Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Redefining Low Income

For many years, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has collected data on the number of low income students attending each of our public elementary and secondary schools. Research clearly shows that students from lower income households typically face more learning challenges than students from more affluent households. Collecting data on students’ family income helps us to direct more resources to their schools and helps us to monitor how well those schools are doing with those students.

The most commonly used metric for measuring income status has been eligibility for free or reduced price meals under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school nutrition program. Families submit application forms documenting their household income. If the income falls below certain levels set by USDA, students in that family can then receive free or reduced price school breakfasts and lunches. Under long-standing U.S. Department of Education guidance, these students are then recorded as “low income” for purposes of educational statistics.

Two years ago, USDA introduced the Community Eligibility Program (CEP) as an option for schools and districts with high concentrations of low income students. Under CEP, all students in the participating schools are entitled to receive free meals under the school nutrition program. This eliminates the cost and administrative burden of collecting and processing family applications, as well as the costs associated with collecting lunch fees. More importantly, CEP increases student participation in school nutrition programs, and we know that students learn better when they are not hungry. For all these reasons, DESE is encouraging eligible schools and districts to participate in CEP.

But without the availability of free and reduced price data in many of our largest districts, we faced the need to develop a new income status metric that could be used consistently across the state. This new metric, which we are calling economically disadvantaged to differentiate it from the old “low income” measure, will be used to report data from all schools and districts, not just those participating in CEP. The new measure will be based on a student’s participation in one or more of the following state-administered programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the Transitional Assistance for Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC); the Department of Children and Families’ (DCF) foster care program; and MassHealth (Medicaid).

Individual school districts have used the so-called “direct certification” process to access enrollment data from these programs for many years, in order to validate their free and reduced price school lunch participation. DESE will now use the same direct certification process on a statewide basis. Strict data security protocols are in place at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to ensure that all confidential data is protected in accordance with federal and state data privacy statutes and MassIT security policies.

Because of this change in methodology, the number of “economically disadvantaged” students reported as enrolled on October 1, 2014, in most schools will be lower than the number of “low income” students reported in 2013-14 and prior years. Obviously this has nothing to do with any real changes in family income; it is simply a shift from one valid measure to another valid measure. Neither measure is “right” or “wrong” (in fact, neither measure lines up exactly with the Census Bureau’s “poverty” definition), but either can be a useful surrogate in identifying how well we are serving children at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. It is important for users of this data to understand that enrollment percentages and achievement data for “economically disadvantaged” students cannot be directly compared to “low income” data in prior years.

How will this change affect particular district programs and activities? 

·       The foundation budget, which is used to calculate both Chapter 70 school aid and charter school tuition rates, currently relies on free and reduced price data. FY16 will be a transition year, using FY15 free and reduced price data from non-CEP districts and a combination of FY14 free and reduced price data plus direct certification for new students in CEP districts. For FY17 and beyond, we have recommended to the Foundation Budget Review Commission that the low-income increments in the formula be increased sufficiently to offset the lower number of students in the economically disadvantaged category.
·       For grant programs that require poverty data for eligibility or entitlement calculations, the appropriate DESE program office will provide guidance directly to districts and schools.
·       School building authority reimbursement rates are also based in part on low income percentages. We are providing information to the MSBA Board and will assist them in evaluating alternatives.
·       Performance metrics in DESE’s school and district accountability system will be updated to reflect the new measurement. DESE will provide additional guidance to districts regarding this transition.
·       Schools and districts that use free and reduced price eligibility for sliding scale fees or other local purposes may continue to do so. For schools participating in CEP, this may involve a combination of direct certification data and some supplemental data collection from families.
·       Districts will receive updated SIMS reporting instructions.

For further information or assistance, please contact:

Rob Curtin, Director of Education Data Services ( or 781-338-3582)

Jeff Wulfson, Deputy Commissioner ( or 781-338-6500)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Reading and Writing In Mathematics

As we all know, The Common Core State Standards call for a focus on literacy in all subjects; including math.  But where do we find guidance on how to teach literacy in the mathematics classroom?

The WGBH Educational Foundation and Annenberg Learner have collaborated in the creation of Reading and Writing in the Disciplines. This  course focuses on what it means to be an effective communicator in each of the disciplines.  It provides multiple ways to integrate literacy practices into lessons.  Units 1-4 of this course discuss disciplinary literacy and are designed for all teachers, but units 5-8 are subject specific and get into the nitty gritty of literacy in the math classroom specifically.

Additionally, the entire Annenberg Learner website seems to have been redesigned and updated!  Remember the Counting Stairs problem that I have used at both network meetings and within the math and special education protocols?  The problem itself is now interactive!  Check it out here.  You can even watch videos of students working on the staircase problem.

Speaking of videos, Massachusetts schools are featured throughout the Reading and Writing in the Disciplines website! Towns such as Brookline, Reading and Malden have graciously volunteering their classrooms to support this project. Feel free to check out this free and comprehensive resource.

Monday, May 11, 2015

New Massachusetts Science Ambassadors

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Museum of Science Boston, and WGBH seek applicants to represent Massachusetts on a new Science Ambassadors team.
Massachusetts anticipates adoption of revised Science and Technology/Engineering (STE) Standards in the fall of 2015 and is setting up supports to aid district planning and implementation. The Science Ambassadors will play a key role in supporting the state’s transition to revised STE standards over the next several years by helping educators, administrators, and the public to understand the revised standards and their implications for curriculum, instruction, and student learning.
The Science Ambassadors team will provide leadership in their districts and across the state. We anticipate selecting up to 40 Ambassadors representing a diverse spectrum of backgrounds, experiences, and regions. To establish this team, selected members will initially make a two to four day commitment during Spring 2015.
Additional information can be found here.  Applications are due May 19th and can be found here.
Selected Ambassadors will receive a stipend for work done outside the two-day Academy and to defray travel costs, as well as hotel costs for western participants.  Districts are eligible for substitute reimbursement for the two days (max $150 per day).

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Evolution of DDMs

At the urging of stakeholders, including the M.A.S.S. officers and Superintendent Advisory Council, and supported by data, including an independent program evaluation funded by ESE and a survey administered by M.A.S.S., ESE has decided to offer districts the opportunity to request permission to use an alternative pathway for evaluating educator impact than trends and patterns using DDMs. Working closely with the Commissioner and Legal, ESE developed the Alternative Pathways Proposal and announced the proposal at the M.A.S.S. Mid-Winter Meeting in March. In late April ESE followed up with a Quick Reference Guide (QRG) that provides more information about the proposal, including why they're offering it, which districts should apply, and how to submit a request.
The proposal does not signal the death of DDMs. Nor is it the “new DDMs.” ESE fully expects that many districts will stay the course. ESE still stands behind the framework, but has recognized this year that for a variety of reasons, not all districts are making the sort of progress expected. ESE hopes that the proposal gives every district a foothold to continue moving forward.

The three potential pathways ESE describes in the QRG are options for districts to consider, but do not represent an exhaustive list. A hybrid or something completely different might be approved, so long as it aligns to the 5 Core Principles.

The use of at least one common measure is a fixture of all alternative pathways to support comparability across grades/subjects. As a result, the work districts have done to date to develop DDMs will be utilized whether a district chooses to stay the course or request a new pathway.

 If you have any questions about the Alternative Pathways Proposal, please contact Ron Noble ( Craig Waterman ( or Heather Peske (