New York State Selects a Controversial Commissioner: Let’s Give Her (That’s Right – Her) A Chance!!

The New York State Board of Regents selected Mary Ellen Elia, the recently fired superintendent of the Hillsborough Country Florida School District (Tampa), the New York State Commissioner of Education.

Elia, who began her career as a Social Studies teacher Buffalo in 1970 has been the superintendent in Hillsborough since 2005, and, has been acclaimed nationally.

Jay Mathews, in the Washington Post, is appalled by her dismissal, and called it “senseless and catastrophic,” and continued,

Since her appointment in 2005, she has built a national reputation as a warm, smart leader who has produced some of the most academically challenging schools in the country and has found ways to raise achievement even for low-income children. She is highly praised as a manager, even though she had never served before as a superintendent and — unlike any other leader of a big district I know — had previously spent 19 years as a classroom and reading teacher.

With union leaders, she worked out a teacher compensation plan that allowed exceptional new hires to climb the salary ladder fast. Teachers union president Jean Clements called it “reliable, valid, fair and easy to understand.”

Her opponents called her dictatorial and oblivious to the needs of parents, and, some teachers were happy to see her leave.

As soon as her appointment as NYS Commissioner was announced the twittersphere and the blognet were abuzz – Bill Gates whispered into Merryl Tisch’s ear, she snapped her fingers and the other sixteen Regents fell in line.

The special meeting of the Regents was a four-hour marathon, with a two hour interview of Elia. The new Board of Regents includes six former superintendents, four newly elected members, two of whom bumped the two most senior members. The current Regents are fiercely independent. The Regents dueled with acting commissioner Wagner, no shrinking violets! No one will controls the current Board.

Let’s be honest – Mary Ellen Elia brings baggage.

Hillsborough, her school district is the eighth largest school district in the nation – over 200,000 students and 25,000 staffers. In 2008 she received the largest Gates Foundation grant – 104 million dollars – to implement the Empowering Excellent Teachers project. The grant application required negotiating with the union; most of the dollars went to increasing teacher salaries, and required: a teacher evaluation system which included 40% use of student growth scores, and principal and peer assessments, a pay-for-performance plan (See on pages 91-92 of Teacher Contract here and a salary fast-track for younger teachers, Read about the grant from the union perspective here and a union “myth-busting” article here)

The new Commish immediately visited a local school, spoke with the media and met with legislative leaders – see interview here: And, attempted to “roll back the past,”

[Elia] indicated that she thought less of the decision to simultaneously align New York’s standardized tests to the Common Core standards and start evaluating teachers using test results, though.
“Some of this across the nation, in specific places, was done very quickly without the implementation explained and without enough time,” Elia said. “I would suggest that sometimes in haste we haven’t taken the time for people to understand and to become part of the change that needs to occur.”

Commissioner Elia should be judged by her actions.

Some suggestions:

* Get Out of Albany: Attend as many teacher meetings as possible and engage in a TV interview with NYSUT president Karen Magee, attend the UFT Delegate Meeting, meetings with Opt Out parents, become a social media presence.

* Get Teacher Evaluation Resolved: The battle over the Governor-imposed teacher evaluation plan is “eating up all the air,” start the plan with lower growth scores metrics, agree that the plan will be driven by research-based data, review the metrics annually, and alleviate the fear and suspicion among teachers.

* Review the Common Core: Educators from across the nation and the state are critical of elements of the Common Core, especially the earlier grade standards. Establish a task force: scholars, teachers and parents, to review CCLS and recommend, if necessary, changes.

* Let’s Move Beyond the Testing Morass: The current Common Core aligned Pearson test have no credibility. Students have low test score grades because former commissioner King decided to structure the system to produce lower grades – a decision that led to his demise as commissioner. Are there better tests? Can we begin to explore adaptive testing? Is the use of portfolios for specific categories of student feasible? And, yes, we should totally reject the PARCC consortium.

* English Language Learners: The number of ELL students entering New York State schools has increased dramatically, and, the State responded by adding compliance regs. Increasing the minutes of required instruction or the number of bilingual teachers, neither action is the answer. Schools districts will look for loopholes, very little will change. What is the State doing to impact instruction of ELL’s in classrooms? A politically explosive arena: do school districts cut Advanced Placement classes to add bilingual classes? Why are some schools with high percentages of ELL’s doing so much better than others?

^ The Teacher Education Troubles: All college teacher education programs must be approved by the State, and, there are hundreds of programs. Nation-wide students in teacher education program come from the bottom half of college applicants. How can we attract better candidates? How can we retain teachers in the profession? Should we hold teacher education programs accountable for the success of their students? And, if so, how?
Are the current tests: edTPA. ALAST, EAS and Content exams, which cost the students about $1,000, a reliable predictor of success? Are the exams themselves valid?

* The Elephant in the Room: The high poverty, low achieving schools and school districts. Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and, probably another hundred of so cities across the nation share high levels of poverty and low student academic achievement. New York State has stumbled badly, the $700 million in Race to the Top dollars are gone, and, what do we have to show? Staining schools with brands of failure, “out of time,” “priority” or whatever stain is meaningless, inner city charter schools struggle mightily, and, the governor’s “receivership” legislation is re-packaging of failed ideas. Can the state actually adopt policies that actually improve teaching and learning in our poorest schools?

* The Charter School Kerfuffle: State Ed just denied the application of a host of charter schools; they didn’t come up to standards. (why now?), SED has routinely extended charters of low-achieving charter schools. Charter schools commonly accept fewer students with disabilities, English language learners and dump out low achievers and discipline problems. There are at least 2500 empty seats in New York City charter schools. The issue is called “back-fill,” kids are dumped and not replaced to inflate data. The large Charter Management Organizations actively seek philanthropy; the many, many “mom and pop” charter schools struggle to meet payrolls. Will Elia hold charters to higher standards? Will she close down failed charter schools?

For decades commissioners were drawn from the ranks of superintendents across the state. When Regent Tisch became chancellor the Board chose David Steiner, who was not a K-12 educator, he was the dean of a college of education; John King had lots of degrees and little experience, and, now, a very high profile choice from Florida. Aren’t there an qualified suprintendents in New York State?

Understand: teachers, principals and superintendents don’t work for the commissioner; they work for elected school boards. While the commissioner and the Board set policy, they do not have the ability to actually intervene locally. In East Ramapo the school board was captured by the religious school leaders, and, they directed funds to the religious schools, they actively closed public schools and sold the buildings to religious schools, interpreted the rules to drive special education dollars to religious schools, laid off public school staffs and dramatically raised class size. The State Ed lawyer: to the commish: you have no authority to intervene.

Constitutionally the Board of Regents sets policy and the commissioner carried out the policies for the last few years; recently the governor has set the policy, and for the King years the commissioner successfully bypassed most of the Board members.

We are entering a new era with a new commissioner, a simple message: give the lady a chance.

New York State is a far cry from Florida.

How about Chancellor Tisch arrange for John Merrow to interview Commissioner Elia, Diane Ravitch and AFT President Randi Weingarten, maybe at JCC Manhattan, and, invite the Opt-Out organizations, the School-to -Prison Pipeline folks and the Immigrant Coalition to pose questions, and, arrange for CSPAN to telecast.

Mary Ellen Elia decided to jump out of the Florida frying pan into the New York State fire – let’s both give her a chance and hold her feet to the fire.


6 responses to “New York State Selects a Controversial Commissioner: Let’s Give Her (That’s Right – Her) A Chance!!

  1. Marc Korashan

    There is much good advice here and I can only hope the new Commissioner takes notice. Dialogue is the key and it has to be a real dialogue with teachers, union leaders, parent groups, and others with a stake in the school system. It can’t be a dialogue with the supporters of the Governor and the hedge fund managers who are trying to co-opt public schools into a corporate model. We should certainly give her a chance, but the this is New York and things move fast. I truly
    hope she can establish herself and begin the dialogue quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ken karcinell

    Sounds like she should have gotten the Chancellors job for NYC. State Commissioners are or have been notoriously disconnected from NYStae’s urban centers..NYC..Buff..Rochester..etc. So I dont really see anything to look forward to with her ascension, or anything to worry about either. If shes a Common Corps advocate, then what has changed?


  3. Zina burton myrick

    If there is no dialogue with the entire school community and charter schools are not held to the same standards as traditional public schools or the huge elephant if low achieving, transient students, ELL population, poverty stricken communities addressed, we will ALL just continue to chase our tails. Yeah.
    Let’s see…


  4. brianpreston276248692

    This makes a lot of sense. I like almost every suggestion. However, I support the Common Core and I’ve no problem with her supporting it as well. Separate Common Core from the Pearson testing fiasco, however, and listen to parents in the Opt Out movement who understand what abusive testing (solely for teacher evaluation purposes, not for improving instruction in the classroom) is doing to education of the whole child. If she will listen to the field and represent educational leaders rather than political leaders (Stay Independent from Cuomo!!) she has a chance to be credible.

    Sadly, King was not a credible Commissioner from the start, and a lackey of Tisch. Not sure for whom she is a lackey–her own hedge fund/investor friends? Neither are educational leaders and neither should be in the positions they hold.


    • Great comment overall, but anything rushed into creation and implementation without proper research or care has to be assessed for damage and fixed and/or fully revised, and vast support material still needs to be created.


      • brianpreston276248692

        I agree it was rushed. It should also have been field-tested before being rushed into classrooms and tested. But those who believe testing are the key to school improvement are driving this movement, and Common Core is a blunt instrument in their drive to privatize education. There are a few very good studies demonstrating how weak the curricular materials are, and how often old materials are simply mapped to Common Core without being revised to reflect the shifts CC attempts to promote. These are separate issues from the potential positive changes I believe CCSS can produce if we give them time to appropriate evolve in the field.


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