BPS Superintendent Interviews: Cliff Chuang

February 9, 2023

The Bedford School Committee interviewed each of the four finalists for superintendent of schools on Monday and Tuesday. Each session was 90 minutes. This is the second of four stories on the candidates.

Cliff Chuang, senior associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, acknowledged that he is “sort of one step removed from where local educators get to work.”

But he told the Bedford School Committee on Tuesday that he is in a position to develop “policies that affect students across the commonwealth.” And the position of Bedford superintendent is desirable, not only because of the community’s commitment to diversity and equity, but also its size – “small enough to really get to know everyone.” He added that the district could be regarded as “one big school with four campuses.”

With some 250 classroom teachers, “that’s a number where you can really get to know most people,” Chuang observed. 

Chuang taught math and science in Boston schools for eight years before moving to management at the state level 19 years ago. 

“The hardest day at DESE does not compare to my hardest day as a teacher,” he told the committee. The superintendent, he added, needs to “find the daily stressors that you can remove so teachers can focus on the main task.”

He said in answer to a question that one of his areas of focus has been to make sure information is accessible, developing a tool called Schoolfinder that presents in five languages. He added that he launched a statewide Parent-Student Advisory Council and hired the department’s first family engagement specialist.

The candidate offered some new ideas on broadening academic rigor and range. “Start by listening to educators and families,” he said, suggesting that many “would like to expand options for courses in other modalities, to reach kids according to their interests.”

For younger students, he added, early literacy and early pre-kindergarten are options.

This can be achieved through an online provider, he said, as well as “work-based learning opportunities.” 

Chuang said he was impressed with the number of businesses he saw when he drove around town; “take advantage of those community resources. At the state level, we’re seeing that’s what engages kids, so you can really apply what you’re doing academically.”

Chuang stressed that he isn’t trying to duplicate what is being done at Shawsheen Valley Technical High School, “but there are different ways to expose kids to the world of work.”

He’s familiar with the Shawsheen scene; “reform of the vocational school admission system is what I’m doing now. In parts of the state, it is a very live issue.” Chuang said research verified that students with disabilities and lower income households are at an admissions disadvantage.

Vocational education is “an actual trajectory to the middle class and beyond,” Chuang told the School Committee. State regulations, he said, “were a piece of the puzzle.” Over several years, “we identified with data the places where we saw the most concern. We looked at the application data and what are the differentials.”

The culmination came in 2021 with “a comprehensive reform to change the paradigm to focus on equitable access. This has been a long-running, large-scale conversation that’s still ongoing that I’ve led for the commissioner and the board.”

Declining enrollment is a statewide issue, Chuang said, and one response Bedford may consider is implementing “interdistrict school choice.” The district already welcomes METCO and military students, he pointed out, and “you can be strategic about where you open seats.”

Asked about post-pandemic MCAS sores, Chuang replied, “I obviously have a front seat to this policy-making discussion.” He said the DESE recognizes that the “trajectory of recovery varies across the state,” indeed in the same city or town. “We need to strike a balance between the push for high expectations and need for recovery time.”

Chuang also focuses on diversity, equity, and inclusion work at the state level, and that includes working with military and METCO leaders. He cited the need to ensure that METCO students and families have local transit options that ensure full access to all school offerings and activities.

Asked about balancing academic excellence, social-emotional learning, and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, Chuang said, “When things are working well, these are working well together. You’re not going to be able to learn if you are not socially-emotionally healthy.”

The candidate also described a state-level pilot program for five high schools in which he is involved about “reinventing” grading. “We are looking at how we assess and motivate student learning and how grading can create a false sense of rigor.” There are 13 gradations between A and F, he pointed out, and “that’s more about ranking and sorting.”

Asked about bargaining on a teacher contract, Chuang said, “You need to predicate any sort of negotiations with trust,” and start with “identifying key points of commonality well in advance.” The contract, he said, should be a “representation of shared values.” He also acknowledged that school start times are a key contract component, and Bedford times are “flipped” from where specialists say they should be for younger and older children.

Chuang also addressed other issues in response to committee questions:

  • Effectiveness of special education: “The primary criterion is: are those students making progress? Do kids and parents feel their needs are being met?” He also noted the social and financial benefits of in-house programming and recognized former Superintendent Maureen Lacroix’s efforts to realize that in Bedford. 
  • Teaching literacy: “The science has coalesced in terms of what works and that’s something we have to face head-on. There must be an element of phonics and decoding as part of that reading instruction.” 
  • Closing achievement gaps: Chuang called for “structures designed to make sure you are looking at the holistic needs of kids.” He also said diversity is central to success – “creating a culture that is deeply committed to DEI and following through with building a team that’s more diverse and representative of the lived experiences.”
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