MaryEllen Elia speaks during a news conference after the N.Y. Board of Regents elected her as the new state education commissioner on Tuesday, May 26, 2015, in Albany, N.Y. Elia most recently led the Hillsborough County school district, which includes Tampa, Florida. She succeeds John King Jr., who stepped down at the end of 2014 for a post in President Barack Obama’s administration. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Carol Burris is a veteran educator who was just named executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education’s foundation. She recently took early retirement after 15 years as principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York. She 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. Burris has also written several books, numerous articles and many posts on this blog about the seriously botched implementation of school reform in her state — including the Common Core standards and the implementation of high-stakes Core-aligned exams — and about the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests.

Here is a new post by Burris about a meeting she and other public education activists just had with MaryEllen Elia, New York’s new education commission, and school reform in the state.

By Carol Burris

MaryEllen Elia, the new education commissioner of New York, is on a listening tour. She is charged with repackaging the New York Regents Reform message and delivering it with more finesse than her predecessor, John King.

Earlier this week, fellow members of the New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) and I had the opportunity to meet with Ms. Elia. Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch arranged the meeting and was also a participant in our discussion.

Ms. Elia was friendly and generous with her time. Her interest in the issues we raised appeared to be both genuine and sincere. She politely listened to every speaker. We appreciated being a stop of the tour.

Even as Elia listens, she speaks. There are patterns and sound bites that appear in newspaper accounts of her visits. She carefully sidesteps questions. Stock lines are repeated—“I think of myself as a teacher,” “Opt outs are not good for teachers and parents,” and “I am totally in favor of accountability” are a few. During our NYSAPE meeting, she focused on the change of standardized tests for students in the state, from vendors Pearson to Questar, and how exams will move from paper and pencil to computer. But discontent runs far deeper than the technicalities of the test.

Although her appointment was intended to signal change, how much real change should parents and teachers expect? As NYSAPE reported, “our meeting confirmed what many have already surmised, Commissioner Elia is deeply committed to the Common Core standards and the test-based accountability system that has led to the widespread opt-out movement.”

The Common Core

Elia has made it clear time and again that she is an avid fan of the Common Core and that New York teachers need support for implementation. Teachers also need time, in her words, to “shift to that pedagogy”. She describes the Common Core as teaching practices aligned with cooperative learning and constructivism–strategies that have been around for decades. Few if any educators would disagree with Ms. Elia’s opinion regarding good instructional practice. But the devil, alas, is in the details of the standards themselves, and it is discussing those details that Ms. Elia avoids.

Will Ms. Elia give teachers the time she says they need by stopping Common Core test-based evaluations? That is doubtful if not impossible. And she has yet to address how to give “time” to students who were abruptly told to jump into the deep end of the pool by her boss, Merryl Tisch.

Commissioner Elia will lead a review of the standards, as demanded by the legislature. She recently stated that the review must ensure that the standards are developmentally appropriate. Yet there is no evidence that she has ever doubted that they were. Her consistent, vocal and public support of the Common Core predicts that the most likely outcome will be little or no change. New York can expect what happened in Florida—some tiny tweaks and a new name.


The New York commissioner makes it clear that she believes in accountability testing. She is proud that her former state was a pioneer in using test scores to evaluate teachers. She is also in favor of online testing because of the quick turnaround of results. Although Pearson will produce next year’s Grades 3-8 paper and pencil Common Core tests, the Questar tests will be online.

Elia also attempts to reassure New Yorkers that the new Questar tests will be better because “teachers will be involved in every step of the process.” But that is not a sea change–teachers allegedly vetted every question on the former Pearson tests. In addition, we cannot examine the quality of Questar tests because the company has never produced Grades 3-8 Common Core accountability tests for any state. They now have contracts with two states–New York and Mississippi. Once again, teachers and students will have a lovely jump into the deep end of a different pool.

The issues with the New York Common Core tests are far deeper than vendor or test delivery issues. Although it is easy to blame Pearson for all of the problems with the tests, the New York State Education Department deserves much of the blame. When the New York cut scores were set, they were aligned to a 1630 on the SAT and proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—both of which are unrealistic bars for state accountability tests.

As Diane Ravitch, who served on NAEP’s governing board, often reminds us, while proficiency on state accountability tests are supposed to represent grade level learning, NAEP proficiency, which was set at an aspirational (translate wishful thinking) level, was never intended to represent grade level learning. At our meeting she explained to Ms. Elia that proficiency at the NAEP level would never be achievable for most of the students of New York—that was not how the NAEP proficiency bar was set. Teacher involvement, absent dramatic changes in the standard setting process, will lead to the same student frustrations and the same misleading results.

Teacher evaluations

As superintendent of Hillsborough, Florida schools, Mary Ellen Elia was a pioneer in evaluating teachers by test scores. On her listening tour she focuses on one aspect of her Gates-funded initiative – peer review, which is teachers observing other teachers as part of the evaluation process.

She doesn’t talk about the other parts of the Hillsborough evaluation system, which based 40 percent of evaluations on student tests scores, and used test scores to make decisions about tenure, merit pay and career paths. Nor does she speak of the bonuses that educators got for raising scores. By the time she left, opposition to the system had grown, and the union president, who was an early supporter of the plan said the evaluation system was demeaning and unfair.

In addition, the Hillsborough evaluation system, funded in part by a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant, proved to be far more costly than expected. The Tampa Bay Times recently reported that during the last four years of her tenure the district went on a “spending jag” using more than half of all of its over $300 million in reserves in order to pay costs such as $11.3 million for teacher peer evaluators, $6.1 million to teacher mentors and other cost overruns expected to reach a total of $50 million.

Clearly, New York districts, struggling under a tax cap, do not have the resources to spend on such a costly evaluation program.

Finally, Ms. Elia must contend with the implementation of New York’s highly unpopular evaluation system that now bases 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on test scores, with a VAM component that is demonstrating erratic and illogical results.

Back in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” McLuhan argued that the medium that delivers any message is of equal, if not greater, importance than its content.   Clearly the Board of Regents believes that by pivoting from the stiff and professorial King to the attentive and engaging Elia, parents and teachers will come to their senses and begin to like the Common Core and its tests.

That outcome is highly doubtful. New York parents well understand the Common Core, its tests and its associated reforms. Sometimes “the message is the message”—and it can’t be reinvented with a listening tour no matter how much the medium improves.