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Elia promises to communicate as state ed policy faces new tests

MaryEllen Elia, left, with Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch on Tuesday.
MaryEllen Elia, left, with Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch on Tuesday.
Geoff Decker

A statewide “opt-out” movement is flourishing. A required teacher-evaluation overhaul has district leaders wary. The Board of Regents is newly skeptical of education policy decisions made over the last five years.

MaryEllen Elia, appointed New York state’s new education chief on Tuesday, will soon wade into those issues and others, having been tasked by the Regents with plotting a course forward. In her first interview after the announcement, Elia indicated that she will bring a shift in tone and style while not backing away from the controversial policies implemented by her predecessors — walking a fine line between the old and the new.

“I have, in my experience, always felt like communication is key to any kind of an implementation and any kind of change,” Elia said during a press conference in Albany after the Regents vote. “Listening to people,” she said later, “is extremely important.”

[Read more about Elia’s past and reaction to the announcement.]

The comments signify changes to what is expected of the state’s education leader. Buoyed by the state’s $700 million Race to the Top grant in 2010, the state’s last two education commissioners, David Steiner and John King, were brought in as outsiders with a mandate to quickly push through changes to teacher evaluations, state tests, and learning standards, a pace that helped spark a growing opposition movement.

Elia, on the other hand, was hired because of her decades of experience as a teacher and district administrator, and for possessing a management style well-suited to the moment, officials said.

“When we asked her questions, it was clear to us that she was a listener, and that was something we placed very high on our list of attributes that we want in our next commissioner,” said Vice Chancellor Anthony Bottar, who led the search.

Elia has spent her career working in traditional public schools, beginning as a social studies teacher outside of Buffalo in 1970. She spent 19 years teaching and the last 10 years as superintendent of Hillsborough County, Florida, an unusually lengthy tenure for a leader of one of the country’s largest school districts.

As superintendent, she built a track record of implementing big changes without stirring widespread opposition. Elia received flexibility from Florida’s evaluation law, drawing praise from her district’s teachers union. Funded with a seven-year, $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Hillsborough County introduced a new evaluation system in which 40 percent of a teacher’s rating (compared to 50 percent in the rest of the state) was based on local and state tests and the rest was based on observations from principals and other teachers. Hillsborough has used the grant to pay more than 200 teachers to observe peers or mentor beginner teachers and to award bonuses to top-rated teachers.

“I think most people saw MaryEllen as being very pragmatic and forward-thinking in trying to stay ahead of that curve of things being crammed down our throats by the state,” said Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough County Teachers Association.

There were times when she disagreed with Elia, Clements said, noting that she had regularly fought the district in a bid to get her members more time to plan their lessons. But Elia believed that teachers were “the key to any success we had” in raising student achievement, the union leader said.

That’s not to say Elia wasn’t controversial. Her contract was terminated in January after a 4-3 vote, with some school board members criticizing her leadership style and outreach efforts, and a recent report showed that support for her teacher-evaluation plan had slipped. But the relationship between teachers unions and education leaders has been much more combative in New York.

Last year, King received a “no confidence” vote from the statewide teachers union after union leaders repeatedly called to delay tying test scores to evaluations. Moving forward, Elia will be contending with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who refers to teachers unions as “special interests” and the public education system as a “monopoly.”

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a national coalition of large urban school districts, said Elia’s close relationship with teachers throughout the changes bodes well for her time in New York.

“She brings to New York a lot of skills that people in the state have been looking for,” Casserly said. “I can’t imagine a better fit.”

Elia differs much less from her predecessors when it comes to policy priorities. On Tuesday, she vowed to press forward as New York schools implement the Common Core standards, and said that standardized tests should continue to be used to evaluate schools and teachers.

“I am totally in favor of accountability,” Elia said, nodding to Florida’s reputation as an early adopter of using tests for evaluations. “We were one of the first states that implemented high-stakes tests, and I am favor of having tests that are fair, reliable, and valid.”

Elia said New York’s teacher evaluation system was headed in the right direction, but that a “review” of the policy was needed. Under a law passed in the state budget this year, districts will have to change their evaluation systems to increase the weight of state test scores and require that teachers be observed by independent evaluators.

She 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.”

Elia said Hillsborough had “few opt-outs, if any” after the introduction of tests aligned to the state’s Common Core-like “Florida Standards,” which schools began implementing before she left. Elia said anxieties were eased in meetings with parents the district to explain why the changes would benefit students.

But in a sign that Elia will have a harder time stemming New York’s growing opt-out movement, anti-testing parent groups criticized her selection and vowed to continue theirprotest.

Elia’s appointment was decided after a lengthy final interview with the full Board of Regents on Tuesday. With five members who have joined in just over a year, the 17-member board has appeared increasingly divided in recent months. But Tisch said there was no dissent when it came to the decision.

“We are here today to let everyone know that by unanimous vote of the Board of Regents, we have a new commissioner who’s due to join us starting July 6,” Tisch said at the press conference. “Her name is MaryEllen Elia.”

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