If anyone doubted that MaryEllen Elia was the right person at the right time to take on the task of ensuring that New York students are offered a high-quality education, she dispelled those misapprehensions last week in her visit to Western New York. The state’s still-new education commissioner was focused, passionate and engaged.
She will need to call on all of those qualities in her uphill fight to encourage parents skeptical of the state assessments to allow their children to take part in the current round of testing.
In the face of widespread opt-outs, she shows that she understands both the need and the action required. She was direct in her appeal to parents, noting that the state had taken steps to allay many of their concerns – shortening the test, giving students more time to complete it, bringing teachers into the work of shaping it. Further efforts are pending, she said.
Parents of good will – those who want the best for their children and who understand that what is good for students may diverge from the goals of the teachers unions – will have to take notice and respond.
Speaking to The Buffalo News editorial board, Elia even offered reassurance that she and the new chancellor of the Board of Regents shared the goal of getting more children to take the tests. She believes Betty A. Rosa was misunderstood when she told reporters on the day her fellow Regents elected her that “If I was a parent, and I was not on the Board of Regents, I would opt out at this time, yes.”
Elia’s predecessor, John B. King Jr. – now the U.S. secretary of education – did much to change the dialog in New York with his relentless focus on quality and standards. He was instrumental in shining a light on the dysfunction and incompetence of both the Buffalo School Board and the district’s top administrators, but Elia is the right person today. The rollout of the Common Core Learning Standards and their abrupt linkage to teacher evaluations was troubled. Repairing the damage caused by that required a different style of leadership. Elia is providing that.
Crucially, she remains committed to the high standards that New York students will require to compete for jobs in an ever-shrinking and increasingly demanding world. And, as she correctly observed, testing of students and evaluation of teachers are necessary components of hitting high standards. How else are administrators to know which students, teachers, schools and districts are doing well and which need help? How else can those who struggle identify those who succeed and adopt their approaches?
Elia also remained committed to the receivership program that gives authority over persistently struggling schools to a receiver – in Buffalo’s case, Superintendent Kriner Cash – who has authority to impose changes that can supersede contractual issues. Predictably, and not inappropriately, that law is being litigated, but it is reassuring that Elia understands the urgent need to save Buffalo’s students from additional years of abuse at the hands of adults who are too invested in their own battles and not enough in the children’s. That includes School Board members and the leadership of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
The big question now is if someone of Elia’s passion and focus can survive in a changing educational environment. The New York State United Teachers union has maneuvered to change the dynamic on the Board of Regents, calling into question its commitment to the high standards needed to ensure that New York students have the best possible chance of living the kind of satisfying, productive lives that a challenging curriculum helps to produce.
If not, then New York taxpayers need a refund.