The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New York is in for a sea change in education policy. Here’s what and why.

Betty Rosa, seated, is applauded after bing elected chancellor of the New York Board of Regents during a meeting on Monday, March 21, 2016, in Albany, N.Y. Rosa, a former superintendent from the Bronx, replaces Merryl Tisch, who’s stepping down from the board after 20 years, the last seven as its leader. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Something big has happened in New York, something potentially huge. A new education chancellor was named, and, on April 1, a new direction for public schools could start to be forged. In this post, Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal who is now executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education, introduces you to the new chancellor and analyzes the legacy of the one who is soon departing. Burris was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. She has been chronicling botched school reform efforts in her state for years on this blog, and this is her newest piece.

By Carol Burris

They say that all good things must come to an end.   Odd as it may seem, that expression has always given me hope.  For if all good things must end, then certainly the reverse is true, and bad things cannot last forever as well.

Yesterday was a hopeful day in New York. The woman who led years of misguided school reform, Merryl Tisch, steps down and a woman with a different vision, Betty Rosa, will step up as education chancellor of New York State on April 1.

Tisch was an accidental tourist of extraordinary wealth who wandered into a cause—the reform of public schools.  Her long-time acquaintance, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, put her in her position and kept her in power.  When Silver was indicted (and later convicted) of fraud, extortion and money laundering, few expected that Tisch had a chance of reappointment.  She announced her decision to step down a month before his inevitable conviction.

At home in New York’s billionaire corporate reformer crowd, Tisch refused to see the evidence that her policies were failing.  By the fall of 2015, there was no one left who would ask her to stay.

Since 2009, Chancellor Tisch stood squarely at the helm of the State Education Department, far more involved than her predecessors had been.  She prided herself in being a “24/7 Chancellor” –- as though such micromanagement of the State Education Department was wise.  She rejected the traditional role of the chancellor as the leader of a Board of Regents that makes policy, and insisted on being in charge. The more she dug in and got in front of the press, the more failing policies were associated with her name.

In the midst of the rollout of Common Core testing, she defended the decision to have students in Grades 3-8  take the new tests before the standards were fully in place by saying,  “We jump into the deep end.”  Tisch never apparently understood the recklessness of that statement, and how it affected parents whose children were taking the tests. She refused to put teacher and school ratings on hold as the Common Core was rolled out, insisting that “we cannot have the implementation of Common Core that is isolated from an accountability system.”  Tisch could not imagine progress not driven by punishment and fear.

But perhaps her greatest mistake was her insistence that the Common Core tests were based on reasonable standards so that test scores would rise.   After the first year of dismal results, she compared herself to Babe Ruth and then promised test scores would go up.  In Year 2, there were flat English Language Arts scores and a tiny tick up in math. Year 3 was once again a bust—and so was the promise she made.

Despite the lack of evidence of improvement, she refused to change course. When parents and educators objections grew louder, Tisch turned a deaf ear. Those who did not agree were dismissed as being against high standards.  During lunch with a colleague of mine, she asked him to tell me to “just calm down.”  He was quite amused and told her that was not likely to occur—neither his asking, nor my compliance.  But that was how Tisch dealt with opposition.  She regularly told those with whom she disagreed to “calm down” or  “tone it down,” because our voices were a distraction from her reform.  We knew the code—it was the upper East Side way of saying “sit down and shut up.”

Among those who refused to sit down and be quiet was the new chancellor, Betty Rosa.  Rosa, a smart, independent and tough former superintendent from the Bronx had no problem standing up to Tisch, both in private and in public.  At the beginning of Tisch’s term, Rosa called Tisch to tell her that the 2009 scores on the 3-8 tests were so inflated that they were invalid and should not be released.  Tisch released them anyway.  Her neighbor, then New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was in the midst of convincing the public that he should have a third term, took credit for those inflated scores calling them “nothing short of amazing.” After the election, the problem was addressed.

Rosa was one of three Regents who voted against the teacher evaluation system known as APPR.  In 2011 she met with principals and actively listened to our concerns.  As a former administrator, she understood why the practice was bad for kids, and never waivered in her opposition, referring to the inclusion of scores as “poison.”

In 2013, she publicly spoke out against the Common Core, accusing the State Education Department of manipulating data and ignoring successful schools in order to create a myth of massive failure to support their reforms.  And last year she led a group of seven Regents (all women and nearly all career educators), in opposition to Cuomo’s revision of teacher evaluations.   The seven created a position paper of dissent regarding the Governor’s law that increased the proportion of test scores in teacher evaluations, and six of the seven voted against the New York State Education Department’s revisions.

What can New Yorkers expect of Chancellor Rosa?  Although it will take time to unwind the bad policies of the past, this is what I predict will eventually change.

  1. Rosa will lead the Board of Regents to exercise their new freedom under ESSA. She will push for much more than a “name change” in the Common Core standards, and ensure that revisions are deep and real.
  2. There will be more local control, and less state control in teacher evaluations. Test scores will, in time, be removed.
  3. New Yorkers should expect a far greater emphasis on closing the Opportunity Gap. As Rosa said, before being confirmed, “We need to re-conceptualize the work we are doing especially around equity and social justice.”
  4. Tests will become dramatically shorter as high-stakes consequences are removed, and both their content and cut scores will shift toward a rational definition of grade level. Testing will no longer be the sole measure of school quality.
  5. The impossible and inappropriate Common Core test-based graduation standards for the Class of 2022 will not be put into place.
  6. There will be greater consideration and empathy reflected in policy for students with disabilities, students who live in poverty, and English Language Learners.
  7. Parents and rank and file educators will have greater voice. She will move beyond the Albany players. Astroturf groups supported by corporate reformers such as Educators for Excellence and High Achievement New York will have their influence decline.
  8. Student privacy will be guarded when data is collected. The era of “driven by data” will end.
  9. Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia will either dramatically change her positions on the Common Core and the use of test scores in teacher evaluations, or she will leave.
  10. There will be greater oversight and accountability for charter schools in New York State.

I have known and admired Betty Rosa since 2011.  I worked with her on the Schools of Opportunity program last year.  She holds high standards for schools and those who work in them, but also brings a deep understanding of the challenges that schools and students face.  She understands that our public schools are the pillar of our democracy.  She knows there are no “silver bullets” for school improvement. Over time her leadership will bring meaningful change and real solutions for the students of New York State.