Who Is In Charge

Education groups with opposing views welcome incoming Commissioner Elia

The longtime educator known for placing a strong emphasis on student test scores who became New York’s new education chief Tuesday received a warm welcome from groups that typically take opposing sides in education debates, though critics of standardized tests called her appointment a mistake.

MaryEllen Elia, the former superintendent of a Tampa-area school district who taught in schools in Florida and New York, drew praise Tuesday from teachers unions for her collaborative approach. At the same time, groups that endorse teacher ratings that factor in student test scores and often clash with the teachers unions also applauded her appointment, with one calling her “an inspired choice.”

But steadfast critics of such “high-stakes” testing noted that Elia oversaw a $100 million grant in her Hillsborough County, Florida school district that involved tougher teacher evaluations, and pointed to news reports saying the district had told the grantmakers that they planned to fire the bottom 5 percent of teachers each year. Those critics predicted that if Elia continues to use test scores to rate teachers and make other important decisions about schools, the record number of parents who boycotted the state tests last month will only grow next year.

“If MaryEllen Elia is state commissioner, will she raise the stakes on testing?” influential education historian and high-stakes testing critic Diane Ravitch wrote on her blog. “If so, don’t be surprised if 400,000 students refuse the tests next year.”

Here are some of the reactions to Elia’s appointment Tuesday as commissioner of the New York State Education Department:

From Mayor Bill de Blasio:

On behalf of 1.1 million New York City public school children and their families, I congratulate and welcome our new State Education Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia. As an educator and a leader, she has proven herself ready for the task at hand, and we look forward to working together on vital reforms to transform our schools and lift up students in every neighborhood across the city.

From New York State United Teachers president Karen Magee:

It is vitally important for an education commissioner to respect teachers, to trust those working in public education and to listen — truly listen — to those in the field doing the hard work of teaching the state’s students, particularly those who have special needs, are still learning English or live in poverty. This is a challenging time for public education and its educators and there is a lot of hard work ahead. We are encouraged that Commissioner Elia is an educator with decades of experience as both a teacher in New York’s public schools and a superintendent in public education, and that she has strong academic credentials from our State University system.

We look forward to a collaborative, productive relationship with Commissioner Elia as we tackle, among other issues, how to end the over-reliance on standardized testing and to ensure that New York has a fair and meaningful evaluation system that focuses on professional development and helping teachers to improve. On top of this, we invite Commissioner Elia to join us in fighting for the equitable funding that our public schools need, especially those serving our most vulnerable student populations.

From Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the national union:

MaryEllen understands that you can only reclaim public education by giving educators the support they need to do their jobs well. As superintendent in Hillsborough County, Fla., she took to heart the adage ‘Do it with us, not to us.’ As everyone knows, our union is opposed to high-stakes testing and value-added model, but even when MaryEllen applied it as required under Florida law, she made collaboration her mantra. And as a result, even when the going got tough in Florida, she was able to work with multiple stakeholders to do what was best for Hillsborough students.

From Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s teachers union:

Our folks down in Florida who have worked with her have said she was extremely open to making sure teachers felt respected and that their voice was always part of any debates. We hope to have a great relationship with her as we move forward.

From New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña:

I congratulate Chancellor Tisch and the Board of Regents on the appointment of MaryEllen Elia as State Education Commissioner. Commissioner Elia began her career as a classroom teacher and, throughout her many years as an educator and a Wallace superintendent, she has exhibited tremendous leadership with a record of results, particularly in meeting the unique needs of English Language Learners. She is a remarkable educator and I am confident that her work will facilitate improved educational opportunities for children across New York City and New York State. I look forward to working with her on behalf of all our City’s children and families.

From High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that advocates for the Common Core standards:

MaryEllen Elia is an inspired choice by the Board of Regents – bringing together both decades of education experience, including as a teacher in New York, and a dedication to preparing students for the challenges of the 21st Century. Elia, a Buffalo native, has demonstrated a strong commitment to Common Core standards. We urge her to continue that commitment here in New York where the standards are taking root in improved test scores, higher high school graduation rates and better teaching and learning in the classroom.  We look forward to working closely together with Elia in the years to come and bringing us closer to our common goal – great schools that prepare all our children for success, no matter where they come from.

From Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance For Quality Education, an advocacy group aligned with the New York state and city teachers unions:

The Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) would like to congratulate the newly appointed New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. One thing is clear, for any Commissioner to succeed in New York State they will need to listen to parents and treat them as partners in public education. No skill will be more important for Commissioner Elia than the ability to work with parents. Collaboration with parents is vital to improving struggling schools, promoting educational equity, addressing the over emphasis on high-stakes testing, and increasing charter school accountability. She comes from a large and diverse school district that contains urban, suburban and rural schools we hope this experience will equip here to support the many and diverse needs of New York’s 2.7 million students. We look forward to working with Commissioner Elia and we welcome her back to New York State.

From Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that supports teacher evaluations tied to student test scores:

The Board of Regents made a strong choice in selecting MaryEllen Elia as New York State’s next Education Commissioner. She is a nationally recognized leader in education, who has a record of accomplishment in helping boost the achievement for low-income children. As a former educator herself, she knows firsthand what it takes for schools to succeed. We believe MaryEllen Elia will lead the way to give all of New York’s students the schools they deserve.

From Diane Ravitch’s blog

So, New York, once a bastion of liberalism, is getting a state commissioner who supports value-added testing and school choice, like John King. This aligns with Governor Cuomo’s agenda of “breaking up the public school monopoly” and using test scores to evaluate teachers.

The biggest news in the state in the past year was the historic success of the Opt Out movement. Last year, 60,000 students refused the state tests. This year, nearly 200,000 did. If MaryEllen Elia is state commissioner, will she raise the stakes on testing? If so, don’t be surprised if 400,000 students refuse the tests next year.

From Jeremiah Kittredge, CEO of Families for Excellent Schools:

MaryEllen Elia’s exceptional record in Florida makes her a strong candidate to lead New York out of its failing schools crisis.

With over 50,000 children in Hillsborough County learning outside the district school system, Commissioner Elia has shown that she values the role of high-quality charter schools and parent choice.

From James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center: 

The charter sector is looking forward to building a strong working relationship with incoming Commissioner Elia. I’m confident that she will treat all public schools equally as a matter of policy and ensure that the voices of lower income parents demanding more and better public school options are heard loud and clear.

From Evan Stone, co-founder of Educators 4 Excellence, a group that advocates for teacher involvement in policy decisions:

We congratulate Ms. Elia and are excited to work with her to continue to improve New York State’s education system. We’re hopeful that, if she is confirmed by the entire Board of Regents, Ms. Elia will prioritize teacher voice. Her work with Hillsborough County’s teachers’ union gives us confidence that she will do just that.

We are encouraged by the appointment of someone who has a record of working collaboratively with teachers to implement shifts on critical issues like evaluation and Common Core. On the critical issue of teacher evaluation, our members support delaying the implementation of the new system so that lawmakers can take extra time to devise a meaningful set of measures that can serve as a tool for professional growth. We hope the new Commissioner will take the lead in pushing for an evaluation system that is fair, rigorous, and focuses on helping teachers improve.

election 2019

College student, former candidate jumps into Denver school board race – early

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Tay Anderson speaks to students at Denver's South High School in May 2017.

A Denver college student who as a teenager last year unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the district’s school board announced Wednesday that he plans to try again in 2019.

Tay Anderson, 20, said he will run next November for the board seat currently occupied by Happy Haynes. Haynes, a longtime Denver politician who is executive director of the city’s parks and recreation department, does not represent a particular region of the school district. Rather, she is one of two at-large members on the board. Haynes was first elected to the school board in 2011 and is barred by term limits from running again.

Haynes supports the direction of Denver Public Schools and some of its more aggressive improvement strategies, such as closing low-performing schools. Anderson does not.

He is the first candidate to declare he’s running for the Denver school board in 2019. Haynes’ seat is one of three seats that will be open in 2019. There is no school board election this year.

In 2017, Anderson ran in a heated three-way race for a different board seat representing northeast Denver. Former teacher Jennifer Bacon won that seat with 42 percent of the vote.

Anderson, a vocal critic of the district, campaigned on platform of change. He called for the district to improve what he described as weak community engagement efforts and to stop approving new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Bacon also questioned some of the district’s policies. The Denver teachers union endorsed her over Anderson, who raised the least amount of money of the three candidates. Bacon was one of two new board members elected in 2017 who represent a more critical perspective. The 2019 election is likely to involve many of the same debates over education reform.

Anderson is a graduate of Denver’s Manual High School. He is now a student at Metropolitan State University, where he is studying education. He said he also works at Hinkley High School in neighboring Aurora, helping with the school’s restorative justice program, a method of student discipline that focuses on repairing harm rather than doling out punishment.

Anderson posted his campaign announcement on Facebook. It says, in part:

After a lot of thought, prayer, and seeking guidance from mentors, I decided this is the path I need to pursue to fulfill my commitment to the students, teachers, and community of Denver. I learned many valuable lessons during my campaign in 2017 and I know that I need to prepare and ensure that I have the adequate time to be in every part of Denver to connect with as many voters as possible, which is why I am getting to work now!

My dedication to Denver Public Schools has always been deeply personal and this campaign is reflective of that. As I gear up for another campaign, I am once again driven and motivated by my grandmother, who was an educator for over 35 years. Her tenacity to never give up is what drives my passion for the students in Denver Public Schools. I am determined to follow in her footsteps. I have organized students around school safety and more importantly impacted students’ lives in Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools. These students have a voice and I am prepared to fight for their agency in their education.

more back-and-forth

Eighteen legislators show support for TNReady pause as 11 superintendents say press on

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee lawmakers listen to Gov. Bill Haslam deliver his 2016 State of the State address at the State Capitol in Nashville.

School leaders and now state lawmakers continue to pick sides in a growing debate over whether or not Tennessee should pause state testing for students.

Eighteen state legislators sent the superintendents of Nashville and Memphis a letter on Tuesday supporting a request for an indefinite pause of the state’s embattled test, TNReady.

“As members of the Tennessee General Assembly responsible for helping set policies and appropriate taxpayer funds for public education, we have been dismayed at the failed implementation of and wasted resources associated with a testing system that is universally considered — by any set of objective measures – to be a colossal failure,” said the letter, signed by legislators from Davidson and Shelby counties, where Nashville and Memphis are located.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Democrat from Nashville, spearheaded the letter. Representatives Johnnie Turner, G.A. Hardaway, Barbara Cooper, Antonio Parkinson and Sen. Sara Kyle were among the signers representing Memphis.

Clemmons told Chalkbeat that he believes Tennessee should have a state test, but that it shouldn’t be TNReady.

“We are showing support for leaders who are representing students and teachers who are incredibly frustrated with a failing system,” Clemmons said. “We have to come up with a system that is reliable and fair.”

The lawmakers’ statement comes a day after Education Commissioner Candice McQueen responded to the Nashville and Memphis school leaders in a strongly worded letter, where she said that a pause on state testing would be “both illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state.”

The growing divide over a pause in TNReady testing further elevates it as an issue in the governor’s race, which will be decided on Nov. 6. Democratic nominee Karl Dean, who is the former mayor of Nashville, and Republican nominee Bill Lee, a businessman from Williamson County, have both said their respective administrations would review the state’s troubled testing program.

“We are hopeful that the next governor will appoint a new Commissioner of Education and immediately embark on a collaborative effort with local school districts to scrap the failed TNready system,” the 18 state lawmakers said in their statement.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph launched the back-and-forth with an Aug. 3 letter they said was sent to outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and McQueen declaring “no confidence” in the troubled state test. McQueen’s office said Tuesday that neither her office nor the governor’s office had yet received the letter.

However, a spokeswoman for Nashville public schools told Chalkbeat on Monday that the Aug. 3 letter was sent to Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash, who reports to McQueen. While some legislators backed the two superintendents, 11 district leaders from around the state released an email statement on Tuesday supporting state testing. Superintendents from Maryville, Alcoa, Sevier, Johnson, Dyersburg, Loudon, Clinton, Marshall, McKenzie, Trousdale, and Lenoir signed the statement, which they said was also sent to McQueen.

“Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking,” the email said. “The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance…. Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.”

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials.

But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results not be used against students or teachers.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams. The state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

Read both the state lawmakers’ letter and the superintendents’ statement below:

Signers are: John Ray Clemmons, Bo Mitchell, Sherry Jones, Dwayne Thompson, Brenda Gilmore, Darren Jernigan, Antonio Parkinson, Jason Powell, Bill Beck, Mike Stewart, Barbara Ward Cooper, Larry Miller, G.A. Hardaway,  Karen D. Camper, Harold Love,  Johnnie Turner, Sara Kyle, and Joe Towns.

August 14, 2018
 
STATEMENT OF SUPPORT
 
District leaders across Tennessee understand and validate the disappointment and frustration our teachers, students, and parents felt with the glitches and errors faced during the spring’s administration of the TNReady student assessment. It was unacceptable. However, it is important that we, as leaders, step up to say that now is the time to press on and continue the important work of improving the overall education for all Tennessee students.  
 
We are optimistic about where we are heading in education – ultimately more students will graduate prepared for the next steps in their lives. The foundation is solid with (1) rigorous standards, (2) aligned assessments, and (3) an accountability model that focuses on student achievement and growth.  We are now expecting as much or more out of our students as any state in the nation. Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking. The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance across all subgroups.  Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.
 
Our students have made strong and steady gains in achievement and growth over the past few years, earning recognition at a national level. Our students now have the opportunity to be more fully prepared and competitive to enter college and the workforce. This is not the time to press the pause button. Even with the improvements in student performance, there is much work to do. Achievement gaps for subgroups are too large and not enough students are graduating “Ready” for the next step.
 
We must hold the course on rigorous standards, aligned assessments, and an accountability system focused on student achievement and growth. We, the directors of Tennessee schools, believe this rigor and accountability will impact all students. We embrace the priorities outlined in Tennessee Succeeds with a focus on foundational literacy and pathways to postsecondary success. Tennessee students have already demonstrated a determination to reach the mastery of rigorous state standards and will rise to the newly established expectations. We have work to do, and we should keep the focus on instruction and closing the gaps to ensure every student in Tennessee is ready for their future. We want to send a message of confidence and determination, a relentless ambition to reach our goals. We must step up and hold the line. We cannot expect anything less than excellence. Our students deserve it. 
 
 
Mike Winstead, Maryville City Schools
Brian Bell, Alcoa City Schools
Jack Parton, Sevier County Schools
Steve Barnett, Johnson City Schools
Neel Durbin, Dyersburg City Schools
Jason Vance, Loudon County Schools
Kelly Johnson, Clinton City Schools
Jacob Sorrells, Marshall County Schools
Lynn Watkins, McKenzie Special School District
Clint Satterfield, Trousdale County Schools
Jeanne Barker, Lenoir City Schools