An Imagined Interview With the New New York State Education Commissioner

06/01/2015 04:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

The New York State Board of Regents, the governing body for the state's schools, voted unanimously to appoint MaryEllen Elia as state education commissioner. This has to be an imagined interview. There were no open meetings with candidates where they were required to lay out their views about educational issues to the public. The winning candidate and her sponsors did not explain what they hoped she would achieve before she was anointed. New Yorkers can only assume Elia was selected because she will implement the Cuomo (Governor) and Tisch (Regent Chancellor) agenda which includes the incessant testing of students, evaluating teachers based on student test scores, a tax cap that prevents school districts from raising needed funds, and an all-out legislative push for tax credits for "donations" to private and religious schools.

Elia is the former superintendent of schools in Hillsborough County, Florida, a district that includes the city of Tampa. Hillsborough County is the eighth largest district in the United States. She started her career as a social studies teacher in western New York near Buffalo, helped her district receive a multi-million dollar Gates Foundation grant to overhaul the district's teacher evaluation system, and was named the Florida district superintendent of the year for 2015, just before she was fired by the Hillsborough school district.

Elia has a reputation for working well with different constituencies in Florida including the teachers' union and Florida Republicans. But she has also been described as a fiscal conservative, promoter of magnet theme schools, an advocate of merit pay for teachers, and insensitive to the needs of minority youth and special education students. In 2008, a coalition of advocacy groups including the NAACP filed a class action suit against the Hillsborough school district, then under Elia's leadership, charging disciplinary discrimination against African Americans and discrimination against special needs students. In 2012, Hillsborough School Board President April Griffin claimed that Elia "demonstrated a complete lack of professionalism with staff members and board members by cursing, yelling and bullying." Given that Elia was fired at Hillsborough and the current battles going on in New York State over high-stakes testing, the opt-out movement, teacher evaluations, and the governor's support for tax credits for parochial schools, it is amazing that Elia was appointed unanimously by the New York State Board of Regents and without any public discussion.

In 2013, Elia teamed with Florida's education commissioner, an avid advocate for charters schools and vouchers, and supporters of home-schooling, virtual education, and tax-credits for parents who send children to private and religious schools on a panel sponsored by the Florida Alliance for Choices in Education. Elia pioneered magnet schools in Hillsborough and the district under her leadership was one of the earliest to welcome charter schools with 50 in 2013-2014. According to a 2010 editorial in the Tampa Bay Times, Elia also endorsed private school vouchers.

In an effort to find out who Elia is and more about what she thinks about educational issues, I have been plumbing the Internet for quotes by and about Elia and anything she wrote or said. Based on my findings I created this imagined interview with the new Education Commissioner as a way of welcoming her to Battleground New York.

Why were you fired in Hillsborough?

Commissioner Elia - "When you run a business that has a $2.7 billion budget which has 27,000 employees and 206,000 students and their families and all of the departments that support more than 300 schools, I think that you are bound to have people that disagree with decisions that have to be made to function. What you have is a level of concern about what has been a very decisive style. When you are running an organization that large and so many depend in you, you have to make decisions and sometimes they are questioned. By law, the superintendent is the CEO of the district and that's what I did. That's really the basis for concern. Some people didn't like the way I ran the district but I am pleased to stand with the work that has been done by a great team and we have higher student achievement and developed a viable organization to support kids and that is what is most important."

What are the top priorities for education in New York over the next five years?

Commissioner Elia - As I said in a 2012 interview with The Boston Consulting Group, part of a series of interviews with education leaders on "Reimagining K-12 Education in the U.S," "We have to look at student performance across the board. Relative to other countries, the United States has some areas to target: science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), all of which are closely connected to how successful the U.S. will be globally. Our schools are not well-enough equipped to enable students to enter the workforce or graduate college able to be the innovators that they need to be. We just don't have the technology in our classrooms. We also need in every classroom teachers who are very skilled in supporting the differentiation of students' needs. And we need a major focus on the teaching corps across this nation, with the salaries and the environments that really support teachers."

How will you achieve these goals in an era of tight school budgets?

Commissioner Elia - "Holding classrooms out of the mix of any cuts is critical . . .[W]ithin the classroom, you have to look at how you are using the available resources most effectively and efficiently. You've also got to work through the existing situation in your state, and change or at least reexamine that in many cases. You've got to look at everything. There are no sacred cows."

In your application for the Superintendent position for the Palm Beach, Florida school district, you bragged you were a "fiscal conservative" who had reduced the annual Hillsborough district budget by $140 million. How did you do it?

Commissioner Elia - "I worked with the School Board to exercise fiscal constraints and be proactive in our approach to the economic crisis . . . The district, under my leadership, was able to balance the budget without any noticeable impact at the school level."

What is your position on the national Common Core English and Math standards?

Commissioner Elia - "The initiative is going to tie us all together with a common assessment and with common standards across a core curriculum. That is an extremely important agenda item for us. It will also help us have a common way to train teachers and set common expectations across the country."

What role do you see for private businesses in determining public education policies?

Commissioner Elia - "Businesses need to be involved in school systems in their own local areas--and with education issues on the national scene. For instance, businesses were very much involved in supporting the development and the adoption of the common core standards in nearly every state in the U.S. Those standards were developed with the business workforce in mind . . . It really has to be a partnership between business and education, so that what is offered to students in our system and then in college connects with what the workforce needs."

You are a big supporter of a program called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination). But skeptics, including the U.S. Department of Education, say the research supporting AVID is "not scientifically reliable." Under your leadership, the Hillsborough School District approved a contract for nearly $200,000 to send staff for AVID training. Comments?

Commissioner Elia - "It's a college-readiness program that teaches kids how to accept responsibility for their own learning . . . We have AVID in every one of our middle and high schools, and we're taking those strategies and rolling them out across the curriculum . . . Students start with being introspective about what they need to do to be successful. They set goals individually for themselves about the kind of a student they want to be, based on what outcomes they want in their life. So many kids in sixth and seventh grade are at a loss for direction. It's a real shift in their life, when so many things emotionally, socially, and intellectually are in flux. Giving them a roadmap for how to be successful can be extremely helpful."

You also praised a math program called "School of One" and talked about bring it into Hillsborough. School of One is another expensive program that has yet to provide evidence that it works. Comments?

Commissioner Elia - "A few years ago we had an opportunity to look at the School of One in New York, an innovative model for mathematics that has almost every student receiving individualized learning. Students are regrouped and reorganized almost daily to meet the particular needs of each student. At the scale of our district, we could have choice options available for students who particularly want that style of individualized learning in their classes."

In a 2013 blog, Diane Ravitch reported there was a "culture of fear" in Hillsborough and "top-down, heavy-handed" administration and that "teachers are afraid to speak up." Comments?

Commissioner Elia - "Being collaborative with teachers and principals is extremely important . . . [T]he leadership in every school is consistently one of the things that teachers say is a reason that students are successful. A leader who is very careful about supporting teachers and giving them feedback on what they need to improve creates a school environment in which people are thinking about being better professionals every day. If you don't have that kind of a leader, then progress is just kind of hit or miss."

Ravitch also reported that the Gates Foundation's teacher evaluation system you implemented in Hillsborough may look good on paper, but it has been overwhelmingly unpopular with teachers.

Commissioner Elia - "We found that it's really helpful to collaborate with teachers on developing an instrument that we use to evaluate, to observe, and to give feedback. And then once we have a transparent rubric, we want teachers to understand what they need to do to get better. They need to know that it's not a system trying to fire teachers. We're trying to have teachers become better informed about what they're doing and how that ultimately relates to student performance . . . . One thing that has given us credibility across the board with both our teachers and principals is that we have outside trainers who come in and work with our staff and recalibrate the evaluation rubric if we think certain people seem to be grading higher or lower than others. We go back and check how the data compare across different schools, principals, and peer evaluators to ensure the reliability of the raters."

What is your position on high-stakes standardized testing?

Commissioner Elia - In an op-ed piece for Tampa Bay Times in 2010, I wrote "the issue is simple: We need to ensure that the tests we give our students, and the system we use to calculate school grades and judge our schools and teachers, is accurate and reliable. This is especially important in Hillsborough County where we are involved in a ground-breaking project that relies on various assessments to measure student and teacher performance."

How do you respond to parents and teachers who oppose the tests and argue they are invalid measures of student and teacher performance?

Commissioner Elia - "The state should establish a 'technical oversight committee' made up of educators and district-level, university and private sector testing experts, to review testing construction procedures, discuss issues of concern and make recommendations. For instance, it has been suggested that the state needs to recalibrate the measurement for learning gains. As students improve academically it becomes more difficult to demonstrate such gains. So, a school where students have reached a high level of proficiency will be penalized for not demonstrating learning gains, which is a large part of the school grades calculation. This group would have the expertise to fix that problem."

Reading between the lines it is less surprising why MaryEllen Elia was chosen the new New York State Education Commissioner. Basically she supports the Cuomo-Tisch agenda up and down the line. Testing, testing and more testing. Hard-nosed teacher evaluations. Bluster and blame leadership. Business collaboration with out-sourcing to private companies. Charters and vouchers. A mixed record, at best, of concern for minority youth and students with special needs. And all her miracles were done for the cheap without raising revenues. What I don't understand is why the state's teachers union, NYSUT, claims to be "encouraged by the appointment of MaryEllen Elia as the state's new education commissioner."