July 23, 2015

New commissioner listens to NYSUT leaders

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT Communications
board meeting
Caption: Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia with NYSUT President Karen E. Magee. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Calling herself a good listener and strong collaborator, New York's new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, told NYSUT's Board of Directors she wants to keep hearing from those on the ground.

"I am there with you," Elia said. "We will not agree on everything … but I am committed to supporting educators. I want to be strong, collaborative partners in this work."

Putting those words into action, Elia didn't just give a speech when she stopped in at the NYSUT Board's July meeting on Wednesday. She spoke briefly, but then answered a wide range of questions from union leaders for more than an hour-and-a-half. She took a lot of notes.

Elia, just 12 days into her new job, identified three items at the top of her agenda. First, she is planning a comprehensive review of Common Core Learning Standards. "We have a lot of work to do there," she said. "We're not going to throw them out, but we will change them."

Second, she wants to take a close look at the state's assessment system — to make sure the state's tests are appropriate and aligned with the standards. As a 45-year educator, Elia said, "there's nothing more off-putting than seeing a test question and you can't figure out where it came from."

Elia noted the state had just ended its contract with Pearson — and she received resounding applause from the room. She said the state's new contract with Questar Assessment Inc. recognizes the importance of teacher input in building state exams. She also noted the state needs to move forward with more technology-based testing.

Improving the state's teacher evaluation system, or Annual Professional Performance Reviews, will be another big issue. "We need to move forward so this system is supportive of teachers and not a stick," Elia said, noting she worked closely with union leaders in Florida to promote quality professional development.

"In my world, the best teachers of teachers are other teachers," she noted.

During the question-and-answer time, union leaders urged Elia to be a strong advocate for public education, rather than an enforcer. Buffalo Federation of Teachers President Phil Rumore called for the state to focus on improving teaching and learning conditions — not "fixing" the teacher.

Elia agreed with calls for more support for English language learners and students with special needs. She also said it's time for the state to reevaluate some of the program cuts and loss of staff due to budget cuts during tough economic times, such as the loss of school counselors, social workers and librarians. She said she was surprised to learn that some elementary schools in New York have virtually eliminated social studies and science to make room for more ELA and math.

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Higher education union leaders urged Elia to take a close look at changes in the state's teacher preparation system and teacher certification. She took careful notes as Steve London, Professional Staff Congress at CUNY (pictured above, at mic), told her about a task force report prepared by higher education faculty and administrators that recommends dramatic changes. PSC's Iris DeLutro (at left) told Elia the recent changes in certification exams have had a serious impact, limiting access to the profession.

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Christine Vasilev of Port Washington TA (pictured above, at mic) urged Commissioner Elia to take a look at NYSUT's APPR Task Force Report for recommendations on how to improve the system. Others put in a plug for valuable programs like the state's network of Teacher Centers and made the case for decoupling test scores from APPR to reduce the focus on standardized testing.

Elia, who has already visited a number of schools, including the Sweet Home District in western New York, where she began her career, said she's eager to travel around the state and meet with groups of educators and stakeholder groups.

"We're in this together," she said. "We've got to work these things through together."

After the Q&A, NYSUT President Karen Magee said she appreciated the commissioner's time and tone. "I heard a lot of common ground," Magee said.

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After the meeting, Commissioner Elia talked with NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino, UUP's Tom Tucker and Yonkers FT's Pat Puleo.