New education commissioner on Common Core and evaluations

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MaryEllen Elia. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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ALBANY—Newly elected state education commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Wednesday pledged her support for the Common Core standards and teacher evaluations based on student test scores but argued educators must be included in the development and implementation of such reforms.

Elia, who was elected unanimously by the State Board of Regents on Tuesday to succeed John King as the state’s education chief, toured an Albany elementary school on Wednesday morning, reading a book to a first-grade class and chatting with teachers about how their instructional styles have changed since transitioning to the tougher curriculum guidelines.

During a news conference in the school’s library after her tour, Elia, who was most recently superintendent of a large, diverse school district in central Florida, said her former state reviewed the Common Core standards and developed a customized set of guidelines. She argued similar changes could be made in New York, incorporating educators’ feedback.

“To be perfectly honest, I think it’s reasonable for us to look at the standards with teachers and the people who are involved, the principals in our schools and superintendents, and say, ‘Experts, tell us. You’re the ones on the ground teaching. What are we doing right here, and what issues do we have?’" she said. "And that’s my goal, to get around in the state and talk to people.”

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Reiterating comments she made on Tuesday after her election, Elia stressed the importance of communication with parents and educators when attempting to successfully implement reforms. She said parents and teachers in her former district in Hillsborough County, Fla., more readily accepted the shift to the Common Core and state testing based on the more difficult material because she focused on explaining the need for the transition.

Asked about New York parents’ unprecedented boycott of state-administered standardized testing earlier this year, Elia said reducing the number of so-called “opt outs” was a goal of hers, adding there were very few if any test refusals in her former district.

“Here’s what I did in Florida: Hillsborough County is a very large district. It’s about a thousand square miles. I scheduled meetings that were open mic at community centers, churches, large high schools. We had pretty much a full crowd at every meeting, and I presented, why Common Core?” she said. “I always had people who were not in favor of Common Core in the audience. … We got out and talked about it, and we answered people’s questions. … Parents were excited to have an information piece that gave them some background on why we were doing what we were doing and why is it we need to raise standards.”

Further explaining her support for the Common Core, Elia referenced the third-grade math class she observed, where students worked in small groups measuring the perimeters of shapes and recognizing different types of angles.

“Were you up in the math class? The work they were doing in mathematics is a core portion of Common Core,” Elia said. “They aren’t learning just math facts. … What we saw was students interacting with math concepts. I don’t see that as a negative. I think that what we’ve done is, we’ve too clearly just pushed Common Core into a box and said, ‘This isn’t good.’ I think we have to just dismantle that and look at what is good for kids, … and as we move through that, we need to keep teachers with us the whole time.”

When asked about parents’ concerns about over-testing, she said, “I think it’s something we need to look at,” while saying that she is “an advocate of accountability.”

Elia also discussed her experience with implementing teacher evaluations that are based partially on student test scores. In her former district, Elia secured a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and, as a requirement of the funding, began implementing teacher evaluations before they were mandated by state lawmakers.

As a result, the rating system in Hillsborough County looks a lot different than the evaluations in the rest of Florida. The system, which she designed in collaboration with the local teachers’ union, rated teachers 40 percent based on test scores, including state tests as well as locally developed tests that were vetted for reliability and validity. The other 60 percent was based on a mix of principal and peer observations.

She said 40 percent might not be the right emphasis on testing in every district or state, and it might not always be right for Hillsborough County, where the district and union will continue to consider changes. She said the development of such policies should be a fluid process, as it has been in New York.

She also questioned the validity of research on designing evaluations that include test scores.

“The research is very unclear on any weight at all,” she said, when asked about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to base evaluations 50 percent on tests. “There have not been any studies that indicate that 50 percent is better than 40 percent is better than 20 or 30. And so I think what we need to do is get out there, work together collaboratively to come up with what we believe is a reasonable approach to evaluation, and constantly be getting feedback. And when it needs to shift, we need to shift it.”

Elia, who officially starts in her new job on July 6, stressed that the evaluation system in her former district was created with teachers instead of imposed on them.

“Let me say this: We did it in collaboration with our teachers’ union and our teachers, and I think that’s an important role that I can take to get out to the districts in the state, to talk to teachers and to have them be part of designing what will be a great evaluation,” she said.

“Evaluation is put in place to help people get better,” she continued. “It is not put in place so we can cut the feet off of people or tell them they’re not good. Teachers are only in this business because they want to help kids be successful, and we need to help teachers to get better every day, because when they’re better, our kids are going to be more successful.”

In addition to touring the school, Elia met with lawmakers on Wednesday at the Capitol.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article introduced a typo into one of Elia's quotes. She said "to be perfectly honest," not "to be perfectively honest." Also, because of an editor's error, it gave her official start date as June 6, rather than July 6.