Q&A with Matt Malone, the state secretary of education

Matt Malone
Matt Malone

Since Governor Deval Patrick appointed Matt Malone as secretary of the Executive Office of Education in January 2013, the former Brockton superintendent has spent three days a week on the road. At recent count, he had visited 270 of the state’s elementary and secondary schools, and nearly all of its higher education campuses. His Cabinet-level position oversees programs from preschool through college.

Q. Why do you spend so much time visiting schools?

A. We believe the real work is in the field. You can’t govern or have any sort of policy insight unless you know the real deal, so we’ve got to be out talking to folks. The real people — teachers, students, administrators, parents, business leaders, service providers, camp counselors — are where the rubber meets the road. We’re out doing as many visits as we can possibly do, learning a lot and bringing back those experiences and helping us shape policy.

Q. What is some of the feedback?

A. The pace of reform has been a little overbearing for people in the field, with testing, accountability, the new educator evaluation system, and new frameworks. We’ve been able to push back the new science standards. We’re not going to touch those for two years. It’s just too much for people in the field right now. We pushed back the assessment system for a year to allow us to have more time to try things on and get better feedback. That’s an example of good policy shaped by the feedback we received.

Q. What have you learned from your visits?


A. I’m learning that the best school systems are the ones taking the frameworks and making them their own. One of the things we’re doing is trying to learn about all these best practices and then replicate them across the Commonwealth in other schools, but encouraging local variation.

Q. What are some examples?

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A. Needham High School is an example of a place that has really pushed the envelope with its Greater Boston Project. Instead of four classes of English, math, science and social studies, they have one class blending all the standards together. They work to solve a real-world social justice problem in Greater Boston. That’s the future of what a senior year should look like. That’s preparing kids for college and the real world.

Q. Where do you see technology headed in the public schools?

A. The goal is to get to a place eventually where instead of giving textbooks to kids, every kid gets a device. That would be, to me, the coolest thing we could possibly do in the next 10 years.But that’s going to take a lot of investment.

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges?

A. I’m seeing how challenging our rural and gateway cities have it. We need to look at addressing the needs of second-language learners, kids that come from poverty, and kids that have experienced trauma. How do we ensure that they have access to high-quality programming, rigorous instruction, and caring, wrap-around support services?

Q. What do you say to students you meet?

A. You’ve got to read every night. That’s one of my big messages out visiting the schools. Pick stuff you’re interested in. But I also want them reading the classics. Pick some of the books that our parents read.

Q. Where do you see assessments heading?


A. I think we assess too much and I’ve not been shy to say that. Our summative assessment system seems to be assessment gone wild. We assess at every single grade. Maybe we should be a little more human and revisit that. I’m not anti-assessment, but to me, I’m a big believer in learning and teaching and we should have assessments to measure where we are, but assessments aren’t everything. What should drive everything is a really good curriculum framework, and I’m a big believer in the Common Core.

Q. Do you support a new test like PARCC to replace MCAS?

A. We likely should have a new assessment. Whether it’s PARCC or something else, we need something that assesses skills, because MCAS doesn’t determine college readiness. We have kids that do great on the MCAS and they go to college and they sit in developmental ed in non-credit-bearing classes. That is a giant waste of time, money, and effort. We need to do a better job of getting kids prepared for college. And we’ve got to develop an assessment that does that.

Q. What are you doing to raise awareness about the state’s higher education system?

A. My goal is to keep all these kids in Massachusetts. We have a campaign called “Go Public,’’ and it’s to get all the best and brightest in Massachusetts to pick our state colleges and universities first. We’ve got to get them out there to see how awesome they are. These are high-performing, innovative, fun campuses that are vibrant and lively.

Q. What can the state do to make college more affordable?

A. The best thing we can do is continue to work on freezing tuition and fees. We can reduce the cost on young people by increasing the state share of public education. We’ve done a good job in the last couple of years for UMass but not as well at the state colleges.

Q. What’s your advice for high school students feeling pressure about getting into college?

A. We put way too much pressure on kids with 13 AP classes, 15 clubs, and doing all kind of community service projects. My advice is to slow it down, take a step back, and take a deep breath. Do really well in one or two AP classes, pick one sport and do it well. Be in one club but go deep. Just do well. If you do well enough, there’s a college for you. It doesn’t matter where you go, it’s what you do when you get there.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@ yahoo.com.