BOSTON — Reinvigorating the educational workforce and addressing students’ mental health are among the priorities of top state education officials, as schools still struggle to recover from pandemic-related learning losses and teacher shortages.
In some of his first public remarks since Gov. Maura Healey made him state education secretary, Patrick Tutwiler said his plan for tackling challenges in Massachusetts’ education system is to “stabilize, heal, transform” — then “rethink” what school is and what it could be.
“We are still in a recovery period, we’re not back,” Tutwiler said Tuesday at the Rennie Center’s 10th Condition of Education conference in Boston. The education policy nonprofit released its ”Action Guide” report on Monday, which makes recommendations on early education and care, instructional practices in the classroom, student well-being and college and career pathways.
Among the center’s recommendations is supporting two-generation programming in pre-K, which would partner parents’ and caregivers’ education or job training along with their children’s schooling. The nonprofit also recommends selecting instructional materials that are evidence-based and culturally responsive, ensuring social-emotional learning is infused within curricular materials, and prioritizing building early college programs.
Tutwiler said the educator workforce shortages are being felt in early education, K-12 and higher education.
“There are many, many unfilled positions in K-12 in Massachusetts, including the critical areas such as special education,” Tutwiler said.
Emergency licenses granted early in the pandemic allowed more leeway for schools to hire emergency help by getting around typical requirements for teachers. Tutwiler said while these licenses have been “invaluable” to keeping schools running, educators serving without certification are also in “critical need of support and training.”
In early education, just over one in three teaching positions per center are unfilled, and filling these positions would provide early education for an additional 10,000 young children, the secretary said.
Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, Higher Education Commissioner Noe Ortega and Early Education Commissioner Amy Kershaw echoed Tutwiler’s concerns during a panel discussion.
Ortega suggested finding ways to remove barriers to the field, though he did not specify what this would look like.
To obtain just an initial license to teach a core K-12 class in Massachusetts, a prospective employee must have a bachelor’s degree, pass all the required Massachusetts Test for Licensure exams, hold a Sheltered English Immersion endorsement, and have completed a state-approved educator preparation program, or an alternative preparation program if coming from out of the state. These requirements are among the most stringent in the country.
“Educators have to overcome a lot more milestones than other professions,” Ortega said.
In the early education space, Kershaw said chronic underpayment and a lack of respect for pre-K teachers has contributed to difficulties in hiring.
Tutwiler and Ortega both said the public conversation around teaching, which has shifted negatively over the past few years, has also affected teacher burnout and led to fewer people entering the field.
“Teachers are not being seen in the same light as they once were,” Ortega said. “And you add that on top of all the expectations that are coming ... from the federal level, the state level and from the parents and community.” Tutwiler also said they need to “shift the narrative.”
“How can we all partner to sound the alarm, attracting people who want to be part of the solution — who want to inspire the next core of leaders and thinkers,” he said. “How can we elevate the stories of how the profession continues to evolve, and how schools continue to be ideas places where innovation and creativity happen in the purest form?”
In addition to just recruiting new educators, Riley said his department planned to focus on better supporting teachers who are already in schools.
When he began his career teaching in Baltimore City 30 years ago, Riley said, he frequently went to professional development conferences where he could “basically steal great ideas from others.” He said teachers in Massachusetts today don’t have those same opportunities to learn from other educators.
“I think we need to get back to focusing on our teachers. We haven’t supported them all enough,” Riley said. “They have new great ideas that can be brought into their classrooms, and at this time it feels like we’re tying one hand behind our teachers’ backs... we probably have the best teaching force pre-K through college in the country, and yet we’ve never given them support.”
The other major challenge facing Massachusetts’ schools, Tutwiler said, is students’ mental and behavioral health needs as they are still dealing with dysregulation from learning interruptions during the early years of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, students continue to be out of schools more than they were before the pandemic. Chronic absenteeism rose across the state by about 10 percentage points between 2021 and 2022 and the percentage of students transferring in or out of a school within a school year has also increased, according to the Rennie Center.
“The past two years have really underscored the close relationship between well-being and learning. And perhaps most importantly, the need for a mindset shift to understanding dysregulated behavior as a manifestation of an unmet need,” Tutwiler said.
Tutwiler said he feels “incredible optimism” about the state’s ability to meet these challenges.
Once they are met — the “stabilize” and “heal” pieces of his “stabilize, heal, transform” mantra — Tutwiler said it is time to “rethink” school.
“We need to rethink and subsequently redesign high schools, putting students at the center and design from there,” he said. “What would it look like to design a high school putting the needs of students with special needs or newcomers first? Does the traditional bell-to-bell high school day serve students whose hierarchy of need calls for them to work on hours after school? Does the current structure match the kinds of engagement needs that we know our students have? Is it flexible enough to embrace authentic learning experiences and opportunities?”
Part of this “transformation,” he said, is “significantly” expanding early childhood education, and making higher education readiness more affordable by investing in early college and early career pathways, partnering high schools with community college and “rethinking financial aid altogether.”
“I believe we’re at the doorstep of some unique transformational opportunities,” he said.
Tutwiler told event attendees that more specific proposals are in the works.
“I’m 18 days and counting into the new administration,” he said. “It might be a little premature to talk concretely about investments, enhancements, policy and the like. There’ll be time for that for sure, real soon.”