Middle School principal defends courses' change

Pierce Middle School Principal William "Bill" Fish explains during the Aug. 26 remote Milton School Committee meeting why accelerated core classes for grade 7 and 8 students are being paused this year.

(Photo by Lisa D. Connell)

In addition to the appointment of an interim superintendent of school, a "pause" in the accelerated ELA and math program for seventh and eighth-grade students at Pierce Middle School is set for the 2020-21 school year. Pierce Middle School Principal Bill Fish said the pandemic affected this “leveling.” Educators, in particular K-8 Literacy Director Catherine DesRoche and K-12 Mathematics Director Brian Seling, will use the coming fall and winter to decide student placement for these accelerated classes.

Fresh data to review students’ academic readiness for the accelerated program was not readily available, in part because MCAS tests were not held in the state in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Data from other common core tests left the Milton school district with two years’ worth of incomplete test results.

In a recent letter by Fish to the Pierce Middle School community, Fish wrote:

“Dear Pierce Families,

I am writing to provide you with information regarding some changes to our academic program for the 2020-2021 school year.

Pierce Middle School has traditionally offered one “accelerated” level class for English language arts and mathematics on each team for grade seven and grade eight. Student placement into these classes was based on three variables — two years of MCAS achievement data and performance on common grade level assessments. For example, seventh-grade placement in an accelerated class was based on students’ performance on the grade six MCAS, grade five MCAS, and a series of assessments taken by all sixth-graders.

The school closure in the spring and subsequent cancellation of the 2020 MCAS administration leaves us with two year old MCAS data and an incomplete battery of common assessment data to make fair, informed decisions about which students could or should be placed in the accelerated level.

Beyond the lack of data resulting from the school closure, there are bigger questions with the accelerated classes that require our school community’s attention. For example, why do we have these classes if the curriculum is effectively the same as the non-accelerated classes? If MCAS data for our school and district raise concern about an achievement gap for African American students and Hispanic students on standardized tests like the MCAS, then why are we using the MCAS as a significant driver of student placement in accelerated classes? Why does the racial and socioeconomic make up of the students in accelerated classes not mirror that of our broader student population? Why does Pierce have a system for placing students in accelerated classes but Milton High School does not?

During the 2019-2020 school year, I heard from teachers who posed questions similar to those above. The Pierce site council, composed of teachers and parents/guardians, had conversations around these issues during the winter and spring. The general sentiment among both groups was to take a deeper look into the “accelerated” courses and the structures related to placing students into these classes.

I write to you today to announce that we will not run “accelerated” English language arts or “accelerated” math classes during the 2020-2021 school year. We will take the new school year to explore the questions above and to determine the merit of these classes, and more importantly, the structures that inform students’ placement into these classes.

 All students are entitled access to rich and rigorous curriculum and instruction. Research on differentiated instruction, where students are taught in heterogeneous classrooms with high-quality curriculum and instruction and focused attention on their unique needs, shows broad benefits in student achievement and school satisfaction for a wide variety of learners. The newly adopted English language arts curriculum and the existing math curriculum are robust programs that provide educators with the resources and tools to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of a wide range of learners.

I realize that some parents and guardians may be disappointed with this announcement. Simultaneously, there are likely parents and guardians who are encouraged by Pierce’s commitment to taking a closer look at these practices. This decision is not about appealing to either side of the issue. The decision is about ensuring that our curriculum, practices and structures are fair and equitable for all students.”

For more on this story, go to www.miltontimes.com and subscribe to the Milton Times. Or, call 617-696-7758 to subscribe. Thank you.

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