MaryEllen Elia: Back To School

Oct 5, 2017

Another school year is well underway. Teachers, students and parents are getting comfortable with new classes, schedules and routines. It’s an exciting time of year.

On the first day of school, I visited Albany’s International Center, an innovative program for students new to the country and new to the English language. I was amazed at the resilience of the students and the dedication of the faculty and staff there.

And I look forward to seeing many more of your schools throughout the year.

This school year marks my third as State Education Commissioner – and I couldn’t be more excited about what’s in store. This year we will build upon the progress we’ve made over the past two years to improve public education in New York State.

We got a lot accomplished at the September meeting of the Board of Regents. The Board acted on two critically important matters we’ve been working on for the past two years.

First, they adopted the Next Generation English Language Arts and Mathematics Learning Standards. These new standards are the culmination of a two-year-long review process that included more than four thousand public comments and the input of committees made up of 130 parents and teachers.

The new standards set clear, age appropriate expectations on what children should know and be able to do at each grade level while preparing them for the rigors of college and the 21st century workplace.

But getting these new standards in place is just the beginning. The next steps involve engagement and implementation.

I started my career as a Social Studies teacher. Even though I’m not in the classroom anymore, this perspective still guides my work. In social studies classrooms, students learn to consider how past events impact the present and how to use those lessons to make our collective future better.

With recent history in mind, we are rolling out the new standards over the course of the next several years.

Full implementation of the new standards in our classrooms won’t occur for another three years, allowing ample time for parents and educators to get comfortable with the revised material.

And the state won’t test any students on the revised standards until the Spring of 2021. That’s just the fair and the smart thing to do.

The Board also recently decided to shorten the number of days students will spend taking tests. Starting with this spring’s State math and English language arts assessments, students will take two days of tests in each subject rather than three.

That means two fewer days of testing for our students, and two additional days of classroom teaching and learning.

The Board also recently approved New York’s Every Student Succeeds Act Plan – ESSA for short. For the past year and a half, we engaged with thousands of stakeholders, policy experts and educators to put together our plan.

ESSA replaces No Child Left Behind and gives us a new opportunity to look at how well our schools are doing and to provide additional supports to schools that need them.

Our plan emphasizes the importance of fostering equity in education for all our students and expands measures for school support and accountability, and for student and school success.

We submitted the plan to the US Department of Education and expect approval early next year. But we’re not waiting until then to start planning our implementation of ESSA – that work is already well underway.

But that’s not all. Like our students, we have homework to do to make our schools even stronger.

For example, this year we will start the process of gathering input from teachers on a new evaluation system – one that will be done with teachers, not done to them, as was most recently the case.

We’ll also look for new strategies to achieve true equity across New York’s schools and to ensure every classroom respects and celebrates our State’s rich diversity.

And we’re closely watching two other issues at the federal level –repeal of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the federal education budget.

Fortunately, both the House of Representatives and the Senate have rejected President Trump’s proposed $9 billion cuts to education.

But we’re not out of the woods yet.

In fact, the education spending bill passed by the House earlier this month would cut $2.4 billion from the Education Department – primarily by eliminating funding for vitally important teacher training programs.

We’re closely monitoring what these proposed cuts would mean for New York. And we will continue to press our Congressional delegation to reject any cuts to education.

As you may know, Chancellor Rosa and I have also been very vocal in our support for the DACA Program. 

We have been very clear that it’s time for our Congressional leaders to demonstrate true leadership and embrace Dreamers for what they are – productive, hard-working, tax-paying members of our communities.

I will keep you updated as we work our way through all these assignments.

We realize that our homework won’t be easy and we won’t be able to do it alone. We’ll continue to turn to you, the public, for help.

It’s the same approach we teach our students – if you do your research and seek out other perspectives, your finished product will be much stronger.

I wish you all the best for this school year. Together, we will make it the best one yet! 

MaryEllen Elia is New York State Education Commissioner.

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