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Elia's exit a reason to worry

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, announces

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, announces her resignation effective on August 31, 2019 during a news conference at the New York State Education Department Building on Monday in Albany. Credit: Hans Pennink

In August 2010, New York was awarded a $700 million federal “Race to the Top” grant to radically reform its education system. It kept the money, but it failed to finish the course.

New York stopped competing when state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia handed in her resignation after four years, effective Aug. 31. But New York needs to get back on track to improve K-12 education and deliver more value for the bills taxpayers pour into it.

The federal effort to jump-start reform by dangling cash in front of states launched almost a decade ago centered on two core issues: adopting rigorous national Common Core learning standards and curricula that matched what students need to know to be college- and career-ready upon graduation. And most radically, tying teacher performance evaluations to how their students scored on state tests based on those standards.

As she leaves, Elia can take solace in huge progress on the standards and curricula. Both of those initiatives were rolled out by her predecessor too quickly, with too little support for teachers and school districts and hardly any explanation for parents. Those missteps were partially to blame for the blowback against Common Core, which spawned its own political party and took center stage in several state elections.

Elia smoothed a lot of those feathers. She reset the process and re-examined the bench marks, with input from teachers and the public. The result was some small improvements in the standards coupled with a lot more support for the districts and teachers creating and adapting to new curricula, a rebranding of Common Core as Next Generation Learning Standards and a growing acceptance of the changes bred by Elia’s more cooperative approach.

But the lasting fallout of the Common Core fracas was a revolt against the accompanying teacher evaluation system. Educators argued the system would force them to teach to the tests, infuriating parents, and within a few years 50 percent of the third through eighth grade students on Long Island mandated to take the tests were opting out. And the state’s teachers unions nixed that evaluation system.

Students still opt out at similar rates, and the state still has not approved teacher evaluation standards to replace the ones the New York State United Teachers union killed. Even with all of Elia’s significant efforts to move the ball on these issues, it proved impossible, and it’s a safe bet that she’ll be replaced by a leader with far less inclination to try.

Elia’s hiring in 2015 was an attempt by Chancellor Merryl Tisch to solve these quandaries and keep reform alive. But Tisch was replaced soon after by Betty Rosa, a longtime New York City educator closely tied to NYSUT’s reactionary positions on reform and accountability.

The goals of Race to the Top were the right ones, meant to engender a superior force of teachers imparting the skills and knowledge needed to succeed to all kids, regardless of their color, ethnicity, wealth or geography. That mostly has not happened, yet it must. So now it’s up to the Regents and NYSUT to lay out a new path to make it happen, having thwarted the last one. — The editorial board