Soon after MaryEllen Elia was selected unanimously by the New York Board of Regents to be the State Education Commissioner, she gave me a call to introduce herself. We had a very pleasant exchange, and I made one request of her: Would she be willing to meet with the board of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE)? I explained to her that NYSAPE was the primary organizer of the historic opt out from state testing last spring, leading to about 200,000 students refusing to take the mandated tests. That’s 20% of the children who were supposed to take the tests. I told her that I thought it was important for her to meet them and hear their concerns. She readily assented.
Commissioner Elia took office on July 6, and she met with the leaders of NYSAPE (a few were away on vacation) on August 4. I joined the meeting to hear the discussion. From the outset, it was clear that Commissioner Elia intended to listen and that she is warm and personable. She may have heard that parents had a serious problem with her predecessor John King, who lectured them and seemed never to listen. Commissioner Elia asserted that there would be no teacher-bashing from her office; she was a teacher, and she wants the public to respect teachers.
That was a good start. Then the parents and educators expressed their views candidly. They do not like high-stakes testing; they do not like teachers’ evaluations tied to test scores, because that distorts the educational process. They are not opposed to testing, so long as testing is used only within the school for diagnostic purposes. The parents of children with disabilities complained that the tests were too long (three hours a day for six days), and in some cases, meaningless to their children. There were complaints about the State Education Department’s failure to answer FOILS (freedom of information requests) in a timely manner (or at all!) and complaints that the SED had failed to appoint a chief privacy officer, as a state law required.
What was striking was that this group of leaders are very well-informed. They have testified at hearings in Albany and in their towns. They are active in their communities and interact with elected officials. They are determined and they are not going away. One promised that if there were no policy changes from the Regents or the Legislature, the number of opt outs would grow.
Commissioner Elia was very cordial, but she hinted that there might be some kind of sanctions for opting out. It is hard to see how the state could withhold funds from school districts without incurring the wrath of some powerful state legislators. She also said that although Pearson had been replaced by Questar, Pearson’s tests would be used again this coming year. The new tests would be used for the first time in 2016-17. I am not sure if the change of vendor breaks the trend line, nor do I know anything about the record of Questar.
Commissioner Elia calmly but clearly stated her support for evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students. She did it in Florida and says that the teachers supported the practice. She is also a fan of online testing and raised the question of “embedding” online testing into instruction.
Carol Burris, the recently retired principal of South Side High School in Rockville Center (and new executive director of the Network for Public Education Fund, of which I am chair), participated in the meeting. She read off the ratings of teachers at very low-performing schools in Buffalo; many of the teachers in those schools received high ratings. Then she read the ratings of teachers at the high-performing Scarsdale public school, and an extraordinary proportion were rated “ineffective.” Commissioner Elia agreed that these results made no sense. Carol Burris wrote about this same meeting here. She suggested that New Yorkers hoping for a change in direction should not hold their breath waiting.
Of course, Commissioner Elia has to deal with the political realities. New York has a governor, Andrew Cuomo, who loves high-stakes standardized tests and wants to find and fire teachers who don’t “produce” them. Elia can’t write her own laws. But the story isn’t over. The leadership of the Board of Regents might change next spring when new members are appointed. There is already a strong bloc of retired educators on the Board who don’t like the current regime of high-stakes testing and don’t think the tests are either valid or reliable. That bloc might become the majority, and the realities would change.
It was a friendly and cordial meeting, but the differences in opinion were large. If NYSAPE was hoping for a change of direction, it seems unlikely to happen soon. Commissioner Elia agreed to meet again, and NYSAPE will no doubt continue to try to change her views. If nothing changes, the number of opt outs could increase in a big way next spring.