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MaryEllen Elia in October 2014.

MaryEllen Elia in October 2014.

Incoming commissioner Elia talks evals, promises to listen to opt-out concerns

Incoming state education commissioner MaryEllen Elia said Tuesday that she favors giving school districts more time to make changes to their teacher evaluation systems, but skirted questions about other hot-button issues.

Speaking on the Capitol Pressroom radio show, Elia deflected questions about her specific views on the state’s teacher-evaluation system, the charter-school cap, and an education tax credit being pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, saying she is still learning about New York policies as she prepares to take over the education department on July 6. What she did say is that she is ready to listen to concerns from across the state and committed to holding teachers and schools accountable for student success.

Asked about the New York’s growing number of parents opting their students out of the state tests, Elia cited her experience in Hillsborough County, the large Florida district she oversaw for most of the last decade. Town hall meetings there helped explain the changes to parents and keep opt-outs low, she said. (Florida first changed learning standards in 2010, and has also said that students cannot legally opt out of state tests, though some parents have reportedly told their children to not answer any test questions this year.)

But what about New York, host Susan Arbetter asked, where state officials’ town halls did little to quell the movement’s growth?

“I certainly think every sitatution has got its own environment, and we have to work with that,” Elia said. “But I think when you communicate and you hear what people are concerned about, you can respond to that.”

When Elia takes over, she will also face school districts skeptical about another round of changes to the state’s teacher evaluation system. State education officials are still finalizing the regulations in response to the law passed with the state budget requiring districts to implement a new system by November if they don’t qualify for a “hardship” extension, though some lawmakers have been calling for those deadlines to be extended for all districts.

Elia emphasized that, in her own view, state tests should not be the only metric used to rate teachers and principals, citing the peer evaluation system that she called “extremely powerful” in Hillsborough County.

“I think there’s a place for quality teachers to go in and give feedback to their colleagues and their peers,” she said. Exactly how much test scores should account for depends on the rest of the rubric, she said, adding that she did not yet fully understand New York’s method for calculating teachers’ value-added scores.

If the law is changed to extend those deadlines, Arbetter asked, should districts get more time to make those changes?

“I would say they should, yeah,” Elia said.

The incoming commissioner also reiterated her support for charter schools — noting that Hillsborough County had 45 — if they are shown to be improving student performance.

“I am totally in favor of accountability,” she said.