May
03
2019

Improving Vocational Education in Massachusetts: Three Ideas

I have been blessed to serve in vocational education in Massachusetts. Our system is known as the best in the country, and I have little doubt that that reputation is well-deserved. Because of our success, particularly over the past several years, vocational education has become a darling of the press – and a lightning rod for criticism, often unfair.

It’s a great system, but it could be even better.

Here are three things that could help us improve the vocational education system in Massachusetts — or at least maintain its current excellence:

1. Directly Address the Tension and Misunderstanding Between Vocational School Districts and Their Non-Vocational Counterparts. Misinformation and misunderstanding is all too common. It needs to stop. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) can – and should – take the lead. DESE should convene regular meetings of representatives of the major professional education associations, including the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators (MAVA), Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators’ Association (MSSAA), Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS), Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials (MASBO), Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools (MARS), and Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC).

Get them to talk.

As a bridge to common ground, DESE should ask these groups to focus on educational issues of mutual interest and ask them to identify solutions. The topics should include paying for out-of-district placement of students with severe disabilities, keeping alive arts and music in the public schools, providing education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and delivering 21st Century skills.

2. Insist on Maintaining High-Quality Vocational Education Programs. Chapter 74 of the Massachusetts General Laws governs vocational education. The law and its regulations outline high standards for program approval. The state must not deviate from those high standards – no matter where the program, no matter how high the political price. Doing otherwise puts the integrity of the entire vocational education delivery system and that of the state education department at risk.

In this context, DESE would be wise to drop the idea of “provisional” or “conditional” approval of Chapter 74 programs. Existing standards for these programs have worked well for decades. Why change them? If the state wants to speed up the approval process, that’s fine. Just reassign staff to put more people in charge of reviewing applications for program approvals. Don’t ease up on the standards.

Further, the state needs to clarify the circumstances under which the Commissioner would consider approving in an academic school district a Chapter 74 program that directly duplicates one already currently offered at a regional vocational technical district of which that community is a part. There might be exceptional circumstances where a duplicate program warrants such approval. In my opinion, those cases should be exceedingly rare.

3. Move Cautiously on Regulatory Changes. The vocational education system in Massachusetts is working well, exceptionally well. The regulations covering vocational education have been in place for many, many years. While there may be a need for some tinkering around the edges, there is absolutely no pressing need for wholesale change.

To its credit, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education invited the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators (MAVA) to talk about possible regulatory changes early on, before anything “official” was proposed. As a result, DESE modified its initial position on several issues and delayed its proposed timetable to bring the recommended changes to its board. With several new members on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the case for further delay and investigation is even more compelling. Massachusetts would do well to slow down, allow practitioners to discuss these proposed changes further, and reflect carefully on their potential impact.

Steven C. Sharek is a veteran school administrator. He has served as an Assistant Dean of Academic Services at Southern New England School of Law (now UMass School of Law) in Dartmouth, MA; as Superintendent-Director at Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Fitchburg, MA; and as a Cluster Coordinator and Communications/Grants Manager at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School in New Bedford, MA. He holds a B.A. in English, Master’s of Education in Educational Leadership, and Juris Doctor. He has been an active member of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators (MAVA).

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May
02
2019

Special Education and the Debate on School Funding Considered

Well, right now we are witnessing the implosion of our education system in the United States as we lay off more and more teachers. We also see that teachers who have already retired are being paid huge amounts of money in their pension, and health care costs.

We can no longer afford to do this, and if we tax properties in many states any more than we are now, we are just going to continually see less money coming in due to the near collapse of the real estate market, and all those old folks will become wards of the state where we will spend all our money.

This doesn’t bode well for families of special education children, who often require fewer kids in the classroom, and more supervision. They also require more assistance from school staff, and this all adds costs to teach each student. Meanwhile parents of normal kids are quite concerned because money is diverted into the special education program, and they don’t believe their kids are getting a fair shake. This may or may not be true depending on which side of the argument you stand, but this is the debate that’s going on today.

Our school districts are cutting staff, teachers, and cutting costs wherever they can, including janitors that clean the restrooms, and other important things that we probably don’t think about. And yes, the special education department will also have to be cut if we are to maintain any sense a real educational system at all. Worse, there is far too much controversy, and chaos on the school boards and far too many parents threatening to sue. It also costs lots of money defending these lawsuits, and that is additional money that is not being used in the classroom.

If the special education departments take up a large amount of any given school’s budget, there is less money for other things, and this takes a toll on the educational experience of each child. These cost reduction programs have to come from somewhere, and these will be hard choices to make, but they must be made nevertheless. Indeed I hope you will please consider this.

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