As the last teachers and students head back to school this week, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia faces some of the first major tests of her administration.
In the coming months, Elia will have to make tough decisions about teacher evaluations, the Common Core Learning Standards and state standardized tests – all lightning rods of opposition for her predecessor. In addition, she will have the final say on plans for 25 Buffalo schools at risk for an outside takeover if they do not improve, and those proposals could include controversial changes.
With that in mind, Elia heads into the school year on the offensive, making an appeal to the state’s rank-and-file teachers for ideas and support.
“I’ve always been very involved with teachers and the things that happen in the classroom,” she said during a visit to Sweet Home High School in Amherst on Wednesday. “The parents, the teachers need to be very involved in how we improve education in New York.”
It was fitting that she kicked off the school year touring schools in Western New York, both her home region and a place that has become a key battleground in education. A growing opt-out movement in the suburbs coupled with one of the state’s most struggling urban districts make the area ground zero for many of the reforms Elia is now shepherding.
During visits to Buffalo, the Sweet Home district and Niagara Falls, Elia reiterated her call for high standards and more rigorous coursework to better prepare students for college and the workforce.
She leaned on her decades of experience working in schools in New York and Florida in her appeal to teachers, showing an understanding of and appreciation for the work they do in their classrooms.
At another Sweet Home district school, Glendale Elementary in the Town of Tonawanda, she commended staff – and in particular a fifth-grade math teacher – for work in improving student performance on the state assessments.
“Thank you so much,” she told the group. “Thank you all for your work.”
Then, saying she did not want to keep them from planning for the arrival of students, she headed outside to greet children as they filed off the bus and into the building.
“It’s a flashback to when I was teaching,” she said.
Elia later faced skeptical faces in meetings with teachers and parents at Sweet Home High, fielding many of the usual questions about evaluations, standardized tests and training for educators.
She promised to review the standards, look for areas to improve on and offer teachers support to implement them in their classrooms.
But she also held firm to the message she has delivered since taking over as commissioner – she will not back down in her push for higher standards.
“I don’t think teachers go into teaching to have anything other than success for kids,” she said. “The reality is a third of our kids walk out of our high schools and into the SUNY system and they’re already behind.”
Whether the outreach effort pays off as Elia begins making decisions is yet to be seen, and some of the questions she fielded at Sweet Home foreshadow criticism yet to come.
“I’m just saying in smaller districts, you are forcing hands,” said Nadine Ocasio, a Sweet Home parent who teaches in West Seneca, talking about how test preparation sometimes cuts time for other subjects.
Despite such sentiments, even some likely political foes say they remain hopeful that the new commissioner is genuine.
“It was the first time since I’ve been president that a commissioner has come and sat down with the president of the BTF and teachers to hear their concerns,” said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore, who has held the position for three decades. “We’ll see what happens. But at least she’s doing it. At least she’s out there listening.”
At the same time, Rumore has said it is likely he will file a legal challenge against the state’s receivership law, which allows the new superintendent – Kriner Cash, whom Elia recommended, to make drastic changes that circumvent the authority of the School Board and the union contract.
And if history is any indication, union leaders such as Rumore and officials with New York State United Teachers are likely to lobby against new teacher-evaluation plans, which are due to the state in November.
Meanwhile, the state will be revamping its testing program for the 2016-17 school year, and Elia has emphasized that teachers will be involved developing questions.
“I think she has a lot of positive things to say,” said Sarah English, a chemistry teacher at Sweet Home High. “It’s nice she’s willing to collaborate with teachers in the area. In the end, at least we’re having a conversation. Will we have an actual impact remains to be seen.”