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The Great Divide

Mass. school districts' plans vary widely on key practices for pandemic-era education, review finds

Education groups step up their cries for increased state oversight of remote learning

Claire Chiesa watched as her daughter attended a school Zoom class in Andover. Chiesa is among scores of parents statewide who are frustrated with disparities in live instruction time during remote learning.
Claire Chiesa watched as her daughter attended a school Zoom class in Andover. Chiesa is among scores of parents statewide who are frustrated with disparities in live instruction time during remote learning.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Only half of Massachusetts’ 40 largest districts spell out to the public how much teacher-led instruction time they expect students to receive during the pandemic. A third of the districts haven’t addressed whether they plan to test students to gauge how the spring’s educational disruptions affected their academic level. And two-thirds haven’t publicly communicated any plan to address chronic absenteeism.

These are among the findings of a new survey from the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, underscoring the wildly different approaches districts have taken to pandemic-era education in a state that has largely taken a hands-off approach to local education affairs. The alliance tracked 20 metrics in the reopening plans of the state’s 40 largest districts to compile the data released Monday.

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By contrast, some states, such as California and Maryland, have set requirements for minimum daily live teacher interaction. And at least six states, including Rhode Island, require districts to assess their students to better tailor instruction.

“These are challenging times, but... it’s vital for us to have high expectations for this year for students and for ourselves,” said Ed Lambert, executive director of the alliance.

Yet alliance leaders acknowledge that they relied largely on district plans released over the summer for their analysis, an approach that state education officials and superintendents say is flawed because many of those plans focused largely on health and safety measures rather than academics.

The state “has a separate process to monitor, receive complaints about, and resolve issues related to" learning time and other academic issues, said Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for Governor Charlie Baker’s executive office of education. But she acknowledged that state officials asked districts over the summer to address issues like learning time and attendance.

Officials at the alliance say there needs to be public transparency about academic offerings and expectations, and that too many districts are lacking in this regard. The goal of the database is to empower parents to ask hard questions about their districts’ approach.

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“Without that information, parents could make that call and simply be told, ‘It’s a pandemic; we can’t do it,’ ” Lambert said. “Now they have the opportunity to see there are other places where it can happen.”


The alliance said it worked with Boston University researchers to cull the information from plans and other public documents on districts’ web sites and allowed districts to review the database.

The data has renewed calls by education advocates for the state to assume a more active role in monitoring schools. Groups including the Education Trust, Massachusetts Parents United, and EdNavigator have asked the state to set a minimum number of hours for teacher-led instruction time.

“Some things should just be required,” said Natasha Ushomirsky, the state’s director at Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for underrepresented students. “Parents should not have to fight for every educational opportunity for their students.”

State education commissioner Jeff Riley has said his department will monitor districts to ensure they’re meeting learning-time requirements through remote learning, but that the priority is on encouraging districts to bring students back in person as quickly as possible.

On Friday state officials implored school districts to open for in-person instruction unless there’s coronavirus transmission happening within their school buildings. Of the state’s 40 largest districts, about half are hybrid and half are fully remote.

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Some school district leaders are critical of the alliance’s survey since not all of their academic efforts underway this fall were outlined in the plans they crafted over the summer, said Tom Scott, executive director of Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

Yet he, too, wishes the state had taken a stronger stance last spring and summer about issues including live instructional time, because it would have given districts a leg up on the negotiating of agreements with their local teachers' unions, who heavily influenced the remote programming available to students this year.

“If the governor wants to come out and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do and how we’ll do it,’ we’re all in,” Scott said. “But right now, this has been left to local decision-making... to just change that abruptly is going to require some sort of state mandates.”

Education policy experts warn that disparities in instructional hours and other key metrics could widen gaps along racial and class lines. The pandemic has already exacerbated existing inequities as many families with means have sought out private schools, tutoring and other enrichment activities. Black and Latino students in Massachusetts, and nationwide, are more likely to rely on remote learning this school year, partly because fewer schools in their communities have reopened and partly because of family preference.

Although the state requires public schools to provide at least five hours of “structured learning time” every school day, on average, independent study can count toward that time. Several parents across the state have complained about a heavy reliance on independent time.

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Needham mother Melissa Bello said her children, a first- and fourth-grader, receive only 30 to 60 minutes of live instruction during their remote learning days. The students spend alternating weeks learning from home vs. school.

Many of her 9-year-old daughter’s online math lessons are delivered from strangers on YouTube videos, Bello says.

“It’s just so sad to see that this is what it has come to: Someone she doesn’t know is trying to teach place values or multiplication or division,” she said.

Needham superintendent Dan Gutekanst said some of the teacher-led instruction for remote learners is limited because instructors simultaneously have to work with those students who are attending in person that week. He adds that the district would need far more staff — and a larger budget — to significantly expand online instruction.

“Does it meet the [state] standard? Yes,” Gutekanst said. “Is it ideal and what we want? Hardly.”

Although the alliance’s database allows parents to see how their district’s plan this year compares to others, it doesn’t confirm whether the district is actually following its plan.

Even within the same school, instructional hours can vary widely across teachers, meaning a district or state-wide mandate could be key, parents say.

For instance, Claire Chiesa in Andover said her second-grade daughter receives four to five live instruction sessions with teachers on her group’s two remote learning days each week, while her fifth-grade son only receives two short check-ins, with minimal instruction.

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“He’s missing out on the interaction with the teacher and with his peers, which obviously contributes to the overall learning experience,” she said.

Claire Chiesa says her 10-year-old son receives far less live online instruction than his younger sister at the same school.
Claire Chiesa says her 10-year-old son receives far less live online instruction than his younger sister at the same school. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Live learning time for remote learners has been one of four sticking points in Andover’s negotiations with its teachers union, which recently reached an impasse, according to the School Committee.

Andover superintendent Shelley Berman said he requires daily live instruction but set no time minimums, so teachers have flexibility. He said some parents complain about too much online class time.

Although the business alliance has stopped short of calling for state mandates, leaders of Education Trust Massachusetts said the state should require schools to offer students at least five hours per day of real-time access to teachers, through a mix of instruction and office hours. Massachusetts Parents United wants 4.5 hours.

“To me this is really a failure of leadership” by the state, said Keri Rodrigues, founder of Massachusetts Parents United. “You have every single community trying to recreate the wheel instead of having a coordinated effort around best practices led by [state officials].”

Baker’s administration has been hesitant to be too prescriptive, choosing to issue guidance rather than rules.

When it comes to assessing students’ learning loss, for instance, other states have been more assertive. Six, including Rhode Island, required districts to assess students to gauge their academic level, according to the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education. Another 32 states over the summer recommended such screening.

Massachusetts, by contrast, didn’t make such a recommendation until September, when it released a free assessment tool for districts to use.

Lambert said that without assessing students, teachers may struggle to meet their needs. “We think the learning assessment is almost equal to the instructional time piece in importance,” he said.

Dan McGowan of the Globe staff contributed reporting.


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.