Share this article

print logo

MaryEllen Elia plans to push school reforms despite teacher opposition

MaryEllen Elia, the state education commissioner, isn’t backing down on her insistence on education reforms including high standards and accountability.

And neither is Karen Magee, president of New York State United Teachers. She won her office on a promise to fight the education reforms coming out of Albany, like Elia’s.

Their commitment to these opposing views was evident during a panel discussion that has been airing on the state’s public television network as part of the Connect:NY series, which is focusing on the state’s top education issues. The show is also available online.

The discussion marks the two education leaders’ most extensive remarks following the state Board of Regents’ decision in mid-December to delay using standardized tests to evaluate teachers, and foreshadows what will likely be a continued debate about how – and whether – to reform New York’s school systems.

Whether the state takes a route somewhere in the middle of Elia’s and Magee’s drastically different views, or whether one view prevails, will become apparent in the coming months as the Legislature and policymakers grapple with these issues in Albany.

That means the decision on what New York’s new accountability system might look like doesn’t fall to Elia alone.

The continued battle over the Common Core will play out in a political environment where NYSUT continues to exercise significant influence. In recent years, the union has funneled millions of dollars into political campaigns to elect lawmakers most likely to support its agenda. Along with passing education law, those legislators also appoint members to the state Board of Regents, which drives policy decisions and hires the commissioner.

Last year, NYSUT’s growing influence in that process resulted in the ouster of former Regent Robert M. Bennett of Tonawanda, who was a strong supporter of high standards and school accountability.

Three other Regents’ terms are ending in 2016, and already two reform-oriented members – including Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who brought Elia to the job – have indicated they will not seek reappointment.

Whether Elia can advance a reform agenda is a major question going into the new year.

Although the governor and Board of Regents embraced the recommendation to delay using test scores to evaluate teachers until 2020, it is unclear whether that will require action by the State Legislature, which last year approved a law mandating that scores account for 50 percent of a teacher’s rating. Elia has said she believes the Board of Regents action will be sufficient.

Meanwhile, Elia cautions not to take the delay as any indication that she plans to abandon the Common Core standards. Rather, the commissioner acknowledges problems with how the standards were rolled out and said stakeholders need to have a conversation about what the standards mean for districts. Proponents of the standards have argued that there is a great deal of misinformation and confusion surrounding Common Core, largely because it was rolled out at the same time as new tests and a push for teacher evaluations.

New federal legislation still requires states to have standards and accompanying tests, although prior programs that encouraged states to embrace the Common Core standards no longer exist.

“I’m here as commissioner saying we’re going to do it,” Elia said.

“The tests are still in there, as is an accountability system,” she added. “The new law is putting it more in the states’ hands.”

Along with the statewide reforms, Elia remains intent on maintaining a new receivership law that allows a superintendent to make changes at certain schools without the approval of the school board and that circumvent the union contract.

Buffalo is the only district in which Elia has granted the superintendent power to make changes outside of the union contract, and Magee said the union still plans to challenge the law in court.

The recent policy changes, however, could affect how the receivership law is implemented.

The recommendation to delay using the tests to evaluate teachers, based on the argument that the tests are not reliable, raises the question of how they can reliably be used to assess a school. Currently, the state standardized test is a primary factor in determining which schools are struggling so much that they can be put in the hands of a receiver.

“You can’t use a test that’s not reliable for any purpose,” Magee said in an interview after the panel.

Elia, however, notes that there are a variety of other evaluation measures, and that the new federal law allows a state to determine how it identifies its lowest performing schools. That could include factors such as attendance or graduation rates, not just test scores.

“The schools that we’re talking about certainly have been in dire straits for a long time,” she said. “I don’t think we can say this is all related to one assessment. In Buffalo, we can’t go another generation with these schools failing.”

Still, that’s cold comfort to teachers and school leaders who have to begin making changes, even as the criteria is changing around them. Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash has proposed extending the school day and year, requiring additional teacher training and possible staff changes at the receivership schools.

Will Keresztes, chief of intergovernmental affairs, planning and community engagement for the district, acknowledged that it’s possible the schools now targeted for an outside takeover won’t be on the list once the state comes up with a new rubric.

“We’re looking to make changes that are good things to do anyway, and will benefit all of the schools in the district,” he said. “Large urban districts can thrive in an accountability environment.”