New DESE remote learning guidance released: Highlights and initial analysis

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A Message from President Kontos to AFT MA local leaders on the Updated Remote Learning Guidance:

The updated remote learning guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) was released on Friday, April 24. It follows the initial DESE remote learning guidance of March 26, 2020 

The big takeaway from the April 24 guidance is that DESE is now asking districts to go beyond reinforcing previously taught content to also cover new content that is focused “on those standards that are the most critical prerequisites for student success in the next grade” (see p. 8). DESE has compiled guides to these prerequisite content standards for math, English language arts, science, and history/social studies - elementary guide and secondary guide.

The focus on teaching DESE-selected prerequisite standards—or what some are calling “essential” or “power” standards—in a remote learning environment is a shift in DESE policy, and it has significant implications. As remote learning continues, perhaps even into parts of next year, this was an inevitable development. Many districts are already teaching new content, and expectations are mounting to advance the curriculum so that students don’t fall further behind in their academic learning.

That said, the policy shift raises major equity concerns. As you know, there are many students who aren’t engaging at all and others who can’t engage in remote learning effectively for a variety of reasons (such as lack of access to technology, lack of access to special education and language supports, or home situations that are not conducive to learning). We need to do everything possible to reach and engage these students now. But if those efforts fail or fall short, the state and districts will need to commit to providing intensive remedial and compensatory supports—both social-emotional and academic—to students when schools re-open. AFT MA will aggressively advocate for those supports and services.

The policy shift also raises another concern: Will there be pressure at some point to use the essential standards for purposes beyond curriculum design and instruction? The April 24 DESE guidance encourages districts and schools to promote this year’s students to the next grade level (p. 5). That strikes us as the right decision. But, if remote learning continues into next year, will the state and/or districts want to use the essential standards for assessment, promotion, graduation, or even school accountability purposes? We expect that these will be ongoing discussions with DESE and other stakeholders. As these discussions evolve, AFT MA will advocate for sensible, educationally sound, and equitable policies that are informed by the experiences and views of our leaders and members.

One other note on the April 24 guidance: It also encourages districts to develop systems for identifying and supporting students not effectively engaged in remote learning (pp. 11-13). While the guidance may offer some useful suggestions in this area that are worth considering, we believe that much of this is already happening in districts. Therefore, it’s unclear what the new guidance may add to efforts already underway.

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that DESE’s guidance is just that—guidance. In that spirit, we encourage AFT MA affiliates and districts to consider DESE’s guidance and, especially, their own experiences to date, in determining collaboratively the best ways to meet the needs of students and families, taking into account the local context. As always, AFT MA leadership and staff are here to help you navigate these uncharted waters.

In solidarity,

Beth Kontos

President, AFT Massachusetts