Read & React: Elia named new commissioner

Photo courtesy: Tampa Bay Times

Photo courtesy: Tampa Bay Times

The Board of Regents voted on Tuesday to appoint MaryEllen Elia as the new commissioner of education of New York.

Elia’s appointment comes after a nearly five-month search by the Board of Regents to replace former Commissioner John King, who left the Department at the end of 2014 to take a job with the U.S. Department of Education.

Elia, a native New Yorker, most recently served as superintendent of schools in the Hillsborough County School District in Florida, the eighth largest district in the country. She was named Florida superintendent of the year in December and was also a finalist for national superintendent of the year.

Her appointment is not without controversy though. In January, Elia was fired by the Hillsborough Board of Education, a decision that sparked criticism and debate across the country. According to State of Politics, Elia’s contract was terminated over concerns, in part, that schools were not doing enough to help special needs children.

Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch brushed off any concerns over Elia’s record.

“MaryEllen Elia has a remarkable record of working collaboratively with teachers, parents, and school leaders to get things done,” Tisch said. “During her time in Hillsborough, she led a successful introduction of the Common Core standards, increased graduation options for students who had fallen behind, and helped to develop one of the country’s most innovative teacher evaluation systems.”

“I began my career as a teacher and still consider myself a teacher at heart,” Elia said. “Good teachers are also good listeners.  My first item of business as Commissioner will be listening to parents, teachers, principals, school board members, and superintendents from across New York.  I believe whole-community involvement is essential to make our schools and school system even stronger.”

Elia will start her new position on July 6.

Read & React

SED poised to name new education commissioner

According to the Buffalo News, the State Education Department is poised to name a new education commissioner today.

MaryEllen Elia, 66, who started her education career in the Buffalo region, is expected to be the new commissioner, becoming the first female to hold this position.

The Board of Regents is holding an executive session this afternoon to finalize her hire and a press conference is scheduled for 2:30 p.m.

Elia most recently served as superintendent of schools in the Hillsborough County School District in Florida, the eighth largest district in the country. She was named Florida superintendent of the year in Decemeber and was a finalist for national superintendent of the year.

In January, Elia was fired in a 4-3 vote by the district’s board. From State of Politics:

“Elia stirred controversy as the Hillsborough County superintendent, where the school board voted in January voted to terminate her contract over concerns, in part, that schools were not doing enough to help special needs children.”

Elia attended Daeman College, earning her bachelor’s degree in history. She earned her master of education in social studies and a master of professional studies in K-12 reading from SUNY’s University at Buffalo.

As more information develops, we will bring it to you here.

99 percent of NY School budgets pass

Voters throughout the state of New York came out largely in support of their school district’s budget yesterday.

According to initial reports, 99 percent of school budgets were approved by voters, with only nine budgets from around the state getting voted down. That list includes:

  • Northeaster Clinton CSD*
  • Geneva CSD*
  • Chazy CRSD*
  • Herkimer CSD*
  • Patchogue Medford CSD*
  • Parishville-Hopkinton CSD*
  • Tioga CSD*
  • Walton CSD
  • Addison

(*District attempted to exceed tax levy cap which required 60 percent supermajority for approval.)

According to New York State School Boards Association, the average budget passage rate since 1969 is 85 percent. More recently, the average passage rate for the last five years is 96 percent. Since the introduction of the tax levy cap in 2012, the average passage rate for school district budgets is 97 percent.

“Parents and community members carefully reviewed school budgets and demonstrated the importance of local control by voting on their school budgets,” New York State United Teachers President Karen Magee said. “In every region of the state, what we see today is a ringing endorsement of the work of teachers and school leaders in public schools on behalf of the state’s most important asset – its students.”

NY School Budget Vote Rundown

The Top 10 Reasons You Should Vote on Your School District’s Budget

top-10Tomorrow, schools across the state will put their proposed 2015-16 spending plans up for vote. We at Ed Speaks encourage you to get out and vote tomorrow and exercise your civic duty. To get you in the voting mood (tip of the cap to David Letterman), here a Top 10 list of reasons why you should vote tomorrow on your school’s budget.

10. It’s a great opportunity to teach your children about civic responsibility, AND a good chance to practice for November.

9. So you can cancel out someone else’s vote. Whether it’s your spouse, your boss or that buddy you refuse to talk politics with, you probably know someone else who is going to vote the opposite of you — but you can even the score in the voting booth.

8. Because if you vote and a friend or neighbor doesn’t, you can tease him or her about it forever.

7. Because Election Day is the one day each year when every resident is equal. Your vote has the same impact as anyone else’s.

6. Because elections are often decided by only a few votes.

5. Because we will live with the consequences. Whether you agree with the decisions made by your district’s Board of Education in the final budget or not will be moot if you don’t exercise your right to vote.

4. Because they are our children and our future. The people we elect, the budget we accept or reject: these will both have far-reaching impacts. Be sure your opinion counts by voting.

3. Because in the case of low voter turnout, a minority of the residents can determine an entire district’s future.

2. Because you’ll be really steamed if you forget to vote, then wake up Wednesday morning to find the result isn’t what you wanted.

1. So YOU can decide. Why let other people decide what is best for you when you have a voice? Your vote is your voice. Don’t silence it…vote!

And our BONUS reason to vote: “I VOTED” makes a great Facebook status or Tweet!

Cuomo introduces Parental Choice in Education Act, unions balk

On Tuesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a proposal that would provide $150 million annually in education tax credits.

The Parental Choice in Education Act will support and protect alternative school options for parents and students across New York state.

The Act will provide:

  • tax credits to low-income families who send their children to nonpublic schools;
  • scholarships to low- and middle-income students to attend either a public school outside of their district or a nonpublic school;
  • incentives to public schools for enhanced educational programming (like after school programs); and,
  • tax credits to public school teachers for the purchase of supplies.

“Education is the greatest gift that a parent can give to their children – and it is also one of the most personal decisions that a parent can make. That’s why we need to support parental choice in education,” Cuomo said. “By rewarding donations that support public schools, providing tax credits for teachers when they purchase classroom supplies out of pocket, and easing the financial burden on families who send their children to independent, parochial or out-of-district public schools, we can make a fundamental difference in the lives of students, families and educators across the state.”

Teachers unions argue that the tax credit is a facade, avoiding the main issue of underfunded public schools.

“If the governor’s billionaire hedge fund backers want to donate to private and religious schools, no one is stopping them. They’re free to give to charity,” New York State United Teachers spokesman Carl Korn told Capital New York. “What they want, however, is a nearly 100 percent state tax credit for doing so. The Education Investment Tax Credit is just another giveaway to the rich and an affront to school districts across the state still struggling from years of chronic under-funding by the state.”

Cuomo said the Act is especially important for low-income families and families living in overcrowded or failing districts.

“The legislature must pass this Act this year, because families deserve a choice when it comes to their child’s education,” he said.

There are four weeks left in the legislative session.

School budget votes are one week away!

School budget votes across New York will take place one week from today. Take our poll to let us know what you’ll be doing next Tuesday!

#FridayFlick: New York’s tax levy cap explained

With school budget votes right around the corner, you may be finding yourself checking your local district’s website to find out more about tax information for the coming year.

Although often referred to as a “2 percent tax cap,” New York’s tax levy “cap” law does not restrict any proposed tax levy increase to 2 percent. Pursuant to the law, each school district must follow an 8-step calculation to calculate its individual “tax levy limit.” That limit then determines what level of voter support is required for budget approval. Essentially, the “tax levy limit” sets a threshold that, if exceeded, requires districts to obtain a higher level of community support to pass a proposed budget.

Still confused? Hit the Play button below.

POV: We are not failing

This Point of View was submitted by Michelle Adalian, a fourth grade teacher at Schalmont Central School District.

Points_viewWhen I was a child, I loved to line my bed with every stuffed animal and doll I owned. I read books, sang songs, wrote stories, had calendar time, and modeled math. Because of the wonder and joy of learning I encountered in my first public education experience in Kindergarten, I knew at the age of five that teaching was what I wanted to do when I grew up. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Smith, made learning fun and inviting. I never questioned my early decision to be just like her and I anxiously waited for the day I would have my very own classroom.

Years later when I walked into my own classroom I came to understand that every fall represents a new beginning. Every year is a chance for teachers to make an unforgettable first impression, create an inviting environment, set up routines, and establish reward systems. Most importantly, we prepare our hearts to grow to include each new face that will call our classroom home five days a week for the next 10 months.

My first year of teaching was hard work but rewarding. I was happy to come early and stay late to prep and plan, collaborate and create. The students’ excitement fueled my excitement. My fourth graders were filled with curiosity, a natural thirst for knowledge, and willingness to grow. We conducted experiments. We formed literature circles and looked in depth at literature. We wrote for a purpose. We “adopted” a soldier who was serving in Afghanistan and sent numerous letters and care packages to his unit. We used manipulatives to solve math problems and worked together to resolve real-life conflicts. We developed social skills and practiced compassion. We celebrated our successes and our hiccups along the way. We found that making mistakes lead to new discoveries. We went outside to run, play, or enjoy the fresh air. We’d come back refreshed, ready to work hard.

Fourteen years later, I am lucky enough to be able to work with a tremendously dedicated faculty and administration that is focused on meeting the needs of each individual student. We plan lessons together, bounce ideas off of one another, and rely on our administration for advice and guidance. Still, it rarely feels like enough. My 4th grade class of 2015 has a different feel than my class of 2001. There aren’t many spur of the moment discoveries or quick games of tag. It feels as if time has been sucked away and it is implied that every second spent in the classroom should focus on “increasing rigor” and preparing for the test. Many kids are stressed, worried, anxious, and nervous. These children are stressed. They ask about the test. When is the test? What will be on the test? What if I fail the test? They get stomachaches and headaches. They put their heads down. They cry. They shut down.

These tests that are becoming the end-all-be-all of student and teacher assessment are killing the teaching profession. They’re squashing creativity. These tests are not informing our instruction as proper assessments should. They tell us nothing of our students or our ability to teach. Please, look at a portfolio of work we’ve completed. Observe students engaged in an activity. Watch the “light bulb” click for a student who’s been working his tail off! But, to be judged solely based off of a test score, especially a test score taken from an assessment requiring students to comprehend material well above their level is unfair. Why is this considered valid?

I hate to drop a bomb, but here’s a little secret: some kids in New York state or around the nation for that matter, don’t care about the test. Why? Because she was taken by Child Protective Services and had the most frightening night of her life. Because his parents are alcoholics. Because her mom leaves when things get hard. Because he lives in a shelter. Because his mother has cancer. Because he is abused. Because she is used as a pawn in a nasty divorce. Because his father is incarcerated. Because, because, because….

Maybe many of those “becauses” seem to apply to a limited number of students, but children are affected by so many events that we, as adults may think are insignificant. In reality, these small moments impact a student’s ability to focus and their ability to try their best, even on a “test day.” A child may not perform well because he missed the bus, because she got into an argument with her sister, because her best friend sat on the bus with someone else, because there is a new baby at home that gets all the attention, because his grandmother is ill, because he is thinking about the next level of his video game, because she overslept. Because, because, because… After months of teaching and learning, it is an injustice to be represented as a number. To be labeled as a 4, 3, 2, or 1 based off of a single assessment is a tiny and unfair piece of a very large puzzle.

I encourage “the powers that be” to walk just an inch in our shoes. We do much more than what a bubble sheet might reveal. It doesn’t show the amount of hugs given to little ones who feel broken, the coats bought for children who wear nothing more than a thin shirt on a below-freezing day. It doesn’t properly depict the teacher who gives up her lunch to provide extra support. It will never show the tears shed and the sleepless nights wondering if one of your students is being abused. It doesn’t total the amount of money spent on snacks passed out to those who rarely have a meal waiting for them at home, or the toiletries given away so hygiene can be properly tended to. I could go on… and on…we all could.

We are not a “special interest group” as Governor Cuomo likes to paint us. We are public servants who proudly perform our jobs each day. We are educators trying our best to lead the next generation to make this world a better place. We need to be supported, not attacked. We need to be encouraged, not degraded. We are loving. Compassionate. Creative. Flexible. Innovative. We carry our students in our hearts long after we exit our school each day. Every child deserves to be tended to with grace, care, respect, patience, and love. Each student has a story that deserves to be heard. I fear for the educational future of my four daughters. My kindergartner enthusiastically announced that she wants to be a teacher when she grows up. I wonder, when she gathers her dolls to play school, will they be sitting in rows with a bubble sheet and pencil in hand?

We are not failing. In fact, we are quite the contrary. There is no such thing as failing when you serve in a school district. We do not allow ourselves to fail. We keep trying, we keep learning, we keep coming back for more. We learn new ways to reach students. We attend workshops, seminars, and conferences. We take advantage of professional development. We seek the advice of others, we serve on committees, we read the latest research, and we assess and analyze data. We have open lines of communication with parents. We are involved in the community. We spend early mornings and late nights preparing, grading, planning and thinking.

No, we are not failing. We are far from failing. We are giving it everything we’ve got and then some.

POV: If I’m not in the classroom, my kids will be missing out

This Point of View was submitted by Jessica Melchior, a third grade teacher in the Schalmont Central School District.

Points_viewThink of your child’s favorite teachers. Think of the teachers who made an impact in your life. Think of your friends, family and neighbors who are teachers. Many of these teachers could be standing in an unemployment line in a few years after they have been deemed “ineffective” or their school has been deemed “failing”.

This is a direct result of the so-called “reforms” attached to the 2015 New York State budget.

All of those law makers who listened to teachers, parents and administrators, and then turned their back on us with a “heavy heart” need to know that they passed a budget that was discriminatory at the core. They took an APPR system that had potential, scrapped it, and made it even worse for teachers and students. Teachers across the state are considering other employment options and asking: “Should we stay strong in our positions and take the inevitable hit of getting rated ‘developing’ or ‘ineffective’ after years of service, only to get fired in a few years and tossed out of the profession? Or, do we leave now with our heads high to seek employment outside of education?”

This leaves me with a burning question as a parent. When so many of the teachers are gone, when teaching becomes a revolving door, who will teach my children?

I’ve been on the side of reform. I’ve defended Common Core to my parents, colleagues, friends and family. I’ve said it has merit and I believed in its rigor. I stated before teachers, administrators, NYSUT leaders and legislators at the Educational Forum at South Colonie on February 26th, 2015; “I am not against Common Core.  I am not against assessments. I am not against APPR.”  I welcome rigorous curriculum, I rely on assessment data and I appreciate feedback from observations.  But this?  This isn’t what I believe in. This isn’t something I can stand up for.  This means it is only a matter of time before I lose my job.

I could justify to you right now why I deserve to be a teacher. I could tell you that I’ve never received an “ineffective” score on an evaluation. I could tell you that I believe in authentic learning tasks, so each year when I teach fourth grade, I dress up in colonial clothing and host a revolutionary war debate. I could tell you I that I have been on the Curriculum Committee, chaired the School Facilitation Team, lead a major district-wide initiative to get kids and families reading, sat on the board of our local teacher’s center, served as grade level coordinator and facilitated workshops on Evidence Based Learning, use of Science Interactive Notebooks and project-based learning. I could tell you that I care deeply for the kids in my room each year and that I value their learning so much that I literally bring home a suitcase over weekends and breaks.

I could tell you why the governor’s plan is flawed too. It’s because the standardized tests used to judge my performance are not grade level assessments. They are created by Pearson, a for-profit company which also sells textbooks and student management software. I could tell you that the cut scores on these tests have actually changed to make it harder for kids to achieve a proficiency, making more teachers and schools seem like failures. I could tell you that the governor heard parents say that there was too much testing but ignored them. I could tell you that the approved tests do not mirror instruction, or that because I have a vested interest in the score, I cannot score my own students’ assessments. I could tell you that the governor knows this and is now making local schools the bad guy if they choose to use more than one assessment as APPR.

I could tell you that these tests make my kids cry. They make my kids anxious. They make my kids feel sick.  They make my kids not want to come to school. Quite frankly, these tests and this system are an injustice to teachers, schools and most importantly, our children.  They are not fair.

I could justify all of this to you. And then you would look up at me and think, “She’ll be safe. She’s one of the good ones.”

But you’d be wrong. I’m not safe.

My students struggle on these so-called grade-level assessments. My career as an educator is uncertain. And if I’m not in the classroom, my kids will be missing out. I was meant to be in that classroom. Because I see the good in every child in my room.  Because I realize that their growth will come. Because I make learning fun. Because I know that kids are more than a number.

Just yesterday someone said to me in a condescending voice, “You won’t lose your job.  The governor is just trying to get rid of a few bad apples.” I don’t know when apples became a symbol of education. I do know that there are a few rotten apples in a barrel if they’re left at the bottom without any sunlight, festering in warm temperatures. The governor’s plan doesn’t just toss out the rotten apples (which may have been made rotten by the conditions they were in); the governor’s plan tosses out all of the apples in the bottom half of the barrel. It is discriminatory to the core. It’s not good for the apples, it’s not good for the teachers, it’s not good for the students and it’s certainly not good for the people of New York state.

POV: Parents should decide children’s participation in exams after thoughtful and informed consideration

This Point of View was submitted by Glenn Niles, superintendent of the Arkport Central School District.

Points_viewA growing number of parents and caregivers statewide are planning to opt their children out of participating in standardized tests administered in public schools across the country this spring.

We in the Arkport Central School District understand parents have questions and concerns about the tests, which are scheduled to take place in April for students in grades 3-8. And while we understand some parents’ wish to have their children refuse to take the upcoming state assessments, we’re also concerned about the incomplete and, in some cases, inaccurate information about test refusal that is being promoted across social media channels and elsewhere — namely that the tests have no value, that they are overly punitive to teachers and that the information they provide is not used.

We urge parents to decide about their children’s participation in the upcoming exams only after thoughtful and informed consideration.

After 20 years working in New York public schools, I know first-hand the essential role that testing plays in the learning cycle; good teaching and learning depend on understanding what students know. But in the opt-out storm now raging around New York and across the nation, I fear the primary purpose — and ultimate value — of student assessment is being clouded by politics and the misdirected frustration of some well-meaning groups. Test refusal has become the latest political football in a game that ultimately sidelines local school districts and the students entrusted to their care.

I understand the impulse to rage against the machine. But the local school district is not the machine. For those who don’t know, school superintendents and Boards of Education have no say in the administration of standardized state tests to students in grades 3-8 in English language arts and math. The testing is a national mandate as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002. Furthermore, here in New York, all schools are required to have a 95 percent participation rate in state testing, as noted in a January 2013 memo to school districts from the New York Education Department (NYSED).

When the opt-out movement gained momentum last year and many districts’ participation dropped below the 95 percent mark, the state education department calculated the weighted average of the 2012-13 and 2013-14 participation rates for those schools. In Arkport, for example, the 2013-14 rate of 87 percent was offset by 2012-13’s rate of 96 percent. But that was a one-time fix. Last year’s rate will not help us this year.

For those that fail to reach this minimum threshold, consequences can include a loss of control over how federal Title I funds can be spent and/or the imposition of state intervention measures, such as the mandated preparation of new curricular and academic intervention plans; data analysis followed by strategic plans to address identified problems; implementation plans; mid-year plan reviews, final reports, etc. It goes on and on. I’ve done it all before, and it’s an enormous drain of time and other resources.

Specifically, if Arkport fails to reach a 95 percent participation rate in the state tests, we’ll likely have to re-do our District Comprehensive Education Plan (DCEP) and School Comprehensive Education Plan (SCEP), which will siphon away instruction time from teachers. We will also be required to participate in mandatory trainings in Albany; shift the focus of our professional development; and be required to set aside significant local, state and federal funds for “parent engagement.”

In short, we’ll lose a lot of local control and valuable time that would be better spent in the classroom with our students and teachers.

As important as it is for us to have the last word on how we spend the tax dollars set aside for the education of Arkport children, the real value in state testing is what it accomplishes in the teaching-learning relationship.

Standardized tests serve as an objective assessment of all students at a particular grade level and as a measuring stick of students’ understanding of the skills and knowledge embodied in the New York State Learning Standards. Without standardized testing, there is no way to compare students in one school or district with students in other schools and other locations, or against any objective measure of achievement.

All tests are meant to identify and help bridge the gaps that exist between what people know and what they should know in order to move to the next grade, be accepted in a college or vocational school, get a license, or earn a promotion at work. Schools use standardized test results to shine a light on skill and knowledge gaps — generally by grade level and specifically by student — so teachers can plan how best to fill them.

In addition, districts use state assessment results as one measure in determining what services or supports a student may need in school, such as academic intervention services in reading and math.

Some opposition to state testing stems from the state’s use of the test results in New York’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) ratings system used to evaluate teachers and principals. Currently, 20 percent of a teacher’s or a principal’s evaluation is derived from “student growth,” which can be based on state test results, depending on which grade level/subject they teach or oversee. “Growth scores” are based on how students perform on state exams compared to similar students across the state. Teachers are assigned growth scores based on demonstrated student growth as measured by these standardized assessments. Interestingly, and ultimately, it is not students’ individual achievement scores that matter for the purpose of teacher evaluations. It does not matter how many 1s , 2s, 3s or 4s any single teacher’s students achieve. What matters, and has always mattered, is whether or not a teacher’s students have demonstrated growth, from one year to the next.

Education law states that parents have the primary responsibility for their children’s education, and the decisions they make for their children should be respected. And I don’t dispute that. But as an educator, I understand the value in measurement and the penalties for non-compliance. At Arkport, each one of us is committed to ensuring our students are learning, growing and preparing as best they can during every one of the 182 instructional days in the school year. We accomplish this through a daily cycle of teaching, learning and assessing. We ask students to show us what they know every day, using a wide variety of assessment tools.

For us, the state exams are no more or less important than any other assessment we give our students at any time during the school year — all of which are used to help us support our students by planning appropriate instruction for them. If you sincerely wish to support teachers, consider providing them with all the tools they need to provide your children with all the services they need.