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NY state education commissioner to resign

November 1, 2008 9:07:37 AM PDT
New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills, who has carried out one of the nation's most aggressive and expensive education reform efforts during 13 years on the job, announced he will resign by June.The 63-year-old, who implemented higher standards and expanded standardized testing throughout the state's diverse school districts, said he leaves the system strong enough for new leadership.

"The Regents, my colleagues and I, together with our partners, have completed an enormous body of work and have taken the first steps in the next phase of the board's agenda to raise achievement," Mills said in a statement released Saturday. "We have established a timetable that ensures a seamless transition for my successor.' "There is no better time for a transfer of leadership than when an organization is strong and the building blocks for the future are in place," Mills said. "I am confident that my successor will find an agency of strength with a compelling agenda for the future."

The state commissioner is chosen by the Board of Regents, who are elected by a full session of the Democrat-dominated Legislature. The Board of Regents sets education policy in New York - a mandate that includes setting academic standards, forming curricula, disciplining teachers, and enforcing standards in many other professions. It also has broad constitutional responsibilities as the University of the State of New York from pre-Kindergarten education to graduate level college studies.

"I'm surprised," said Assembly Majority Leader Ronald Canestrari when told of Mills' resignation Saturday. "He was energetic and focused and I think he did a good job for the people of New York state.

"He was committed to education and he left a good legacy," said Canestrari of Albany County, who worked closely with Mills for years as the Assembly's Education Committee chairman.

During Mills' tenure under three governors and two state Regents chancellors, Albany approved historic increases in state school aid, now at more than $20 million. But for the first time in decades, a fiscal crisis could lead to stagnant or even reduced school aid.

"There were successes, for sure," Canestrari said. "But it will be a difficult time for the next commissioner."

Critics have long said Mills pushed too many so-called high-stakes tests required for graduation that forced some teachers to teach to the test, instead of providing a thorough understanding of subject matter.

"It's exciting news," said Jane Hirschmann, a parent advocate with the advocacy group Time Out for Testing, when told of Mills' decision. "Hopefully the testing mania that he infused the curriculum with will now be changed for a real focus on education, rather than testing.

"He helped turn the state into a test culture where children became data and real curriculum and education were thrown out the window," she said in an interview Saturday.

Mills has countered that the standards are needed to guide what students must learn in an increasingly competitive world, and the tests are needed to measure the schools' ability to meet those standards. The tests are also used to identify shortcomings in instruction and in students and to share best practices among schools.

When the federal education reform known as No Child Left Behind was implemented, New York was one of the first states to be identified as already complying with many of its provisions for testing and for trying to close the achievement gap between students in low-income districts and wealthier districts.

Mills also faced controversies that prompted several calls for his resignation. In 2003, widespread failures by even good students in the June math Regents triggered re-grading of the test and a revamping of math instruction at every level. A panel of mathematicians found the curriculum had often been redundant from year to year and found other flaws including a lack of math expertise among math teachers.

A similar problem was found with the physics Regents exam and major changes had to be made.

Mills' mantra was that if you raise standards, students will rise to meet them. That, too, faced strong criticism in the late 1990s particularly from inner city school officials. But performance and graduation rates statewide have risen, although slower and to lower levels than advocates of the reforms had hoped.

Mills also pushed for greater attention to the academics of disabled students, in the face of opposition. Yet in recent years the performance of special education students has risen on the tests and a small, but rising number graduated with Regents diplomas.

Canestrari and commissioner's spokesman Tom Dunn say Mills is not being forced out of the job, and Dunn says the commissioner does not intend to retire.

The commissioner was appointed to his post in 1995. Before that, he had the same job for the state of Vermont. Mills got his start as a history teacher at the prestigious Dalton School in Manhattan.

He helped establish and run an alternative public high school in Manhattan in the 1970s.

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