For departing Regents chancellor, learning standards a ‘civil rights issue’
ALBANY — As Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch opens her last meeting Monday before stepping down, she leaves the education policymaking board's members with some advice: “Stay the course.”
For Tisch, the controversial Common Core learning standards aren’t just the hallmark of her 20-year tenure on the board.
“I really believe that the standards, and access for all to high-content coursework, is a civil rights issue, and is the civil rights issue of this generation," she said in a recent interview in the state education department's Manhattan offices.
Now, with the board about to get new leadership, it’s unclear if her legacy will remain intact.
Those standards, along with the use of students' state test scores in teacher evaluations, triggered a public backlash, a massive test refusal movement and a whirlwind of reforms, and they cast a divisive shadow over her chancellorship.
“When people tell me, ‘Oh well, we’re going to lose minorities' ... are they telling me that minority children are not capable of learning to high standards? Because my answer to that is: ‘You give them access and opportunity to high-quality teaching, high-content curriculum, high-quality coursework, and they will meet the bar,'” Tisch said, rising above her usual sotto voce to stress the point. "It should be a standard of access and opportunity. That is a civil rights issue. Anyone who tells me differently — they are just really denying people what they deserve."
Looking back, Tisch admits she wishes the standards had been implemented in a more measured way, separately from the teacher evaluation system. But she points to moments from the process that reinforced her passion, recalling one in a classroom in a modest school district.
"I was sitting on the floor with the kids. We were at a math lesson, and one of the little girls was having a really hard time. They were learning how to group things together in 10. It was absolutely based on the new standards, which have to do with teaching toward understanding, rather than rote memorization,” she said.
Tisch recounted how the teacher told the struggling student she would help her soon, when another student stood up and said, “'Oh no, no, no, no, I’m gonna help her.'"
“First of all, it’s not just about the standards. It’s about a community of learners," Tisch said. "It was an unbelievable minute for me.”
Tisch was named the first female chancellor of the Board of Regents in 2009, and in 2012, at a time when the state was struggling financially, she championed the rigorous Common Core standards and helped secure federal grants.
She and education commissioner John King Jr., the state’s first black and first Latino schools chief, took their cause on the road statewide, visiting parts of the state she hadn't previously known existed to hold public forums where parents and teachers could vent their frustrations. Crowds became unruly; Tisch said she encountered anti-Semitism and even physical threats.
It was these moments at the now-infamous forums — cancelled at one point due to the chaos, then rescheduled under pressure — she recalls most vividly from her tenure as chancellor.
“We would be at these forums in the dead of winter — cold, icy, lonely places where we would get in a car, and we would travel two-and-a-half hours on icy, desolate roads. And you know, the things that people said to us,” she said. “People made racial slurs about John all the time, ethnic slurs about me all the time. They used really foul language, and it was really grotesque."
During the heated sessions, King — who became a polarizing figure amid the furor over the standards — was often criticized for his silence and cool demeanor, both of which Tisch said were part of the plan. She said some events became so rowdy the police had to escort the pair from the building.
“We would acknowledge to each other, ‘That was really rough,’ but we’d go on two days later to do the next one. ... We knew there had to be a mechanism to allow people to have a very vocal say. I can’t say it was the most pleasant thing. But we got through," she said, adding with a grin, "and John went on to be secretary of education."
Tisch recalls the era of King's leadership with pride and remains one of his most ardent backers, calling his appointment to lead the state's Education Department and his recent confirmation to head the federal one some of her most memorable moments as chancellor.
And it was efforts she undertook with him, like taking on the issue of segregation in the state's schools, that she hopes will continue after she’s gone, acknowledging the problem is far from resolved.
“I would say that our school system is the most segregated in the country. That is what the data shows. You can’t continue to be a great state if you do not come to terms with how to deal with that issue,” she said.
She's similarly adamant about evaluating teachers based on student performance data.
Legislation backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo had created a teacher evaluation system in which students' scores on the Common Core-aligned state tests figured prominently. But late last year, amid the backlash and the testing opt-out movement, the Board of Regents enacted a moratorium on their use, on the recommendation of a Cuomo-appointed task force. The state Education Department is now reviewing the standards, tests and evaluation system.
Tisch said she doesn’t blame Cuomo for becoming more involved in education policymaking, a role typically left up to the board, than any other governor. But she still fervently believes in using students' scores to evaluate teachers.
“To my dying day, I will ask anyone to look me in the eye and tell me that when you create an accountability system for a professional class of teachers, student performance should not be an indicator,” Tisch said. “We can debate what that percentage should be, but to cut it out — no. Not to have a standard by which you could measure how teachers across the state are doing, I think, is ridiculous.”
Now that Tisch is leaving, that change and others will be up to a board with an entirely new dynamic. Her vice chancellor, Tony Bottar, a fellow 20-year veteran, is also leaving. Another Regent, Charles Bendit, resigned in February. The next chancellor is expected to be Regent Betty Rosa, a champion for English language learners who grew up in Puerto Rico, represents the Bronx and, along with five other outspoken members, has challenged the Tisch majority.
The shake-up may mark a new era in state education, but Tisch says she's been planning for the transition, slowly stepping back. But she cautions the board members to take their time, to exercise care and consider the consequences of their actions — lessons she learned from the rocky implementation of the Common Core standards.
She says she hopes the board will keep pushing initiatives begun during her tenure, like career and technical education programs, multiple pathways to graduation, work focused on young men of color and, of course, the Common Core standards —even if they don't look exactly the same. She does think they'll remain intact.
"There is some need to stay the course, and make ... appropriate adjustments as things change," she said. “Is it going to be adjustments, or a move backwards? That will be for the public to decide.”