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The tough tests facing New York’s new state education commissioner

N.Y State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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Last month,  New York tapped a new state education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia. She is the 2015 Florida Superintendent of the Year who led the public schools in Hillsborough County for a decade before she was fired by the school board this past January with more than two years left on her contract.

Her firing surprised many people because Elia, a former teacher, had a good deal of support in Florida, not only from the Republican political and business establishment but also from the Florida Education Association, a teachers union, whose president, Andy Ford, said in a statement after she was hired in New York that she worked “to bring people together” and toward a “positive, proactive agenda.” He said: “New York will be lucky to have MaryEllen.”

Yet the Hillsborough board majority, which officially fired her without cause, had been on record as criticizing her, among other things, how she dealt with the panel, constituent complaints about too much high-stakes standardized testing, and a lack of services for special-needs students.

There has also been criticism about some of the reform policies she instituted in Hillsborough, which are analyzed in this post by Carol Burris, an award-winning principal in New York. Burris suggests how Elia can close divisions in the state’s education world that have resulted from the controversial implementation of the Common Core and Core-aligned tests under former commissioner John King. He quit last December after N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo expressed unhappiness with him over botched Core implementation. Now King is managing the U.S. Education Department’s operations as a senior adviser to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Burris, of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District,  was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and was tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She has also written several books, numerous articles and posts on this blog about New York’s troubled implementation of school reform.

By Carol Burris

On May 26, the New York Board of Regents unexpectedly assembled in Albany to vote on a single item–the appointment of MaryEllen Elia as the new education commissioner of New York State. With the transparency of a papal selection, the vote was taken and then her name was announced, prompting New Yorkers to ask, “who?”

MaryEllen Elia was not an unknown for long. Internet sleuths shared newspaper articles, videos and tweets about the policies and practices of the woman who will be New York’s new education chief. She helped. She quickly made it clear where she stands on the Common Core and the opt-out movement, in which hundreds of thousands of parents have refused to allow their children to take high-stakes Common Core exams. “Opt-outs are no good for teachers and no good for parents,” she said when visiting an Albany school the day following her appointment. During an interview a week later on Capitol Pressroom, she was all about the “A” word—”accountability,” mentioning it no fewer than 6 times.

Elia was dismissed by her school board by a 4-3 vote in January. There were long-time tensions between her and two members of the board, and her leadership became an issue in the November 4, 2014, board election, in which an Elia opponent won a seat.  Two candidates of 14 expressed approval and five expressed disapproval of her performance. Other candidates refused to weigh in during the contentious election. Reports indicated the community was evenly split, and her decision to display the campaign sign of a candidate running against one of her board opponents was characterized as “juvenile” by The Tampa Tribune. You can learn more about her dismissal and how it influenced the school board elections here, here, here and here.

It is clear that Elia, like most superintendents, has fans and enemies. That is to be expected, and it is not necessarily an indicator of whether or not she would be a good choice for the state of New York. What she believes in, and with whom she has alliances, however, are matters of interest as indications of the direction in which she might lead. Below is summary of Elia’s involvement on five important topics. Each discussion is followed by what I believe she will need to consider, or reconsider, if she wants to calm the present tensions in New York and chart a more productive path for our schools.

MaryEllen Elia put into place a teacher accountability system that included evaluation by student test scores and pay based on that evaluation.

In 2008, Elia’s district received a $10 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The initiatives in the grant included: the establishment of an evaluation system based 40 percent on student test scores; the inclusion of test scores in decisions to grant tenure and determine teacher career paths; merit pay, which is referred to in the grant as “pay for performance”; bonuses for principals and teachers who raise low-performing students’ scores; the use of data for hiring; and the use of “data dashboards” to make instructional decisions.

By 2012, the Hillsborough district had spent $24.8 million on the grant’s initiatives, including using Race to the Top, additional grants and district funds. District funds were 19 percent of all expenditures, with $3.2 million spent developing a value-added model (VAM) to measure teacher performance by test scores (a method many assessment experts say is not a valid for this purpose). The $24.8 million was considered by RAND Education and American Institutes for Research the AIR, which studied the spending for the Gates Foundation, a “lower bound” estimate of the true cost.

Winning the grant was heralded as a reform in which a teachers union had cooperatively worked with a superintendent to enact evaluation reform. In his book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, Stephen Brill describes Hillsborough union president, Jean Clements, as a union president who was “willing to embrace the Jeb Bush reforms rather than take a hard line against them.” Brill reported that Clements collaborated on the grant after being prodded to do so by the American Federation of Teachers. (Brill wrote that AFT President Randi Weingarten said that she was involved in the negotiations of the Gates teacher evaluation grants, and the AFT issued a statement welcoming the “unprecedented support” of the Gates Foundation for “efforts to improve teaching and learning.” ) Elia wanted 50 percent of the evaluation to be based on test scores; Clements insisted that it not be more than 40 percent.

The Gates grant has not been popular with many teachers in Hillsborough. In 2012, 30 Hillsborough teachers went to Jacksonville, Florida, to participate in a televised discussion on merit pay and the evaluation of teachers by test scores. You can listen to what they had to say here. The teachers complained about the negative effects that merit pay and evaluation by test scores had on their teaching. In December of 2014, a month prior to Elia’s dismissal, the school board asked for a review of the evaluation program based on complaints. During that review, the once enthusiastic Clements voiced concerns. She told the school board that the system she helped put into place is considered by teachers to be “demeaning and unfair” and that teacher voice and input has decreased.

Elia’s positions on teacher evaluation will be carefully watched in New York. She is becoming commissioner at a time of parent and educator push-back against the legislature’s revision of the teacher evaluation system—a revision that gave student test scores far greater weight than before.

MaryEllen Elia could win goodwill by arguing that her Florida experience tells her that test scores should play a minimal role. She should share the concerns of her teachers and ask for a year’s delay for implementation, with an opportunity to recommend adjustments.

MaryEllen Elia is a true believer in the Common Core.

Elia argues that we have had standards since the 1600s and that standards should be revised and improved. She also credits the Common Core with promoting active student learning. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who does not believe that standards should be reviewed and changed, and that learning should be active. But neither belief is dependent upon the Common Core. New York parent and teacher Core concerns center on developmentally inappropriate standards in the early grades, overly complicated elementary math, and an overemphasis on close reading and informational texts.

The day after she was appointed, Elia stated that “we have pushed Common Core into a box” and that New York has to “repaint” the narrative. That might be true if the majority of New Yorkers did not understand why they are opposed to the Common Core, but that is not the case. Elia will encounter very sophisticated and organized parents who, for the most part, are not opposed to the Common Core for political or ideological reasons, but for its effects on students.

Rather than try to tell parents that they should like something that they clearly do not like, Elia should lead a thorough review of the standards with an eye toward addressing concerns. The simple rebranding of the Common Core, which occurred in Florida, will not work in New York. Elia should investigate why the opt-out movement has become such a force in New York by taking a long, hard look at the content of the tests, their length and the cut-score setting process.

Elia supporters include teacher unions, leaders of the corporate reform movement and politicians

Elia’s appointment received praise from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, Hillsborough Union President Clements, and Andy Ford, the president of the Florida Education Association. They praised her collaboration with the FEA during the implementation of difficult reforms in the Sunshine State. That statement was released the day of her appointment, and can be read here.

Other fans include high-stakes test accountability reformer, Kati Haycock, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who praised Elia for including business leaders, unions and philanthropy in decision making.

Elia also has allies in the political arena. According to Florida sources, one of MaryEllen Elia’s close friend and supporter is Kathleen Shanahan, who worked as chief of staff for Dick Cheney when he was vice president-elect, and in the same position for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed her to the Florida Board of Education. Shanahan led a petition drive to keep Elia as superintendent and made a passionate plea to the Board of Education on her behalf, which you can listen to here.  During Elia’s good-bye dinner as superintendent, she signaled her support for the candidacy of Tampa mayor, Bob Buckhorn, for Florida governor, and made clear that she would like to be his Florida commissioner of education.

New York education commissioners have traditionally kept an arm’s length from politics. Elia should consider continuing that tradition. The divisions in New York are so deep, to be successful she must listen to parents and teachers who are critics of the current reforms and find solutions to their concerns. If she is seen as an acolyte of Jeb Bush-style education reforms, tensions are will worsen. Many New York parents and educators are looking for relief from testing, not someone who tries to collaboratively make the best of test-based accountability systems.

 Serious concerns have been raised by parents of students of disabilities.

Complaints from the parents of special-needs students include those over reactioni to the deaths of four students with disabilities while under the supervision of Hillsborough employees. Parents of 7-year-old Isabella Herrera filed a federal lawsuit that brought attention not only to what occurred, but also to Elia’s reaction. Parents have also publicly complained of the roadblocks they face when attempting to get their children needed services from the school district.

Many New York State parents are active advocates of students with disabilities, as well as outspoken opponents of the Common Core and testing. It is important that the new commissioner show sensitivity to their concerns as well as a willingness to address those concerns around Common Core testing.

Complaints about discriminatory practices have highlighted unaddressed inequities in her former district.

Hillsborough is presently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The investigation is a result of complaints made by retired educator, Marilyn Williams, who claimed that there are pervasive patterns of racial discrimination in both discipline and teacher assignment in Hillsborough.  One of the schools where suspensions and expulsions of black students are highest is McLane Middle School. An in-depth report on the school puts the blame squarely on the school district policies that created it.

According to the report, MaryEllen Elia, who was then head of the district magnet program, put in place a choice system in an attempt to create a diverse student body in the district’s middle schools. One of the consequences of choice is that if students do not apply or are not accepted into magnet schools, they are warehoused into what quickly become undesirable schools. In the case of McLane, inner-city students ride buses in the Florida heat for a 12-mile trip to a school with inexperienced teachers, bad test scores and rampant violence. The problem, according to The Tampa Bay Times, has festered and worsened for over a decade.

Ironically, the New York governor and the Board of Regents are presently considering magnet schools for STEM, arts and technical programs to reduce costs and give parents choice. Let’s hope that the new commissioner informs them that choice programs always come with a cost and they often result in failing schools for the kids left behind.

MaryEllen Elia has a fresh start in a new place. For the sake of New York students, let’s hope that in a blue state, a new MaryEllen Elia will emerge and that her collaborative skills are used to create a new direction.

(Correction: Good-bye dinner was for Elia, not a supporter, as earlier version of this post said)