Looking ahead

Incoming commissioner Elia talks evals, promises to listen to opt-out concerns

PHOTO: YouTube / HCPSVideoChannel
MaryEllen Elia in October 2014.

Incoming state education commissioner MaryEllen Elia said Tuesday that she favors giving school districts more time to make changes to their teacher evaluation systems, but skirted questions about other hot-button issues.

Speaking on the Capitol Pressroom radio show, Elia deflected questions about her specific views on the state’s teacher-evaluation system, the charter-school cap, and an education tax credit being pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, saying she is still learning about New York policies as she prepares to take over the education department on July 6. What she did say is that she is ready to listen to concerns from across the state and committed to holding teachers and schools accountable for student success.

Asked about the New York’s growing number of parents opting their students out of the state tests, Elia cited her experience in Hillsborough County, the large Florida district she oversaw for most of the last decade. Town hall meetings there helped explain the changes to parents and keep opt-outs low, she said. (Florida first changed learning standards in 2010, and has also said that students cannot legally opt out of state tests, though some parents have reportedly told their children to not answer any test questions this year.)

But what about New York, host Susan Arbetter asked, where state officials’ town halls did little to quell the movement’s growth?

“I certainly think every sitatution has got its own environment, and we have to work with that,” Elia said. “But I think when you communicate and you hear what people are concerned about, you can respond to that.”

When Elia takes over, she will also face school districts skeptical about another round of changes to the state’s teacher evaluation system. State education officials are still finalizing the regulations in response to the law passed with the state budget requiring districts to implement a new system by November if they don’t qualify for a “hardship” extension, though some lawmakers have been calling for those deadlines to be extended for all districts.

Elia emphasized that, in her own view, state tests should not be the only metric used to rate teachers and principals, citing the peer evaluation system that she called “extremely powerful” in Hillsborough County.

“I think there’s a place for quality teachers to go in and give feedback to their colleagues and their peers,” she said. Exactly how much test scores should account for depends on the rest of the rubric, she said, adding that she did not yet fully understand New York’s method for calculating teachers’ value-added scores.

If the law is changed to extend those deadlines, Arbetter asked, should districts get more time to make those changes?

“I would say they should, yeah,” Elia said.

The incoming commissioner also reiterated her support for charter schools — noting that Hillsborough County had 45 — if they are shown to be improving student performance.

“I am totally in favor of accountability,” she said.


Teachers in Millington and Knoxville just won the Oscar awards of education

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Millington English teacher Katherine Watkins reacts after learning that she is the recipient of a 2017 Milken Educator Award.

Two Tennessee teachers were surprised during school assemblies Thursday with a prestigious national teaching award, $25,000 checks, and a visit from the state’s education chief.

Katherine Watkins teaches high school English in Millington Municipal Schools in Shelby County. She serves as the English department chair and professional learning community coordinator at Millington Central High School. She is also a trained jazz pianist, published poet, and STEM teacher by summer.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin learns she is among the recipients.

Paula Franklin teaches Advanced Placement government at West High School in Knoxville. Since she took on the course, its enrollment has doubled, and 82 percent of her students pass with an average score that exceeds the national average.

The teachers are two of 45 educators being honored nationally with this year’s Milken Educator Awards from the Milken Family Foundation. The award includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

“It is an honor to celebrate two exceptional Tennessee educators today on each end of the state,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who attended each assembly. “Paula Franklin and Katherine Watkins should be proud of the work they have done to build positive relationships with students and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce.”

Foundation chairman Lowell Milken was present to present the awards, which have been given to thousands of teachers since 1987.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Students gather around Millington teacher Katherine Watkins as she receives a check as part of her Milken Educator Award.

The Milken awards process starts with recommendations from sources that the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the foundation, which picks the winners.

Last year, Chattanooga elementary school teacher Katie Baker was Tennessee’s sole winner.

In all, 66 Tennessee educators have been recognized by the Milken Foundation and received a total of $1.6 million since the program began in the state in 1992.

You can learn more about the Milken Educator Awards here.

Colorado Vote 2018

Polis campaign releases education plan, including new promise about teacher raises

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Congressman Jared Polis, one of several Democrats running for governor, released an education plan for the state Wednesday that includes new details on tackling teacher shortages and better preparing high school students for work.

The Boulder Democrat wants to help school districts build affordable housing for teachers, increase teacher pay and make sure that “100 percent of Colorado’s school districts are able to offer dual and concurrent enrollment programs through an associate’s degree or professional certification, and work to boost enrollment in them.”

The education plan includes the congressman’s initial campaign promise to deliver free and universal preschool and kindergarten.

“Part of my frustration is that politicians have been talking about preschool and kindergarten for decades,” Polis said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “It’s time to stop talking … and actually do it.”

Big questions remain, however, about how Colorado would pay for Polis’s plans.

Free universal preschool and kindergarten would cost hundreds of millions of tax dollars the state does not have. Polis has acknowledged that voters will need to approve a tax increase to secure the funding necessary — and voters rejected Colorado’s last big statewide ask to fund education initiatives.

His additional promises, especially providing schools with more money to pay teachers, only adds to the price tag for his education plan. The campaign did not release any projections of how much his teacher pay raise proposal would cost.

“If a teacher can’t afford to live in the community they work in, that is not going to be an attractive profession,” he said. “We need to do a better job in Colorado making sure teachers are rewarded for their hard work.”

Other components to Polis’s plan includes providing student loan relief for teachers who commit to serving in high-need and rural areas, increasing teacher training and building and renovating more.

Polis is the latest Democrat to roll out an education platform.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston released more details earlier this week about his campaign promise for tuition-free community college and job training.

Johnston’s campaign estimates that the initiative would cost about $47 million annually. The campaign provided specifics on how the state would pay for it: by combining existing federal grants and state scholarships, revenue from online sales tax, and state workforce development funding. Savings from volunteer hours put in by tuition recipients also are factored in.

Former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy released her education plan last month.

Like Polis, Kennedy is calling for teacher raises. She wants the state’s average salary to be closer to the national average. The former state treasurer also wants to expand preschool and job training for high school students. A key piece of Kennedy’s proposal to pay for her initiatives: reforming the state’s tax laws to generate more revenue.

Other Democrats running to replace Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, include Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and businessman Noel Ginsburg.

The Republican field to replace Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is also crowded. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman announced earlier this month that she’s running. Other leading Republican candidates include former Congressman Tom Tancredo, state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, and businessmen Doug Robinson and Victor Mitchell. George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, dropped out of the race to instead run for attorney general.