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MaryEllen Elia's exit is a reason to worry

Spirit of reform has been weakened.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at a meeting

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at a meeting of the state Board of Regents in Albany on Dec. 10, 2018. Photo Credit: Hans Pennink

In August 2010, New York was awarded a $700 million federal “Race to the Top” grant to radically reform its education system. It kept the money, but it failed to finish the course.

New York stopped competing when state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia handed in her resignation after four years, effective Aug. 31. But New York needs to get back on track to improve K-12 education and deliver more value for the bills taxpayers pour into it.

The federal effort to jump-start reform by dangling cash in front of states launched almost a decade ago centered on two core issues: adopting rigorous national Common Core learning standards and curricula that matched what students need to know to be college- and career-ready upon graduation. And most radically, tying teacher performance evaluations to how their students scored on state tests based on those standards.

Blowback to Common Core

As she leaves, Elia can take solace in huge progress on the standards and curricula. Both initiatives were rolled out by her predecessor too quickly, with too little support for teachers and hardly any explanation for parents. Those missteps were partially to blame for the blowback against Common Core, which spawned its own political party and took center stage in several state elections.

Elia smoothed a lot of feathers. She reset the process and re-examined the bench marks, with input from teachers and the public. The result was some small improvements in the standards coupled with a lot more support for the districts and teachers creating and adapting to new curricula, a rebranding of Common Core as Next Generation Learning Standards and a growing acceptance of the changes bred by Elia’s more cooperative approach.

But the lasting fallout of the Common Core fracas was a revolt against the quality of the tests themselves, and the accompanying teacher evaluation system. Educators argued the system would force them to teach to the tests, infuriating parents, and that the tests themselves were poorly constructed and ineffective. And the state’s teachers unions nixed that evaluation system.

Up to the Regents

The state still has not approved teacher evaluation standards to replace the ones the teachers’ unions and the State Legislature killed, and objections to standardized testing have only grown.

Even with all of Elia’s significant efforts to move the ball on these issues, it proved impossible, and it’s a safe bet that she’ll be replaced by a leader with far less inclination to try. Elia’s hiring in 2015 was an attempt by Chancellor Merryl Tisch to solve these quandaries and keep reform alive. But Tisch was replaced soon after by Betty Rosa, a longtime New York City educator closely tied to United Federation of Teachers’ reactionary positions on reform and accountability.

The goals of Race to the Top were the right ones, meant to engender a superior force of teachers imparting the skills and knowledge needed to succeed to all kids, regardless of their color, ethnicity, wealth or geography. That mostly has not happened, yet it must.

So now it’s up to the Regents and the unions to lay out a new path to make it happen, having thwarted the last one.     


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