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‘If I Was a Parent… I Would Opt Out’: New NY Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa Comes Out Swinging
Photo Credit: Courtesy of New York State Education Department
March 21, 2016
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If there was any doubt about how emphatically New York’s next Regents chancellor will support the right of parents to opt their children out of state tests, Betty Rosa put them to rest Monday by saying she’s one of them.
“If I was a parent and I was not on the Board of Regents, I would opt out at this time, yes,” Rosa said, in response to questions from reporters following the board’s 15-0 vote to elect her chancellor Monday morning in Albany. Two Regents abstained.
Rosa, who founded and runs a consulting company for urban districts across the country, stopped short of recommending a specific course of action for New York parents when the tests are given next month to third- through eighth-graders across the state. She said she respects parents’ choices.
“The law gives them the right to make an informed decision,” said Rosa, who was endorsed by the New York State Allies for Public Education, which organizes opt-out rallies and information forums.
The law also allows the U.S. Department of Education to withhold federal funding from states that fail to meet 95 percent participation rates on the tests. New York was one of a dozen states to receive letters late last year from the department saying it was in danger of falling into that group and asking how it planned to deal with test boycotters in 2016.
New York has already dialed back the length of the tests, the time restrictions and their use in teacher evaluations but Rosa’s comments underline an even more dramatic shift as she takes over leadership of the state’s top education policy-making body.
A former Bronx public school teacher, principal and superintendent, and a member of the board since 2008, she succeeds Merryl Tisch, who oversaw the state’s introduction of stricter teacher accountability measures and the more rigorous Common Core standards aligned to the state tests. Tisch is stepping down after 20 years on the board, including the last seven as chancellor.
“We as a board must move from what was the so-called, as people like to label it, ‘reform,’” Rosa said Monday morning during a meeting of the 17-member board. “I say, ‘Welcome the transformers.’ So, we are agents of transformation. We are agents that are responsible for the well-being, the health, the educational experiences of all the wonderful children of the state.”
Tisch’s last year was marked by the rise of the opt-out movement and an unprecedented 20 percent of New York students who boycotted the standardized English Language Arts and math tests given last spring to third- through eighth-graders.
The contentious boycott movement boiled over as parents and educators became fed up with what they viewed as a debilitating increase in the amount of standardized testing in schools and using student scores to evaluate teachers.
Rosa made a point Monday of recalling a disagreement she and Tisch had in 2009 over the release of test scores. As reported by the New York Times in 2010, Rosa and others believed the scores inaccurately portrayed a dramatic improvement in student achievement based on unreliable measurements, and urged the chancellor, unsuccessfully, not to release them publicly.
That incident, followed by the opt-out controversy, has chipped away at trust between parents, schools and state officials, Rosa indicated Monday.
“We have to rebuild that trust,” she said. “We have to rebuild a sense of confidence, we have to rebuild a sense of that we’re in this together, that this is not about ‘We have the answers and you have to challenge (them).”
Rosa spent much of her career as a teacher, principal and superintendent in some of the state’s poorest schools, in the South Bronx. She was first elected to the board in 2008 to represent the Twelfth Judicial District in Bronx County.
The leadership transition comes as a state officials and task force members are reviewing the standards as well as the state’s teacher evaluation system for potential overhaul.
How Rosa will work with new state Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia — who has encouraged parents to have their children sit for the tests and said the notion that educators would encourage opt-outs is “unethical” — remains to be seen. New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Farina has also urged families to “opt in” to the tests next month.
Rosa, Elia and newly elected Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown, a lawyer from Rochester and a Regent since 2012, took turns answering questions focused on teacher evaluations and testing at Monday’s press conference.
Elia and Brown each stressed that changes put in place for this year’s exams — in addition to being shorter and with unlimited time for students to take them, the scores will also be available faster — are in response to demands from parents and educators across the state.
“I think when people are informed, they make better decisions,” Elia said. “And I do believe that the tests that we have in place are better and I do believe that there is a benefit for those assessments to be given to our students.”
Brown forecast a more active role for the board on shaping the teacher evaluation system.
“As all of you know, teacher evaluation has been the product of the governor’s office and the Legislature and not the Board of Regents,” Brown said. “The moratorium allows us time to share our thoughts, our insight, our experiences, with the Legislature and the governor to better shape teacher evaluation of the future.”
Asked if she supports the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers, Rosa didn’t answer directly but said the board is “taking stock of what’s in place.” The Regents will use the moratorium on the use of scores to evaluate teachers — now in place through 2019 — to study the research, she said.
Asked what qualities she considers when evaluating teachers, Rosa stressed the ability to be “culturally sensitive” to students’ unique strengths and challenges shaped by their lives outside of school, she said.
“Many times people have great content and great skills, but many times it’s knowing that our children have come to school with many issues, complex issues, and so I look for someone who really understands what it takes,” she said.
Educators have a responsibility to shepherd students’ academic progress as well as their social and emotional growth, she added.
The selections of the Regents new chancellor and vice chancellor were met with both hopeful excitement and skepticism.
“Dr. Betty Rosa is the very definition of a trailblazer — the first Latina to serve in this position, and the first Bronxite, as well — and I am proud and excited that my good friend has been selected as the Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents,” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to work with her towards greater education outcomes for children not only in the Bronx, but across this city and this state.” (The 74: Ruben Diaz, Jr., the Up-and-Coming Bronx Leader Who Just Might Be NYC’s Next ‘Education Mayor’)
The state teachers union congratulated Rosa and Brown and said members hope their appointment and the Legislature’s recent vote on three new Regents members “signals a new era.”
“There is a lot of hard work ahead,” New York State United Teachers President Karen Magee said. “Yet we are optimistic that students, parents and educators will have a more meaningful voice in fixing New York standards; reducing the burden of standardized testing; and creating a fair and objective evaluation system. New York’s public schools will be better off when the Regents completely achieve these goals and we urge them to press ‘fast forward’ on the process.”
High Achievement New York, the pro-Common Core coalition of parents, educators and community leaders, called on Brown and Rosa to “follow in the footsteps” of Tisch and current Vice Chancellor Anthony Bottar.
“With today’s election, it is now time for the organizers of the so-called opt-out movement to finally take yes for an answer and stop urging children to refuse to take tests — and they must end their campaign to destroy higher standards,” the group said in a statement. “We are very concerned that Chancellor-elect Rosa was endorsed by a single-issue group whose sole aim is to take New York State back to a failed system where millions of children fell through the cracks.”
However, the group is encouraged by Rosa’s long tenure on the board, it said.
“We're hopeful that she will work with us and recognize the voices of the majority of parents who want the highest standards and aligned assessments.”
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