Welcome back to school! I hope summer vacation gave you time to rest, recharge, and relax with family and friends.
As much as I am thrilled that school is starting again, the difficult news coming out of Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and the events that happened in Charlottesville last month are reminders of the challenges facing our country today. Given the connectedness of the modern world, the heartbreaking images of flooding in Houston and news clips of the unrest in Charlottesville are nearly unavoidable. Even though these things took place many miles from New York, they still have a profound effect on us and our students.
On one hand, recent events have uncovered an unfortunate reality about our country – it’s clear we have a long way to go to get to a place of true inclusiveness, understanding, and respect. But, on the other, more positive hand, these events have also helped to remind us about the kindness of neighbors and the resilience of the human spirit. They show us that in spite of these latest tests to our nation’s character, there are reasons to remain hopeful about the future.
Most importantly for me, the events underscore the indispensable role of schools. Schools are places of respite for children who have lost their homes and much more; they are communities that provide comfort and security in times of need; and they are institutions where lessons go far beyond academics. In classrooms, children learn to be considerate and compassionate individuals who embrace diversity and differences with open minds and hearts.
In this context, our work becomes even more imperative. That’s why I am eager for the new school year to get underway. This year, which will be my third as State Education Commissioner, we will continue to work together to build upon the progress that we’ve made over the past two years to improve public education in New York State.
In other words, like our students, we have homework to do to make our schools stronger.
Our first assignment involves our Next Generation Learning Standards. Later this month, the Board of Regents is set to adopt these new standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics, which is the culmination of a two-year-long review process that included more than 4,000 public comments and the input of committees made up of 130 parents and teachers.
But getting the new standards in place is just the start. The next steps involve engagement and implementation. Professional development is a big part of our plan. This time, we will roll out the new standards over the course of several years, allowing ample time for you and your colleagues to become comfortable with the revised material before having to teach it. We will also work with your districts to ensure you have the resources you need to bring the new standards to life in your classrooms.
Another big project for us is our Every Student Succeeds Act Plan. For the past 15 months, we have engaged with thousands of stakeholders, policy experts, and educators, including many of you, to put together our plan.
ESSA replaced No Child Left Behind and gives us a new opportunity to look at how well our schools are doing and provide additional supports to schools that need them. Our plan emphasizes the importance of fostering equity in education for all of our students and expands measures for school support and accountability, and for student and school success. You’ll be hearing much more about ESSA once our plan is approved by the U.S. Department of Education.
There’s more to do too. This year, we will start the process of gathering input from you on a new evaluation system – one that will be done with teachers, not done to them as was most recently the case. We will also look for new strategies to achieve true equity across New York’s schools and to do more to ensure every classroom respects and celebrates our State’s rich diversity.
We realize that our homework won’t be easy, and we won’t be able to do it alone. We’ll lean on you and our administrators and parents for help so we can truly understand what’s happening in our schools and hear your ideas on how best to move forward. It’s the same approach you teach your students – if you do your research and seek out other perspectives, your finished product will be much stronger. For more details about our work ahead, you can watch my back-to-school video.
Having spent 20 years in the classroom before taking on administrative positions, I know your job is challenging. But I also know it is rewarding. When times are tough, I encourage you to remember all the children that have gone on to accomplish great things after being in your classroom. Your work transforms lives. And, to the new teachers who haven’t had the chance to make an impact yet, you will. Thank you for all you do for students.
As the new school year begins, I also ask that you keep in mind the school communities in Texas and other places affected by recent events. There is no better time for your school communities to pull together to show the rest of the country the strength and generosity of New Yorkers.
Best wishes for a positive and productive school year. Together, we will make it the best one yet.