief, forgiveness and financial aid helps. So does the protection of students' credit and their rights as borrowers.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has been going hard, in the form of lawsuits, against the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos for gutting critical federal protections against the misconduct of for-profit schools and stripping funding in the nation's budget for federal Pell grants and important policies for student aid and loan forgiveness.

The attorney general's office has been rallying other state attorneys general and members of Congress to speak out on the importance of loan discharge and promptly helping students struggling with their federal loan debt.

Healey has a "Student Lending Assistance" page on her office's website, mass.gov/ago, as well as a Student Loan Assistance Unit Hotline at 1-888-830-6277.

In addition to Healey's efforts, several state legislators have filed legislation this year also aimed toward better supporting borrowing students and families. Bills and resolutions to watch include: A state senate act establishing as student loan bill of rights; state resolutions for debt-free public higher education; and tuition waivers for veterans.

Berkshire County legislators who are working with current legislation include Senator Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who serves as a member of the Joint Committee on Higher Education; state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, previously served on the Joint Committee on Higher Education, and filed several co-sponsored bills relative to this subject.

Early childhood

As research expands, there is more evidence and indicators of gaps between the commonwealth's littlest learners and their readiness for success, ranging from wide disparities in literacy rates and access to high-quality early childhood and care environments, to experiences with trauma and neglect.

Legislators and early education advocates are, perhaps, more attuned and aligned than ever when it comes to recognizing the importance of supporting both families and those who work in this field.

The House, for example, just overrode the governor's proposed $1.25 million cut to children's mental health services.

Last month, the Baker-Polito administration did announce some positive investments in both facilities and programs for young children. Child Care for the Berkshires, for example, was one of five agencies to receive capital improvement funds; the local agency was a top-earning grantee, receiving $1 million.

Next month, the Harvard Graduate School of Education and its partnering agency, the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative, will convene stakeholders in a gathering called, "The Leading Edge of Early Education: Expansion and Improvement for Impact," to re-frame, "discussions around early education, the delivery of high-quality early learning at scale and its benefit to children and society." This partnership is currently conducting a first-of-its-kind four-year study of young children in Massachusetts and their early childhood environments, and some preliminary data from this survey is expected to be shared this fall.

ESSA

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, is the new No Child Left Behind. The federal law asked states to submit education plans for progress and boosting student achievement as developed on a state's own accord.

Monday was the deadline to submit those plans, now subject to review and approval by the Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos' staffers.

The commonwealth, in its plan, includes some in-depth focus on "two areas where state performance has been stagnant — early grades literacy and middle grades mathematics — to ensure our students are well prepared with strong literacy and mathematics skills. At the high school level, we will ensure that all students have multiple high-quality pathways to educational and career opportunities after secondary school. These pathways will include enhanced early college opportunities, expanded access to career-technical education, and career development opportunities that link to workforce skill needs."

Massachusetts submitted its plan early (April 3), along with 16 other states and the District of Columbia, but that plan has yet to be approved.

State testing and student performance

Fall is typically the time when student test scores are reported.

Earlier this month, this included results on how students in the Massachusetts Class of 2017 fared on the ACT exams for college and career readiness. Statewide, 20,935 public and private school students, or an estimated 29 percent of the 2017 graduating class, took the ACT during high school, and earned an average composite score of 25.4 out of a possible 36 points.

What's known as the The Next-Generation MCAS, the latest set of exams under the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, was administered back in the spring, and schools and student assessment researchers are surely anxious for the results and feedback regarding the revised system. Those reports are expected to be publicly released in October.

This assessment update was spearheaded by the late Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who died in June from complications with cancer. Jeff Wulfson is the current acting commissioner as the search for a permanent leader continues. What Chester's successor will advocate for in assessment, which is already hotly contested in the commonwealth, remains to be seen.

Technology

Dovetailing off of the previous topic, it's expected that student assessment in Massachusetts will be moved completely online by 2019, leaving some big concerns to be addressed. At the top of this list is funding for technology and the ease of access to devices for students; student and teacher training and knowledge in navigating new technology and systems; municipal access to broadband and the stability of connectivity; and having enough IT support to sustain all the upgrades and systemic changes.

Also to be explored will be trends in digital learning, virtual and blended education, student portfolios and classroom communications systems, and of course cybersecurity to store and protect highly-sensitive student and family household data.


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