GUEST POST: Our Wish List for the Next DESE Commissioner

(Kerry Akashian is the Editor-in-Chief at, a former educator in the Lowell Public Schools and Urban Literacy Coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Born and raised in Lowell, Kerry holds a Ph.D. from Lesley University and most importantly, is the mother of a feisty 6-year old who attends the Boston Public Schools.)

Former Commissioner Mitchell Chester made lasting contributions to the educational system in Massachusetts and collaborated with other states for educational change. Very soon there will be a new commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to fill his shoes.

There’s been speculation and names have been floating around which leads to several questions.

Who do we need this person to be?

What do we need him/her to do/be able to do?

What experiences do we want him/her to have had?

Has the person:

  • Been a teacher in an urban high school, while pregnant, without bathroom breaks, in a classroom with a pregnant student whose water broke, while trying to teach Jane Austen?
  • Taught with hats and gloves on because it was too early in November for the heat to be turned on?

(I apologize for my flashbacks.)

But in all seriousness, who do we need in this position and how is the Board of Education in MA assessing the current candidates?

With the questions above in mind, I started with the job posting from the Board. See posting specifics here:

The posting for the new commissioner is a tall order. There are several bullet points and I wonder if any one person can check off all the boxes.

Major components of the posting include:

  • Having a deep knowledge of K-12 policy and practice and experience working in the field
  • Being skilled in working with constituents and policy making partners, including the Legislature, the Executive, other state agencies
  • Seen as an agent for change, with a vision and strategy to achieve educational equity

Since there are countless bullet points in the posting, I looked to the career trajectories of Commissioner Weber from the EEC and Commissioner Peyser from the DHE to gain insight into what MA considers Commissioner-worthy.

Both Commissioners have certain qualifications and characteristics which make them extremely effective leaders.  Both Weber and Peyser have impressive bios yet lack experience working directly in the field as say, a teacher or an administrator in an urban community.

They do have experience in government relations and have shown that they are agents of change in the education sector. This is not a criticism of either one of the Commissioners. This is a question about the experiences that make for the most effective commissioner.

DESE has set extremely high expectations for the teachers in MA and has spent the time and money to outline the competencies necessary to be an educator in MA.

If we think about licensure requirements for Commissioners of Education, what would they be? Has the Board has developed a rubric like the ones that administrators of public schools have to complete?

Since it seems that the Board wants something that I doubt exists, I came up with my own list of questions and qualifications that I would like to see.

  1. The next Commissioner to have attended public school in MA. Commissioner Mitchell Chester frequently made statements about how brainpower is the currency of Massachusetts just as oil is the currency in Texas.  So, if this is correct, the new commissioner should be from Massachusetts and have attended public schools here. Who better to lead the MA education system than a person who has lived the experience? And if the person chosen for Commissioner is not from MA, I would like the person to investigate why our workforce did not produce a commissioner. If we are going to say that we are a state that leads in education, then we should invest in the talent that we have. If we cannot produce a sufficient candidate from MA who has attended public schools here, then we have work to do.
  2. The board to assess the candidate’s experience with progress. To move our students and state forward, we must make sure that our education approach isn’t outdated, but rather that it is in keeping with the times. What contemporary approaches and ideas does the candidate have for the MA education system? Has the candidate implemented progressive approaches before?
  3. The board to assess for the candidate’s experience with workforce and civic preparation. As we set out to improve learning, our most important goal should be to create citizens who are part of an agile and adaptable workforce, capable of performing the jobs of the future and contributing to our society as citizens with problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Preparing for the surprises ahead requires adding new knowledge and skills to the traditional curriculum. That includes updating the ways we teach— and building in multiple opportunities for learners to practice using the important skills our country will need in the 21st century. How will the candidate work to prepare our students for the workforce and civic life?
  4. The Board to seriously consider hiring a qualified woman for the position. It is high time that at least one of our Commissioners of Education is a woman. I am not saying that men cannot lead. I am saying that in a profession that is 80% female, it should be rare that a man is in the commissioner position, never mind all 3.
  5. The new commissioner to take a “total football” approach to leading. This approach means that the person should have professional experience in multiple positions in public school systems and is aware of the strengths and challenges of other positions. We need a person who has walked the walk of being an educator as well as a person with ties to national and international educational agencies and experience working with the legislature.
  6. The Board should assess for Fairness/Equity: How will the candidate work to ensure that our schools are equitable? I would like a commissioner who has a plan for addressing the issue of zip codes. This meaning, every student in every zip code in MA public schools should be given the same opportunities.
  7. A sense of urgency: I’d like the new commissioner to have a sense of urgency on implementing work to close the achievement and opportunity gaps while at the same time, supporting teachers through this process. No more saying to teachers “do more with less”.
  8. Finally, who is the candidate’s doppelganger? Mine is Erin Brokovich.
What do you think?

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