In a frank and freewheeling discussion that touched on everything from frightening federal budget proposals to the future of teacher evaluations, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia assured local union leaders their voices are valued, and this time, upcoming policy changes for standards, curriculum, assessments and teacher evaluation will not be rushed through.
Appearing for the first time at NYSUT's Pre-RA Local and Retiree Council Presidents Conference, Elia said she was seriously concerned about developments unfolding in two cities: Albany and Washington.
In Albany, she said, stalled state budget negotiations are making it difficult for districts to plan school budgets that are supposed to be formulated by the end of this month. And in Washington, she said, proposed federal budget cuts could cost New York State more than $350 million.
“I don’t think we should be choosing between guns and children,” she said, referring to President Trump’s proposed budget that beefs up the military yet recommends severe cuts in education funding. She said the president's so-called “skinny budget” would seriously jeopardize Title 1 funding for the state’s neediest students; Title 2 aid that supports teachers and professional development; Title 3 for English language learner education and a host of other cuts that would hit the state hard.
“It’s important for us all to be proactive,” she said, adding that federal discussion around school choice initiatives is “uninformed” and clearly not research-based.
After attending a recent meeting of chief state school officers with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Elia said New York State is moving forward with the understanding that states will have more power to implement standards, curriculum, assessments and teacher evaluation systems with less federal oversight.
“That might be a good thing for us,” she said.
She outlined changes under way for the State Education Department and Board of Regents to review and revise standards, curriculum, assessments and teacher evaluations.
She vowed not to repeat the mistakes of the past where policy changes are rushed through, or without teacher input.
Elia emphasized the only way to move forward successfully is to make sure everyone believes — and truly has — a voice in the changes. She received big applause when she denounced districts that insisted teachers follow Engage New York scripted lesson plans. “You shouldn’t expect teachers — who are professionals — to have a script,” she said. “Doctors aren’t given a script. Lawyers aren’t given a script.”
During the Q&A portion, local leaders repeatedly voiced concerns about lifting time restrictions for grade 3–8 English language arts and math tests. West Irondequoit TA’s Scott Steinberg and Lakeland FT’s Mike Lillis said some students taking last week's ELA exam spent more than five hours a day on the three-day exams.
“I’m afraid there’s serious abuse being done to students,” Lillis said, adding those kind of hours violate the state’s law that testing cannot exceed more than 1 percent of a student’s school year.
Elia, who implemented the new policy to take some of the stress off students who felt they didn’t have enough time on the tests, said she would look further into the issue.
Peter House of Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES EA poignantly explained how heartbreaking it is for him to force his special education students to take grade-level state exams. When one of his students, who is on a first- or second-grade math level was handed a seventh-grade test, the student was reduced to “hitting his head with a calculator saying ‘I’m stupid,’” he said.
“I don’t think that’s acceptable,” Elia said. She added that SED continues to seek a federal waiver for grade-level testing for students with disabilities and English language learners. “That will be part of the ESSA plan we submit,” she said.
On teacher evaluation, Elia pledged a “thoughtful, respectful, deliberative and collaborative” revamp, after a standardized test-based evaluation system was temporarily "unplugged" from a misguided state law.
Extending that metaphor, Saranac Lake TA co-president Don Carlisto, a NYSUT Board member, warned Elia that if standardized tests are still tied to teacher evaluations “when we plug back in, many are going to blow their fuse.”
Elia said her goal is to make evaluations productive, not punitive. Student learning can be measured in multiple ways, she said.
Beverly Voos, Retiree Council 6, urged Elia to add a fifth priority: encouraging students to enter the teaching profession.
“I am worried about the future of our profession,” she said, noting teacher education program enrollments are plummeting.
“I totally agree with you,” Elia said. “Forces have been beating up on teachers for the last 15 years and we have to counterbalance that ... We have to change the environment so teachers feel supported ... and people understand teaching is more important than any other profession.”