State school chief gives first day pep talk
Teachers and staff at Martha's Vineyard Public Schools gathered in the regional high school performing arts center Tuesday morning for a back to school program highlighted by the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell E. Chester.
Mr. Chester shared words of inspiration culled from his long career in education, that began with teaching in a classroom and later moved into administration. Appointed last May by the state board of education, he also offered a glimpse into his goals and philosophy.
"I enjoy opening day," Mr. Chester said. "It is a time of hope, of renewal, of possibility - and I hope when I leave today after talking with you, those come to the forefront."
Tuesday was opening day for the approximately 600 school system employees who attended the program.
Prior to the start of the official program, high school music teacher Mike Tinus led a student string group through its musical paces in the lobby of the Performing Arts Center over the buzz of educators reuniting with their colleagues.
In opening remarks superintendent of schools James Weiss said that building professional learning communities would be a key focus this school year. Groups of teachers in individual schools Island-wide will meet throughout the school year to focus on specific topics and questions related to their classrooms and student learning, he said.
In addition, Mr. Weiss said that assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction Laurie Halt had worked with staff to develop a new teacher supervision program and evaluation process known as a Professional Growth System.
In looking at what makes an effective school, Mr. Weiss said, "The most important factor in a student's success is you, the teacher in the classroom."
The public schools also will continue work in improving the reading and writing curriculum, and in raising the bar in math instruction, Mr. Weiss said.
Photo by Janet Hefler
From classroom to commissioner
He then turned the program over to Mr. Chester, who recalled past school opening days, starting with his first teaching job in Connecticut.
"To this day I'm convinced there's no more difficult assignment than first grade," Mr. Chester said, to the applause of first-grade teachers in the audience.
Known for his expertise in education policy, assessment, accountability, curriculum and instruction, Mr. Chester served as the senior associate state superintendent for Ohio Public Schools before his appointment in Massachusetts. He said part of what attracted him to his new job was Gov. Deval Patrick's commitment to education as the foundation of a strong Commonwealth.
However, although Massachusetts is one of the top-performing states in education, tremendous achievement gaps remain, Mr. Chester said.
"The gaps are not only larger than those in other States, but we have had less success in narrowing those gaps than other States," he said.
Mr. Chester said another difficulty is bridging the "expectation gap," which he described as the difference between students' ability to successfully complete high school graduation requirements and their ability to succeed in higher education.
One indicator of the expectation gap is that about 40 percent of the state's high school graduates entering two- and four-year public colleges and universities end up having to take remedial courses in core subjects before qualifying to take credit courses, Mr. Chester said.
Consequently, science and history exams are being added to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). While there is encouraging news about MCAS results at the grade 10 level, Mr. Chester said improving reading results across the state remains a goal.
In talking about his goals as commissioner, Mr. Chester said there are three areas in which he needs to make progress. "The first and foremost is the area of educators," he said. "Teachers are where it happens - kids don't get educated out of my office."
The second area is the department of education's whole approach to school improvement, and the third, curriculum and instruction.
Mr. Chester, who has family ties to the Island, said he first visited Martha's Vineyard as the member of a New England Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation team in the mid-1980s. Although he doesn't know the school district very well, he recognizes the challenges for educators living on an Island.
After arriving on the Vineyard Monday afternoon with his wife and 11-year-old son, Mr. Chester said he talked with two young men, both recent Martha's Vineyard Regional High School graduates. One had not been to college, and the other will be starting college soon. While they both acknowledged that the regional high school offered a wide range of opportunities for a broad liberal arts education, they told him they felt they did not have enough time to explore subjects other than core academic subjects.
Mr. Chester suggested that students don't have to end up with trade-offs in course selections if schools integrate English language arts with music and art, and history with literature, for example.
In a question and answer session, high school art teacher Paul Brissette asked, "What's the future of No Child Left Behind [NCLB] if we have a Democratic president next year?"
Mr. Chester, who was instrumental in implementing the NCLB law in Ohio, said there is strong bi-partisan support in Congress for its key elements, particularly accountability, to which both Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain are committed.
High school math teacher MaryLee Carlomagno said she does not feel that the MCAS math exam emphasizes knowledge of fundamental math skills, especially those used in everyday life. Mr. Chester said that the exams are designed with input from teachers across the Commonwealth and undergo periodic revision.
"I'm not an apologist for the MCAS," Mr. Chester said. "I'm a believer that nothing narrows the curriculum more than not being able to read or do math. We need to do a better job. We don't have to aim low to get good results on tests."
Returning to thoughts about the opening day of a new school year, Mr. Chester said, "I think of education as a profession that pays forward, and rarely gets paid back. We have to take on faith that our efforts, commitment, and dedication will have effects on lives we may not see."