Condition of Education in Western Massachusetts

Earlier this month, we hosted an event bringing together the education and business communities of Western Massachusetts to discuss the Condition of Education in the region. We were fortunate to be joined by Massachusetts Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler along with a panel of experts representing local schools and employers, who discussed ways to engage students, particularly given a recent spike in chronic absenteeism. 

Chronic absenteeism–defined as missing at least 10 percent of school days–has increased drastically across Massachusetts since the start of the pandemic. Mirroring these trends, schools in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties saw chronic absenteeism jump from 12 percent in 2019 to 26 percent in 2022. While 2023 saw a decrease to 21 percent, numbers remain well above pre-pandemic levels. (See event slides for more details).

Schools, districts, and organizations across the region are working to address this challenge by connecting local students with learning opportunities. Our panel discussion–featuring Matt Brunell of the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership, Tricia Canavan of Tech Foundry, and Heather Williams of the MassHire Berkshire Workforce Board–provided some promising strategies to engage students.

Brunell described using coordinated care teams to connect with absent students and working with partners to address the root causes of absenteeism–like transportation barriers or students not seeing the value in school. Williams shared that students she has worked with who do an internship or structured work-based learning experience often get reengaged in school after seeing the real skills they will need for the workforce. She stressed the importance of these experiences being credit-bearing to help students continue to make progress toward graduation. Meanwhile, Canavan discussed lessons learned from Tech Foundry, a program designed to help adult learners enter a career in information technology, that can support engagement among K-12 students. In particular, she shared how Tech Foundry built a capstone project to better engage students, connected them with graduates of the program, and held weekly meetings to discuss students’ needs. 

These efforts to engage students fit the spirit of the message imparted by Secretary Tutwiler at the event. He encouraged educators and community members to remember this framework for the path ahead: stabilize, heal, transform. He discussed state-level efforts to stabilize and heal after the trauma of the pandemic, including by making universal school meals permanent, investing in early college pathways, establishing free community college for those over 25, and focusing on supporting student mental health and diversifying the educator pipeline. The Secretary also discussed the need to transform education and “embrace innovation, even when it’s hard to do so.” He described the importance of leaning into hands-on and work-based learning, expanding early college, and boosting STEM apprenticeships and workforce training, among other ideas for transforming our education system.

This event capped off a year of discussions around how we can rethink education and reconsider when, where, and how students learn. We’ve been meeting with stakeholders across the state to crowdsource ideas and begin forming recommendations for transforming the education system. We’ll share some of those recommendations in our 2024 Condition of Education Report, which will be released on January 30th at an event in Boston. Register now to join us!