A weekend interview with Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia
When Gov.-elect Rick Scott named his education transition team, only one person from the traditional K-12 system appeared on the list. That's Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia. Elia and her district have received lots of attention in Florida and nationally for their efforts in refining the way that schools evaluate teachers. She spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about how that initiative might play into her role on the transtion team, as well as other things she expects the team to accomplish.
I'm interested in your work with the governor's transition team. I was wondering, first off, how did you even get picked to be on that. Did you have to apply? Did they come to you?
No. I got a call. I was asked to be on it.
Did they say why? What it was about you? You're the only superintendent from the whole state of Florida.
I know. No. I was honored that they asked me and I didn't ask why. I'm sure that it relates to the work that we're doing to empower effective teachers. That's I think a major agenda in the state and I certainly have a perspective on that.
Do you think you have an extra burden on your shoulders being basically the only person representing the K-12 system?
I don't know that I would say it's an extra burden. I certainly feel the responsibility of making sure that I represent well the districts across the state of Florida, and our teachers and kids.
I saw that the Palm Beach Post was talking about you as an "actual reformer," as opposed to I guess a fake reformer. I was wondering what you thought about having that label put on you.
There's no question that I think Hillsborough in the middle of important reform relating to teachers as professionals and working to improve what happens every day in every classroom in our district. So, you know, the way that they characterized it I think that is an approach to reform that Hillsborough is working hard to be successful at.
Are you getting pushback from teachers at this point? I know at the beginning I heard from people that they hate this idea, they think it's horrible, they don't think that it should be done and it's being forced on them by the teachers' union and the superintendent's office.
Well, I would say to you that we have a lot of teachers in the district. There's over 17,000 teachers. I will also tell you that as we've done this we have had teams of teachers involved every step of the way. And I know that it's very difficult to change, and this is a foundational change. So I think we have to be very circumspect and careful and do it knowing that we have to constantly get feedback so we can make any changes to our plan as necessary. But I believe that we need to make sure we focus on the professionalism of teachers and the developmental nature of the evaluations so we can give teachers feedback on how they're doing and what they could do better. So there is constantly a continuous improvement approach to what is happening in their classrooms.
I'm sure there are some people who do not embrace this change. But I really believe it is a move that will improve what happens in the classrooms and make teachers more aware of what they're doing and how they could do it better.
What do you do with the teachers who don't go for it?
They're going to be evaluated anyway. And so this is just a different way of evaluating them. And to be perfectly honest, I believe it's a much more fair and appropriate way. We have peer teachers in there evaluating, and people who have a lot of background in their particular area, as well as the principal. So they have a much more informed evaluation coming their way.
Is this part of the discussion that you had with the transition team? I heard you met this past week.
We had a conference call and we're continuing to have conference calls to discuss various recommendations. And as you pointed out, the members on the transition team come from various places and perspectives. Working through the recommendations will take time. We have not gotten into a full discussion of the recommendations yet.
What kind of ideas are you pursuing on there?
Well certainly those that relate to teacher evaluation and the improvement and professionalism which should be accorded to teachers.
Are there other things the new governor has asked to be evaluated to move forward?
I think Gov.-elect Scott has asked for a comprehensive set of recommendations for education in the state of Florida that improve not only pre-k-12 but also higher education. Consequently there are representatives from all those areas. And if you've read his education platform, it includes many options that relate to choice in Florida. And as you're well aware, Hillsborough has been a leader in providing choice options to students in our school district.
Do you think there is some sort of funding discussion that has to take place? Because there are a lot of people who are upset that Florida doesn't invest enough into schools and that's why we have some of the problems we face.
I don't think that this is the time that we can anticipate that there is going to be an influx of funding into Florida schools or into any of the areas that the state funds. This is a very, very tight serious budget crisis that we're facing in Florida. I think we have to be creative and focused on what we need to make sure gets funded in Florida. Hillsborough has done that in the approach that we have taken with our budget in focusing on the classroom and making sure our employees have jobs. But we've all taken on more. This is a time when we all pull together to make that happen.
Do you think it has been a distraction to have people talk about Michelle Rhee all the time?
I'm not distracted.
You're a pretty focused person. But do you think the state has been distracted? Or people like me who look at stuff. Do you say, Oh, they're talking about her and not talking about the issues they need to be talking about?
No, not at all. I think it's just another approach and it certainly Washington DC and what happens there is, I think, very different. However, I think ultimately we all need to focus on what happens in the classroom and how we can improve the outcomes for our students.
Are you headed to go work for the state level instead of the county level? A lot of the people on that committee are state-oriented people. You testify a lot up there. But you also have a big project that you're working on here in Hillsborough.
I am very focused on the work that needs to be done to continue our success with students in Hillsborough.