What does DESE do? (Or How Are Massachusetts Schools Organized?)

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) oversees local school districts, which, in turn, oversee schools. Policies made by DESE will affect every Massachusetts district and their various schools across the state.

We’ll use Boston’s school district as an example to show DESE’s role.

State Education Hierarchy

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education (DESE) is the organization responsible for public education at the elementary and secondary levels in Massachusetts. DESE is led by the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education who oversees curriculum implementations, accountability and assessment programs, and district analysis. Right now, Mitchell D. Chester is commissioner.

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is the governing body in charge of DESE and evaluates the performance of the commissioner.The chair of the board is designated by the governor of Massachusetts, and the commissioner is a member of the board.

The Boston School Committee is the governing body of the Boston Public Schools (BPS). The school committee is responsible for defining the vision, mission and goals of BPS; establishing and monitoring the annual operating budget; hiring, managing, and evaluating the superintendent; and setting and reviewing district policies and practices to support student achievement. The seven members of the school committee are Boston residents appointed by the mayor of Boston to serve four-year staggered terms.

The Boston Public Schools superintendent oversees policy, administrative issues, curriculum standards and school department management for BPS. The superintendent is hired by the Boston School Committee.

There are 128 schools in the Boston Public Schools:

  • Some are traditional district schools or special district schools.
  • Exam schools are schools that allow admission based on students’ scores on national entrance exams plus grade point average. In Boston these are Boston Latin Academy, Boston Latin School, and O’Bryant School of Math and Science.
  • Part of the school district but have autonomy over budget, hiring, governance, curriculum, and school calendar, pilot schools were created to be models of educational innovation. They often serve as research and development sites for effective urban public schools.
  • Turnaround schools are selected by the district for increased support based on designation as an under-performing school.
  • While most are bound by the district’s teachers union contract, decisions surrounding staffing, curriculum, and budgeting at innovation schools are made by a school-based governing board. Each school must negotiate the extent of the freedom to make its own decisions with the superintendent and school committee.
  • In-district charter schools are semi-autonomous schools that are approved by both the Boston School Committee and DESE. They are funded by BPS.
  • Alternative education schools have programs which may serve students who are new to the U.S., are over-age or off-track, need to go to school at night, have disabilities, or disciplinary issues.

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