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 Washington that could cost New York State more than $350 million in funding for students who are most in need.
"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 devastating cuts in education funding. She said the president's so-called "skinny budget" would seriously jeopardize programs that serve the state's neediest students and support teacher preparation, professional development, after-school programs, English language learners and students with disabilities.
"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 underway for the State Education Department and Board of Regents to review and revise standards, curriculum, assessments and teacher evaluations.
Elia, who became education commissioner in 2015, vowed not to repeat the mistakes of the past when policy changes were rushed through, or without teacher input.
She emphasized the only way to move forward successfully is to make sure everyone truly has a voice in the changes. She received big applause when she denounced districts that have 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 the recent 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, questioning whether schools are violating the state's law that testing cannot exceed more than 1 percent of a student's school year.
"I plead with you to reconsider the idea of unlimited time," said Utica TA's Cherie Grant. "Four of my students were head-banging on their desks. Unlimited time only exacerbates the distress our students feel."
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 will 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,'" House said.
"I don't think that's acceptable," Elia said. She said 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 another 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."