Before Stepping Down, NY’s Top Education Official Looks Back At Tenure

Encore: January 05, 2016

This is the second of a two-part interview with Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch. Hear her thoughts on Common Core and the controversy it stirred in our first interview.

After nearly two decades of helping to shape the policies of New York’s public school system, the state’s top education official says she’s ready to move on.

New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who has led the board for the last six years but has been a member for nearly 20 years, announced late last year she’s stepping down when her current term ends in March. As chancellor, Tisch ushered in some of the most ambitious and controversial changes to the state’s education system. She says public instruction has made significant gains since she joined the Regents Board in 1996, but the challenges back then are the same challenges we’re facing now.

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“It has been an extraordinary 20 years of change and the pace of change over the last five or six years has just been mind blowing, and I think the public is very well tuned in to what’s been going on in education,” Tisch told MetroFocus Host Rafael Pi Roman.

Tisch says New York has improved its career and technical education, increased its graduation rates and upped its standards when it comes to teacher development. However, she says other problems persist.

“But we still find ourselves with the perennial problems: how do we educate children in poverty? How do we deal with students who have learning disabilities? How do we educate children where English is not their first language?” she said.

During her tenure, Tisch helped spearhead the state’s launch of new education standards known as Common Core, which drastically altered the instruction children received in public classrooms across the country.

<strongLEARN MORE: Explaining Common Core

Many parents in New York pushed back, and 20 percent of eligible public school students ultimately opted-out of standardized tests based on the new teaching methods. (According to The New York Times, “education officials framed the opt-out movement as more prevalent in white middle- and upper-middle-class district, with Long Island a particular hot spot.”)

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Despite the controversy, she says her greatest accomplishment on the board was the focus on standards, which she claims gives students the skills they need to succeed in whichever path they choose after graduating high school.

“I believe in standards that are aligned with 21st-century competencies. I believe that every child who graduates high school in New York State, or any place in this country deserves a choice: do I want to adopt a career right away or do I want to go on to higher education?” she said. “And to the extent that we stayed with our old standards, we were diminishing the choices that our students were going to have.”

While Ticsh admits there are areas she wished she and her colleagues made greater strides, such as opening up more pipelines to careers for graduates, the former school teacher said the real key to addressing achievement gaps and failing schools lies outside the Board of Regents.

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“I think only communities can make that change. I have often wondered why communities accept failure in schools for decades. You go to areas in the Bronx in New York City where you see parents walk their kids into a school building and that parents was failed by the very school that they are now sending their child to, and yet they are hesitant to support closing that school,” she said.

She added, “And unless parents and communities are willing to stand up and say ‘We will not tolerate this,’ with a very purposeful voice, we will continue to see issues that are related to the gap, issues that are related to perpetual segregation of our school system and issues that are related to a school system that funds kids in some districts at $37,000 and at some school districts at $13,000.”

Tisch says she plans on staying in education policy after her term ends.

Tisch and her husband James are supporters of WNET.

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