Participants vote at the inaugural CEP Civic Summit held in Furcolo Hall in March 2024

UMass Amherst Center for Education Policy Assesses Results of First Spring Civic Summit

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Jack Schneider, Dwight W. Allen Distinguished Professor and UMass Amherst Center for Education Policy director, says that as a result of the panel discussions and deliberative polling from the inaugural Spring Civic Summit, the center attained valuable lessons in the power of democratic process that will help build upon its plans for more civic engagement opportunities to address current education policy issues and concerns.

The Center for Education Policy (CEP), based in the College of Education, held its first civic summit in the Furcolo Hall Carney Family Auditorium in March, examining the use of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) as a de facto high school exit exam. Attendees were given briefing materials, heard from experts and deliberated on whether the commonwealth should drop MCAS as a graduation requirement.

In attendance were CEP team members, Massachusetts citizens mostly from the western Massachusetts area, UMass Amherst community members and four expert panelists representing both sides of the highly debated question. Those panelists were Marianne Perie, senior research director of WestEd; Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and UMass Amherst professor; Martin West, Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member and Harvard University professor; and Elizabeth Wood, principal of South Hadley High School.

Jack Schneider

When we have an opportunity to actually engage each other in conversation, and when we ground ourselves in evidence that we agree is useful and relevant for our conversation, we can have really productive dialogue.

Jack Schneider, Dwight W. Allen Distinguished Professor and director of the UMass Amherst Center for Education Policy

Under the Massachusetts Education Reform Law of 1993, all students must meet the Competency Determination (CD) standard, usually done by earning a passing score on MCAS, which is administered in grade 10. Currently, there is a proposed state ballot initiative petition to remove the MCAS requirement.  As witnessed in communities throughout the state, there have been strong opinions and heated exchanges over the question.

“Education policy debates get just as polarized as any other kind of political question and it’s quite frustrating to see all of the nuance fall through the chasm that is created when people move over to opposing camps,” Schneider said. “Our goal was to bring people together and try to close that gap through which all the evidence tends to fall.”

The CEP, which comprises UMass faculty and graduate students, works closely with legislators, policymakers, school leaders and educators in efforts to strengthen PK-12 schooling and higher education through democratic decision-making and the use of evidence. The center advances this aim through research and evaluation, dissemination of free and open-source resources and deliberative events that connect leaders, practitioners, scholars and citizens—such as the civic summit.

The CEP team featured evidence-based briefing materials and insights from the panelists and conducted a pre-event poll to gauge attendees’ views on the proposed ballot measure. The CEP also polled attendees after the deliberations to see how their views may have shifted. They were also given the opportunity to identify their views on the most compelling reasons for maintaining and removing the graduation requirement.

Of the results from 33 complete datasets analyzed by the CEP, attendees who were on the fence or didn’t have enough information about the MCAS graduation requirement in pre-event polling decided by the end of the summit to support a side. A sizable majority of participants indicated that, if they were to vote on the issue, they would vote to remove the requirement. But according to Schneider, the most powerful result was the ability of nearly all participants to identify valid justifications for supporting either side of the issue.

“When we have an opportunity to actually engage each other in conversation, and when we ground ourselves in evidence that we agree is useful and relevant for our conversation, we can have really productive dialogue,” Schneider said. “We don’t need to agree. We don’t need to share the same exact values. We don’t need to have the same political orientation. We can be civil to each other and we can recognize the validity of each other’s viewpoints even while deciding that we’re ultimately going to head in different directions once we’re inside the ballot booth.”

The CEP will plan civic summits for the 2024-25 academic year using information and experience gathered from this summit. For more information about the CEP, visit the Center for Education Policy website.