NewsThe 74 Interview

74 Interview: Massachusetts Education Leader Russell Johnston on Poverty, Improving Special Education & Living Mitchell Chester’s Legacy

By Carolyn Phenicie | November 28, 2017

Read previous 74 interviews with District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson; David Hardy, the new leader of a state takeover district in Ohio; and Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee. The whole series is available here.

Massachusetts routinely ranks at the top among U.S. states in measures of education, but in one area, state education leaders still aren’t happy: special education.

State leadership isn’t satisfied with achievement gaps between students with disabilities and those without, and they’re also concerned about the overidentification of children in poverty, Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston told The 74.

Massachusetts has the second-highest rate of identification of students with disabilities in the country — 17.5 percent in the 2013–14 school year, versus 13 percent on average nationally — a number that hasn’t changed much in years, he said.

“A goal that we have from within special education is to help our educators and administrators understand the impact of poverty on learning and see what instructional strategies can be used to address that impact on learning, and, frankly, not to see poverty as disability,” he said.

Much of Johnston’s education career, which he began after considering and rejecting a life in the business world, has revolved around special ed. He’s served as a special education teacher and administrator, and was superintendent of West Springfield Public Schools before joining the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. His portfolio includes accountability, monitoring, data, and special education. Johnston was also selected as a member of the second “Future Chiefs” cohort at Chiefs for Change, a mentoring program that aims to find new state and district leaders and diversify the applicant pool of reform-minded school leaders.

He’s also the temporary receiver of the Southbridge Public Schools, one of three state takeover districts. The latest state test results were released earlier this month, showing gains for Southbridge schools.

“The growth measures are important, and it’s a great sign of heading in the right direction after one year of implementation [of a three-year turnaround plan], but we know that there is more room for improvement,” said Johnston, who served under Mitchell Chester, the much-beloved Massachusetts state commissioner who died unexpectedly this summer.

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Johnston spoke with The 74 in mid-October. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The 74: What was it like to work for Mitchell Chester? What parts of his legacy do you want to continue?

Working for Commissioner Chester was unbelievable. It’s a loss felt by us every day here at the state agency, and it is so important for us to carry on his legacy.

Commissioner Chester was truly unflinching when it came to improving the quality of education for our children who were most marginalized and historically undereducated in Massachusetts. He was just dogged in his determination to make outcomes better for them.

He inspired me to never give up, to persevere, and to not compromise when it comes to anything that would sell those students short. I really appreciated his leadership, his guidance, his support, in helping me see more fully what we can do every day to improve the performance in our schools, which will ultimately open doors for students that so far have too often been closed.

His legacy is very motivating to me and my team, to make sure we are carrying out that legacy beyond his unfortunate and much too early departure from us. To us, what that means is, again, keeping the students really at the core of what we’re doing and to always be thinking about “What more can we do? What haven’t we thought of?”

He was just such an intelligent person. He saw details that no one else would see. Without him here, we have to challenge ourselves to think like him, to think, “What are we missing? What more can be done? What’s the question that hasn’t been asked to open that door that … has too often been closed for our young people?”

What sorts of policy issues are you working on right now?

My work encompasses accountability, assistance, special education, monitoring, and data, and so there are a few different things happening in all those realms.

With regard to accountability and assistance … [the work we’re enacting right now] is the changes from ESSA, the accountability and assistance model. We are excited about a new generation of accountability for Massachusetts and thinking about how we learn from the requirements for both focus schools [where subgroups of students are performing poorly] and comprehensive schools [the worst-performing in the state] …

We’ll be announcing more about our plans in January, and I think it’s helpful to be able to look at our accountability plans, from within [the Every Student Succeeds Act] and matching with our assistance plans, to get a [look at] the direction we’re heading.

Within special education, we have a challenge in our state that we have the second-highest rate of identification of students with disabilities in the nation, and it’s been fairly unmovable for many years now. Particularly what we see as a concern is that we’re overidentifying children from poverty. A goal that we have from within special education is to help our educators and administrators understand the impact of poverty on learning and see what instructional strategies can be used to address that impact on learning and, frankly, not to see poverty as disability.

You’re also the temporary receiver of the Southbridge schools. What’s going on with that?

At the end of last May, we had a sudden need for a superintendent receiver for Southbridge Public Schools. The receiver has the full authority of both the superintendent and the school committee.

… The frequent change in leadership in Southbridge Public Schools had been a problem in the past … Once it became clear that we needed to replace the receiver, we chose that I would stay on as interim receiver until we have that new person announced for the district. I’ve been there since the end of May, coming up now through October.

We will be posting the position most likely sometime later this week. Our first and foremost goal was to make sure that we got school started well, and then our goal became to listen to the community, to know what they wanted in the next receiver. We’ve incorporated those ideas and that feedback into the actual job posting, because we want to make sure we have a strong match between the person we select and the leader of the district. As much as certainly it’s challenging to wear that hat right now, I think it’s also, it’s been very motivating and in some ways helpful to have my foot back in the role of the district leader in order to help improve policy here at the state level.

Massachusetts is often held up as one of, if not the, best state for education in the country. What challenges do you still have to work on?

I am pleased, and I think we all should be, with the performance of our students in Massachusetts. A concern that we certainly have, and it falls within my domain here at the state education agency, is around students with disabilities. The gap is still wide in achievement and in performance for students with disabilities compared to students without disabilities.

In some ways, that appears to be kind of the next generation of issues for us to work to improve, and I’m hopeful and confident that some of the practices that we’re putting into place will lead to better outcomes for students with disabilities.

Are you working on anything in special education besides the overidentification issue?

One of the key things that’s a strong lever in really helping to develop strong plans for students with disabilities is the IEP, the Individualized Education Program. We’re working towards an IEP that will be much better tailored to the individual needs and the individual strengths of students. If you’re the parents of a 3-year-old with autism, you should experience questions and ideas that will come from your child’s team that would be different than if you’re an 18-year-old with a learning disability transitioning to college.

With the new IEP, our goal is to help focus on the unique strengths and needs of children at each developmental stage, and be a process that’s driven by the outcomes that we expect to see for students, rather than the completion of a form. Right now, the process is too much based on completing a form, which is the same form for all students instead of having a deeper analysis of where we actually want children to be within the next one-year period.

Is that work coming in response to the Supreme Court’s Endrew decision, which set a new standard for special ed services?

We’re on the road right now holding regional meetings across the state updating special education directors on recent advisories and other information from the state education agency. This is one of our goals, is to have a more direct relationship between the staff here in special education and our special education directors in the state … We’ve just had our first round of five regional meetings. We’ll have three more rounds this year. This is something that’s very important to me, that we have a more direct connection to people who are leading this work in each district.

One of the topics for this month … is an overview of the Endrew decision. The Endrew decision for Massachusetts, because we’ve always had a very high standard for educational services that should be provided to students with disabilities, isn’t that groundbreaking at all.

My goal in having the special education directors talk face to face about this is to help them understand some of the important key terms in Endrew about the type of ambitious educational goals that we should have for students. I’ve encouraged them to both make sure that they are defining the ambition — frankly, I think that’s an important outcome from Endrew, is this focus on “students’ educational goals should be stated in a very ambitious way” — and also to use some of the words from Endrew in their actual development of IEPs …

I’ve called out some key phrases for them to focus on …[things like] ambitious educational standards for all.

[There’s also] the focus about how important it is for parent participation … and how important it is to have a collaborative process in developing the IEP, a focus on the professional judgment of team members, and that that has to be explained.

The need to make sure, another quote that I pulled out, was a focus on an IEP that allows the student to “have a chance to meet challenging objectives.” I also like this other quote that to meet the legal standard, an IEP must be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

It’s really the appropriate, ambitious aspect of it that I focused on the most. Those are all other important details, but I think Endrew really focuses on making sure that we are aiming high … We need to be expecting more, to kind of unleash the talent that’s in our children with disabilities.

What’s next for you?

I really enjoy the work that I do here … My goal is to see our current objectives through to their completion.

In our turnaround work, we’ve taken on some very important work in terms of turning around some of the lowest-performing schools in the state, and … now we’ll be bringing in a new accountability system [under ESSA] … I’m very excited about bringing that work to bear, both kind of improving upon what we’re already doing from the assistance perspective, to improve our most underperforming schools, and then from an accountability perspective, having an accountability tool that even more meaningfully differentiates the performance of our schools.

Then in special education, I’m just very motivated to improve outcomes for students with disabilities, particularly focusing on making sure we’re identifying the right children for special education, and then also making sure that we are providing such high-quality educational servings for students with disabilities that we can help to break through the achievement gap issue that has been very persistent for such a long time.

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