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.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: