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NY's new education chief jumps into a mess

MaryEllen Elia listens as the Board of Regents

MaryEllen Elia listens as the Board of Regents elects her as the new state education commissioner on Tuesday, May 26, 2015, in Albany, N.Y. Elia most recently led the Hillsborough County school district, which includes Tampa, Florida. She succeeds John King Jr., who stepped down at the end of 2014 for a post in President Barack Obama's administration. (AP Photo/Mike Groll) Credit: AP

'Collaborative" is the word MaryEllen Elia uses to describe her leadership style. Those who have worked with her use the same word. It will be an important trait, because the new commissioner of the state Education Department must now bring New York's warring factions to a treaty. Continued battling over education reform isn't helping anyone, least of all the students who are casualties in this bloody fight.

Elia, who starts work in early July, is returning to New York after leading the eighth-largest school district in the nation, Florida's Hillsborough County, which includes the city of Tampa and a large rural and suburban area. She is the current Florida superintendent of the year, chosen by her peers, and was one of four finalists last year for national superintendent of the year. She was recently fired by Hillsborough's county council after a decade thanks to a power struggle involving newly elected council members, creating an uproar among her supporters there.

She seems to be a philosophical ally of her predecessor in New York, John B. King Jr., but an antidote in both style and experience to what many disliked about King, now an adviser to federal Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

King was attacked for having never taught in public schools; his background was in charter schools. Elia spent almost two decades teaching in public schools in upstate New York and Florida.

King's greatest failure was a rollout of new Common Core standards and curricula that was never sold or explained properly to parents or teachers. That, and his department's slowness to respond to anger and criticism, helped set the stage for the current crisis. One of Elia's greatest triumphs in Florida was a set of "town hall" meetings that explained what was changing with adoption of the Common Core, why the tougher new standards were important and how the changes would work.

Elia will reassure educators and parents. She simply talks and acts like the high school social studies teacher she was.

Elia will work with the state Board of Regents to set and carry out policy for more than 700 school districts. She will also oversee public colleges, professional licensing and public broadcasting.

What can we expect her to do? Her history and words show support for tough standards like Common Core. She believes teachers need to be evaluated, and that part of that evaluation must be the progress of students. She supports charter and magnet schools.

But she also speaks passionately about teachers getting respect and admiration. She wants to lure the best candidates to college programs that better prepare them to teach, and get new teachers the mentoring they need. In Hillsborough, all first- and second-year teachers were assigned mentors, and those experienced teachers' only job was to help young educators excel.

She says troubled schools need strike teams that move in and address problems quickly and aggressively, something that's been lacking in Long Island's most challenged districts. In an interview with the editorial board on Thursday, Elia said she plans to visit the region as soon as possible.

Elia's passion and knowledge are obvious and welcome.

Now she will bring those qualities to a state where at least 200,000 students opted out of state tests this spring, educators want a one-year moratorium on performance evaluations, and politicians are frozen by raging interest groups. The problems in New York reflect a growing national controversy, as evidenced by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announcing Thursday that his state will walk away from Common Core standards.

Elia says the warring factions -- teachers unions and parents and reformers who say we need higher standards and performance-based teacher evaluations -- need to see that everyone can get a win, but no one can win it all. That's the strategy to pursue, and the path that will lead to triumph for the students.