What Tisch’s departure will, and won’t, mean for New York education debates

To editorial writers at the New York Daily News, Tisch leaving is “a perilous setback.” To the more optimistic state teachers union, it’s a chance to forge “a new direction in education policy.”

“Clearly everything is beginning to shift,” said Jeannette Deutermann, a co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education, a parent group leading the state’s growing movement to boycott state tests. “The key question is whether it will shift enough to satisfy parents and education activists.”

Deutermann’s view isn’t the only one. But the imminent departure of Merryl Tisch, who became chancellor in 2009 and moved swiftly to establish new student learning standards and overhaul the ways teachers get certified and evaluated, has raised alarm bells for both supporters and critics of Tisch’s tenure.

Their question is, will her aggressive policy agenda survive the transition? And where does this leave New York’s education debates?

This week, both sides acknowledged that her exit in five months poses some threat to policies Tisch implemented, like teacher evaluations linked to student test scores and New York’s adoption of the Common Core. But current and former education officials said that momentum and the state’s political dynamics would ensure that the most important elements of their policies would endure.

“I see this less as an end of an era and more as a phase two,” said Kristen Huff, New York’s testing czar during much of Tisch’s tenure.

For one thing, they say, it would be hard to change some things back.

“A lot of the stuff is enshrined in statute,” said Julia Rafal-Baer, a former assistant commissioner for the State Education Department.

The most obvious example is the state’s teacher evaluation law, which has been heavily debated since it was first passed in 2010. But five years and several edits later, the law’s main components — particularly that student performance be a significant factor in evaluations — have not been watered down.

That teacher evaluation law helped spark anti-testing backlash that officials in the post-Tisch era will have to deal with. When she leaves in March, students will be about to take state exams, which one in five eligible students opted out of in 2015.

Still, two of state government’s most powerful officials — Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan — tend to align with Tisch’s agenda.

It’s also significant that Tisch was able to lead the search for a new state education commissioner this year. Her choice, MaryEllen Elia, is aligned with Tisch on key issues like the importance of the Common Core standards.

Elia is also taking steps to address the concerns about an over-emphasis on testing. She is planning to review the “growth” methodology through which student test scores factor into teacher evaluations, and announced plans to develop a new set of state assessments.

Deutermann said her group won’t be satisfied until state test scores are completely removed as a factor in a teacher’s rating — a change that Elia has not committed to.

Others familiar with the political dynamics on the Regents said that big changes were, in fact, likely, but that they might not take place until well after Tisch departs.

Most of the 17-member Board of Regents are still considered allies of Tisch. That could change in 2017, when three — James Tallon, Andrew Brown and Charles Bendit — will see their terms end. Harry Phillips, a former Regent, said that could tip the balance more in favor of a group of seven dissident Regents who vote in a bloc.

“Then it will be a totally new ball game,” Phillips said.

Still, former education commissioner David Steiner said Tisch’s effects on the tenor of education policy debates will be lasting.

State test scores soared in the second half of the 2000s, reaching nearly 80 percent proficiency in English and 86 percent proficiency in math. But student performance according to other measures, like on national English and math exams and on college-readiness metrics, told a far more dismal tale.

One of Steiner’s first moves as commissioner, with Tisch providing political cover, was to show how inflated those numbers were and recalibrate the tests to reflect higher passing standards. Steiner said Tisch’s insistence that the Regents focus on those achievement numbers changed the conversation in important ways.

“Successors will no doubt take up such issues as testing and teacher evaluations and move them in different directions, but the landscape and basic assumptions have been deeply altered,” Steiner said.