Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia recently spoke on education priorities for New York State at the 2017 Fall Leadership Summit of the New York State Council of School Superintendents (NYSCOSS) and the Annual Convention of the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA). Her presentations at these statewide high profile education conferences reveal the focus and the priorities for the commissioner, the State Education Department (SED), and the Board of Regents for the 2017-2018 school year and beyond.

Overall, the commissioner’s theme was on the importance of the Regents and SED to engage and listen to New York’s diverse education stakeholders as a critical component of its authority in developing and implementing education policy for New York.  The commissioner admitted to the well-known implementation flaws of her predecessor and the previous Regents chancellor in regards to the Common Core Standards, Annual Professional Performance Reviews (APPR), high stakes testing, and statewide data base systems. Commenting on the recent past controversy generated by the Regents through its rapid development and implementation of education policy from 2010 to 2015 without sufficient buy-in from New York’s education stakeholders; Commissioner Elia noted that during her two years as New York’s education leader, we have come together and moved on. She noted that the Regents is not repeating past mistakes and that “re-building trust is not easy” but progress has been made with families.

Addressing these diverse groups of education stakeholders representing New York’s over 710 school districts, the commissioner indicated a new, and perhaps a return to the pre-2010 focus of SED and the Regents by stating: “Our job is to serve you serve your students.”

In addition to focusing on this new or retrospective theme of the Regents listening to parents, teachers, school administrators, and board of education members, Commissioner Elia outlined seven key areas as highlights for the 2017-2018 school year.

1. Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – After much public vetting, transparency, and input from stakeholders, SED submitted its ESSA plan to the United States Department of Education (USDOE) on September 18, 2017. Review and approval of New York’s plan is expected to culminate in official USDOE endorsement in February 2018. Unlike ESSA’s predecessor federal statute, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), ESSA allows states more flexibility, accounts for school district uniqueness, and is not punitive in nature. Yet ESSA also ensures high standards and accountability for student achievement and success. New York’s plan is over 205 pages and is the basis for $1.6 billion in annual federal funding to support education.

2. Next Generation Learning Standards – After conducting a lengthy collaborative process over two years, the Regents has replaced the Common Core standards with new standards in mathematics and English language arts known as the Next Generation Learning Standards. Unlike implementation of the Common Core Standards, the commissioner and the Board of Regents developed a rational learning standards and assessment implementation timeline that provides for a period for public awareness, teacher professional development, capacity building, and then new state assessments aligned with the Next Generation Standards in the Spring of 2021.

3. Changes in the Grades 3 – 8 Testing System and the Opt Out Movement – The commissioner outlined multiple strategies to address New York’s testing opt out challenges. These revisions include shorter tests, movement from 3 days to 2 days of testing, and every test item being written by New York state teachers. Commissioner Elia stated the Regents have conducted a very deliberative process to address parent and educator concerns to reduce the number of opt outs and avoid “the teaching to the test” culture present in many schools and classrooms.

4. Teacher and Principal Evaluations – Commissioner Elia stated that “unplugging APPR from tests was the right thing to do.” Any new system eventually developed by the Regents will “be done with teachers, not done to teachers.” She wants to develop a collaborative approach to a teacher and principal evaluation system that focuses on growth. Currently, APPR is expected to be re-linked to state test starting in the 2019 - 2020 school year pursuant to Sections 30-2.14 and 30-3.17 of the Rules of the Board of Regents. Notably, Commissioner Elia commented that “doing things fast is not always the best way to get things done.”  If necessary, the moratorium on the linking of state tests to APPR will be extended.

5. The Federal Budget – The current proposed federal budget cuts for education would negatively impact New York City alone by $430 million. The commissioner urged all New York education stakeholders to reach out to the policy makers in Washington to provide your feedback. These critical cuts will hurt all students, especially during this time in which USDOE expects states to implement their respective ESSA plans.

6. Recent Disasters Require New York to Help and Support Students and Teachers – Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria battered Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and several other countries in the Caribbean, leaving thousands of children and families displaced. Commissioner Elia stated that we need to assist and embrace these students and families. It’s the New York way. Recent guidance has been issued by the Regents to assist districts to accept and assist these many displaced children and families.

7. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in New York – Commissioner Elia emphasized the importance for New York’s education stakeholders to make their thoughts known to policy makers in Washington. The Regents is working with the Office of the Attorney General to make sure students who have attended our schools their whole lives are not placed in jeopardy. This is a very important and critical issue that the Regents will continue to work on with the AG and other leaders.

While the commissioner adjusted her recent presentations somewhat at NYSCOSS and NYSSBA, respectively, these key themes and highlights were common across both sessions. Having followed Commissioner Elia in her tenure as New York’s education leader over the past two years, it is evident that she is now comfortable in this role and a clear voice for reason, teamwork, and understanding of New York’s rich education environment.  As a state policy maker in New York’s diverse education climate, you secure accomplishments and progress for students and families with a wide scope of buy-in and support, not through building and strengthening silos.

Gauging the crowd at both events, there was overall general support for the commissioner’s theme of transparency and collaboration in developing and implementing education policy. The commissioner, the Regents, and SED are the leaders in these initiatives, but without the shared vision from New York’s superintendents, school boards, and parents, their leadership is ineffective and divisive. MaryEllen Elia knows her role and her authority. But more importantly, she comprehends the limits of her effectiveness without the support and buy-in from New York’s diverse education stakeholders. As the commissioner stated, re-building trust is not easy but she has already demonstrated her impact by acknowledging that mistakes of the past will not be repeated.