State Education Commissioner Chester Scaling Back Workload

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine
By Doug Page

Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who leads the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which oversees the Bay State’s K-12 public schools, has scaled back his workload due to illness and Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson was appointed acting commissioner, sources close to DESE tell baystateparent.

DESE Spokesperson Jacqueline Reis denied that Wulfson was appointed acting commissioner, saying in an email: “Commissioner Chester has temporarily cut back on his schedule for medical reasons. On days when the commissioner is not in the office, Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson has been fulfilling the commissioner’s duties with help from other senior staff members.”

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Reis says Chester appoints a senior leader at DESE to handle his day-to-day duties anytime he’s away from the office, located in Malden.

Wulfson led DESE’s efforts to develop MCAS 2.0, the new standardized test taken by the Commonwealth’s public school children in Grades 3-8 for the first time this spring.

Chester, 65, became DESE’s commissioner nine years ago and oversees the Commonwealth’s public K-12 schools and its nearly 1 million children. Over the past several years, DESE — with Chester as its head — has been a lightning rod over the issue of Common Core and standardized testing.

According to DESE’s website, Chester started his career as an elementary school teacher in Connecticut and later worked at the Connecticut State Education Department before joining the School District of Philadelphia. Prior to joining DESE, he was the Ohio Department of Education’s senior associate superintendent for policy and accountability, overseeing the state’s assessments and strategic planning.

Wulfson, according to his profile, is a 1971 Dartmouth College graduate, earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering science and urban studies from the Hanover, N.H.-based Ivy League university. He also earned an MBA from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business in 1973 and a master of public administration from New York University in 1977.

Wulfson joined DESE in 1995 as its chief financial officer after working in the Massachusetts Department of Revenue.  He became DESE’s deputy commissioner six years ago, according to LinkedIn.

Chester led the Bay State’s implementation of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which the Massachusetts Board of Education (BOE) adopted as the Commonwealth’s public K-12 school standards in July 2010.

Chester has national influence, currently serving on the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which oversees the development and content of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam, a standardized test taken by 4th and 8th graders and considered “the nation’s report card” because it examines how well they’re learning curriculum compared to their peers across the country. NAGB is housed within the U. S. Department of Education.

He was also the first governing chairman of PARCC, a Common Core-based testing consortium, based in Washington, D.C., that consists of eight states and the District of Columbia. In December 2015 he was replaced by Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s education secretary.

Chester also served on the board of directors (2014-2015) of the Washington, D.C.-based Council of State Chief School Officers, which advocates for change in the country’s public schools, according to its website.

“Certainly on the national stage, [Chester is a thoughtful, measured, serious presence in a time when we see lots of enthusiastic state school chiefs do two or three things before flaming out,” said Frederick Hess, an education scholar with the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor at Education Next, a journal published at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.  “He’s tackled education issues in Philadelphia and Ohio and for nearly a decade in Massachusetts.

“He brings a measured perspective, sobriety and wisdom to the work,” Hess added, noting that Mitchell’s nine-year tenure as DESE’s commissioner is likely one of the longest among his peers overseeing state public K-12 schools.

Chester, however, has gained the ire of those opposed to standardized testing, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the union that represents about two-thirds of the Bay State’s nearly 72,000 public school teachers.

“The Massachusetts Teachers Association has been deeply disappointed by Commissioner Chester’s infatuation with the use of standardized testing as a tool to evaluate student, educator and school performance, especially in light of the research that shows it to be primarily a reflection of [the] zip code [in which students live],” wrote MTA President Barbara Madeloni in an email to baystateparent. “This, coupled with his refusal to address the impact of economic injustice and scarcity budgets on students and their families, has not served the students of Massachusetts well.”

Chester recently laid out his views on education reform in an op-ed column, co-written with Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White, that was published in The Washington Post in March.