WORCESTER – In some of his first public comments since being named the state’s next education commissioner, Jeffrey Riley shared his thoughts on the value of arts enrichment education, the underappreciated role of teachers, and a possible approach to the state’s school funding equity problem at a panel talk at Clark University Friday afternoon.
Mr. Riley, who is currently the state-appointed superintendent and receiver of the Lawrence schools, was the closing speaker at that day’s “summit on poverty” hosted by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. He was joined on the panel by the association’s executive director, Glenn Koocher, as well as the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, Tom Scott.
The state’s education board just over a month ago picked Mr. Riley to succeed the late Mitchell Chester as the state’s commissioner of education.
While Friday’s panel talk was billed as a dialogue on the role statewide collaboration will play in the public education community’s campaign to address the far-reaching effects of childhood poverty in schools, Mr. Riley spoke for a half-hour on a range of topics, as he answered questions both from his fellow panelists and members of the audience.
On the main topic of collaboration, Mr. Riley said it will take schools and school partners coming together to solve the lingering achievement gap holding back underprivileged students across the state.
“There’s a lot of hard feelings in the educational community today,” he said. “People have to come back together.”
On the issue of school funding reform, however, the commissioner-elect raised doubts about whether the state can afford right now to take on a comprehensive overhaul of its two-decades-old school aid formula that districts large and small have been calling on lawmakers to fix.
“I recognize in the real world, maybe the funding in the state isn’t there yet,” Mr. Riley said, alluding to the hundreds of millions of dollars updating the formula is estimated to cost. He proposed looking instead at getting more support to the neediest districts that are disadvantaged by the existing formula – “that’s what I’ll probably be exploring the first year or two,” he said.
Mr. Riley responded to another audience member’s question about his “90-day plan” by saying he intends to mostly get out and meet people in his first three months on the job.
“You’ll see me out in the field a tremendous amount the first 90 days,” he said, adding his goal is to listen to the needs and opinions of the state’s public education system. “I’m not someone who rushes to judgment.”
Mr. Riley did share some general strategies he subscribes to, however, including his philosophy that teachers need to receive more attention.
“I think we need to get back to the idea of teaching, and celebrating the people in the trenches doing the work,” he said, rather that focus too much on educational systems and structures.
In particular, he advocated for creating more opportunities for teachers to share with and learn from each other, saying he felt the state’s public education system seems “more intent on punishing teachers who aren’t doing well” rather than showing those educators how to improve.
In a similar vein, he also espoused the benefits of arts enrichment education, which he said needs to be given priority in school curricula at least to the same degree standardized testing is, and maybe more.
“I believe in test scores” as a measure of schools, he said. But he later added that when people would tell him when he was a school principal that other schools had better test scores than his, “what I said (was) ‘track my kids against those kids in 10-15 years and tell me who’s done better,’” suggesting that his students’ ample enrichment opportunities would serve them better in the long run.
Mr. Riley also echoed some other education leaders in the state when he stressed the importance of Massachusetts resisting complacency, even as its education system places it at the top of the country. Speaking to a major theme of Friday’s summit – the negative, pervasive effect that poverty has on student learning – he said the state still needs to do better.
“Our job is to try to catch all of our students up,” he said. “We haven’t done a great job at that.”