MaryEllen Elia, Commissioner of Education & President of the University of the State of New York
MaryEllen Elia is the New York State Commissioner of Education and President of the University of the State of New York (USNY). In this role, she oversees the work of more than 700 school districts with 3.2 million students; 7,000 libraries; 900 museums; and more than 50 professions encompassing nearly 900,000 licensees. A native New Yorker, Ms. Elia has nearly 50 years of experience as an educator and is New York’s first female Education Commissioner.
Prior to her appointment in New York, Commissioner Elia served for ten years as superintendent of schools in Hillsborough County, Florida. In Hillsborough, which includes Tampa and is the nation’s eighth largest school district, she successfully implemented higher learning standards, partnered with teachers to develop a comprehensive evaluation system, and earned national recognition for gains in student achievement. Ms. Elia has been honored for her work, both in Florida and on a national stage. In 2015, she was named Florida’s Superintendent of the Year, received the AASA Women in School Leadership Award from the School Superintendents Association, and was one of four finalists for the National Superintendent of the Year award.
Commissioner Elia was born, raised, and attended school in Western New York. After graduating high school in Lewiston, NY, she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Daeman College (formerly Rosary Hill College) in Buffalo, a Master of Education from the University of Buffalo, and a Master of Professional Studies from SUNY Buffalo. In 1970, she began her career in education as a social studies teacher in the Sweet Home Central School District (in Western New York) and taught for 19 years before moving on to positions as a school and district administrator.
Commissioner Elia believes that to improve schools statewide, she must regularly engage and communicate with parents and educators. Since becoming New York’s Education Commissioner, she has logged more than 150,000 miles in her car, traveling from Buffalo to Montauk Point and virtually everywhere in between. In those travels, she has visited hundreds of schools and school districts to discuss the ways in which the State can help drive and support improvements that will benefit every student. She continues to speak frequently with parents, students, teachers, and school and district leaders to hear what they think about critical issues, like the State’s learning standards, curriculum, and assessments.
Following are some of the most significant policy achievements that Commissioner Elia, together with the Board of Regents, has accomplished:
- ESSA: Secured U.S. Department of Education approval of New York’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan, thereby ensuring the State will continue to receive approximately $1.6 billion annually in funding from the federal government to support elementary and secondary education in New York’s schools. At its core, NY’s ESSA plan is about fostering equity throughout the educational system. The plan recognizes and rewards strengths, incentivizes the creation and expansion of coursework and programs that lead to student success, and provides targeted help where it is needed.
- Standards: Oversaw the adoption of the State’s Next Generation Learning Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics, following two years of extensive public engagement. The review and revision process involved educators, parents, and experts in educating English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and our youngest learners. The revised standards are still rigorous, challenge New York’s students to do more, and prepare them for life in the 21st century – but they have been adjusted and edited to make more sense for our teachers, students, and parents.
- Assessments: Implemented significant changes to New York’s grades 3-8 state assessments in English language arts and mathematics, following extensive public input. Changes include: reducing from three to two the number of test sessions on both the ELA and math exams, thereby lessening test fatigue for students; implementing untimed tests to allow students who are working productively as much time as they need to complete each test session, within the confines of the regular school day; involving New York State teachers directly in writing, evaluating, and selecting the questions that appear on the state assessments; providing instructional reports to teachers by the end of the school year and publicly releasing at least 75% of the test questions; and continuing to move towards statewide computer-based testing, which has the potential to further reduce the need for stand-alone field tests and to make assessments better instructional tool for students with disabilities.
- Graduation Requirements: Together with the Board of Regents, amended the State’s graduation requirements to provide multiple pathways for students to earn a regular high school diploma. By offering these multiple pathways, the Board recognizes the importance of engaging students in rigorous and relevant academic programs. Specifically, Regents-approved regulations recognize students’ interests in the Arts; Languages Other Than English; Career and Technical Education; Humanities; and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) by allowing an approved pathway assessment to meet the students’ graduation requirements.
- Social Emotional Learning and Mental Health Instruction: Led New York’s efforts to help ensure that New York’s schools are welcoming places for all, by implementing a multi-pronged strategy that involves mental health instruction, social emotional learning, and the creation of safe learning environments.
- My Brother’s Keeper: Together with the Board of Regents, successfully advocated for significant State funding and support for the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which provides programs and financial support to improve educational and life outcomes for boys and young men of color. New York was the first state to accept President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper challenge, and serves as a national model for other states that seek to accept the challenge. The “NYS My Brother’s Keeper Community Network” continues to grow, and now includes more than 20 member communities that have joined the initiative.