At Board of Regents meeting this January, Betty Rosa sat listening to a proposal that would require students to have a 95 percent attendance rate before appealing a failed state exam.
The idea took her back to her time working in the poorest areas of the Bronx, where 15 years ago she oversaw the borough’s schools as superintendent. Students living in shelters move constantly, she knew, making it hard to imagine them being able to prove such a high attendance rate.
Rosa jumped in. “I think that in many ways we have to examine the conditions, the real conditions, that exist,” she told the board, explaining why they should reconsider that part of the plan.
Rosa is likely to become the chancellor of New York’s Board of Regents later this month, a position from which she will be able to heavily influence the direction of state education policy. And in order to understand Rosa, it’s important to know one of her core beliefs: The most disadvantaged students often don’t benefit from strict systems designed to hold schools accountable for student achievement.
Over the past several years, under outgoing chancellor Merryl Tisch, New York State adopted the rigorous Common Core learning standards and tied a portion of teacher evaluations to state test results, among other sweeping policy changes. Pointing to the many students not reading on grade level or graduating ready for college-level work, leaders (spurred by federal grants) said it was necessary to make systemic changes.
Rosa says they missed the point.
“Do we really think that creating these common standards is this the solution to helping kids get to where they need to get? Or is this a poor excuse for them not having the resources?” Rosa asked. “It isn’t the solution. I’m so passionate about this stuff because, to me, we keep having the wrong conversation.”
The conversation Rosa wants to have is about how many students do not have their basic needs met at home and bring those troubles to school, and how many schools still do not have what they need to fill the gaps. Or she wants to talk about English Language Learners or students with disabilities, who have difficulty conforming to any rigid system imposed by the state.
Those students and schools will always struggle within the system of evaluations, learning standards, and graduation requirements the state has devised, she says, without receiving a lot more help.
Rosa now has to turn those convictions into policy. Endorsed by leaders of the state’s opt-out movement, she says she does not oppose the idea of assessments, but that tests have been overemphasized. Instead of using test scores to evaluate teachers, she wants to place more trust in them.
Instead of making high school diplomas more difficult to obtain, Rosa supports opening up more ways for students to get a high school degree. And instead of focusing on consequences for schools that perform poorly, she wants to give them more resources.
The Board of Regents has already shifted its position on a number of these issues, most notably by voting to remove state tests scores from teacher evaluations until 2019. But choosing Rosa would institutionalize the board’s about-face, and amount to a radical shift away from the philosophy that has recently guided the State Education Department, which has championed the idea that schools serving students in poverty can beat the odds and should be held accountable if they do not improve over time.
“Where are these states that are doing so well [academically]? The truth of the matter is, look at the economics of each of the states,” Rosa said. “I could rank them based on economics and you’ll get the same results.”
In many ways, Rosa’s philosophy is a throwback to ideas that some current and former education leaders say failed students in the past. To Rosa, it’s a matter of applying what she learned living and working in some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.
Her own journey began as a public school student in the Bronx, where she worked to learn English after spending her early childhood in Puerto Rico. The move brought pain and culture shock.
“I went through the whole issue of a different culture, a different language, different family structure,” she said.
She attended a Catholic high school in the Bronx, then City College, and eventually earned her doctorate from Harvard’s graduate school of education. She also worked in several capacities with students with disabilities. As principal of I.S. 218 in Washington Heights, she helped build a community school in partnership with the Children’s Aid Society that provided health services and an extended school day.
Soon she was superintendent of District 8 in the Bronx, which stretches from the relatively wealthier neighborhood of Throgs Neck to some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, like Hunts Point. Local leaders say Rosa became a fierce advocate for the poorest neighborhoods in her district.
“The district that she ran, it was like the good, the bad, and the ugly,” said Stephen Rappaport, who was the principal at the Bronx’s J.H.S. 125 at the time. “And she made it equal.”
Former principals and students speak passionately about Rosa as a mentor. Rappaport said he spoke to her on the phone nearly every day after work. She came to his school to help when there was a fire, he recalled, and found resources to give schools with many students in temporary housing.
As a new principal, Janet-Ann Sanderson of P.S. 146 went to Rosa when she was trying to address behavioral problems with her South Bronx students. Rosa found the money to help her reduce class sizes, Sanderson said, and to provide computers to some of the poorest families.
Another principal, Luis Torres, who is now leads P.S. 55, remembers watching the faces of families light up when they received their first computers. It was like “a dream come true for some families,” he said.
Rosa might have been supportive, but no one considered her a pushover. When touring schools or later speaking up in Regents meetings, Rosa has never been quiet.
“When she would come into the building, you knew it and you were ready,” Torres said.
Those who saw her work during that time said the key aspects of Rosa’s leadership have not changed: She is a force, but her actions are inspired directly by the desire to help the students in her district. These qualities led former city schools Chancellor Harold Levy to appoint her as the senior superintendent for the entire Bronx.
“When she makes up her mind she sticks with it, but she’s somebody who’s heavily grounded in the community,” Levy said. “And that’s just what the doctor ordered.”
Rosa now faces a new question: How do you take the stories of individual students and scale them into statewide policy?
The Board of Regents does not control the state education budget. The board has influence over the process, since they present a funding request to the legislature, but their primary objective is to set policy.
For the past few years, Rosa has been fighting policy changes pushed by her fellow Regents. She criticized the Common Core in 2013, and was part of a group of seven Regents who signed a position paper last June opposing the state’s teacher evaluation law.
“Do I believe that the purpose, the agenda, is to create a sense of urgency around failure? Yes,” she said, according to a 2013 article in the Albany Times Union.
Many of those criticisms are now shared by others on the board. And as its leader, she will have to shift from criticizing policies to finding replacements. Soon, the Regents will decide how to revamp the Common Core learning standards and how to create a new teacher evaluation system. They will also have to determine what changes, if any, to make to high school graduation requirements.
In 2012, the Board of Regents upped the passing grade on Regents exams from 55 to 65. Since then, Rosa and other Regents have been looking into whether there should be more than one way to earn a diploma, like passing project-based assessment or allowing leeway for students who barely failed.
Regents are already discussing whether they can use performance-based assessments to evaluate students or test students throughout the year. They could also start experimenting with measures of school climate when they design school accountability systems, since the new education law requires states to include a non-testing metric.
As superintendent of District 8, Rosa used relationships, not test scores, to evaluate her schools, said Rudy Crew, the former city schools chancellor.
“It all came down to what is the relationship with the child, between the child and his or her teacher,” said Crew about Rosa’s theory of school evaluations. “I don’t think she’s ever going to be a person who does not believe in accountability, but I think the measures of it will be different with Betty. I think that she has a more eclectic mind of what constitutes the performance of a child.”
To many, that philosophy is a welcome change. Others worry that the work of the past few years is being undone too quickly.
When Tisch announced her resignation, she gave a stern warning to the board not to back away from standards, assessments and teacher evaluations.
“We cannot back away from standards,” Tisch said. “We cannot back away from assessments that give us an accurate measure of student performance and that informs instruction and curriculum.”
Rosa says that she has no desire to lower academic standards, but says standards can look different for students at different times. Rosa was also endorsed by leaders of the statewide opt-out movement, who have pushed aggressively for testing changes. Last year, 20 percent of eligible students statewide boycotted the state tests.
Rosa says she takes the endorsement as a sign that she understands parents’ concerns. But some, like former Regents Chancellor Robert Bennett, worry the opt-out movement has become far too radical.
“It’s educationally very unsound, and quite frankly, damaging to kids,” Bennett said. “What are they going to do next, opt out of the SAT?”
Balancing that endorsement along with differing factions on the board is going to make Rosa’s job a difficult one, said Regent Roger Tilles. The board’s structure is supposed to keep it free of political influence, and Tilles said he hopes it will remain that way.
As she sorts through changes to teacher evaluations, standards, and testing, Rosa says her mind will be on students from the Bronx and other struggling neighborhoods. It’s why Winifred Layton, who was a student at Rosa’s school, feels confident that a Rosa chancellorship would mean more help for disadvantaged students.
“If she were to get that position she would really make the difference for many, many students in need,” she said.