ALBANY – “I come from a tradition that values education. I come from a tradition that values the book. I come from a tradition that is steeped in literature. I come from a tradition that is steeped in intellectual curiosity and those are the essential elements, I think, that need to be embedded in our system,” said Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the State Board of Regents, the governing body for the State Education Department. She reports that her Jewish roots gave her the background needed for her position.
Tisch, nee Hiat, grew up in the 1950s and ’60s in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, as Merryl Hiat. “I came from a fairly traditional Jewish home. I grew up as basically Orthodox. To this day my home is still kosher. I maintain kashrut outside the house as well.”
Her formative years led her to believe that poverty is not a stumbling block to success. “Growing up on the Lower East Side the way I did, it affirmed to me that poverty is not, not, not a barrier to success and that is what is great about our democracy,” Tisch asserted, “You can be people of very simple means, but in this country and in the American tradition if you are willing to work and you are eager to move forward this is a land of remarkable opportunity. Growing up the way I did it’s absolutely true. Opportunity is out there and we have to try to make sure that people don’t get trapped in cycles of poverty.”
From 1977 to 1984 Tisch taught first-graders at New York City’s Ramaz School and the B’nai Jeshurun School. She received a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College, a master’s degree in education from New York University, and a doctorate in education from Teachers College at Columbia University.
Tisch says money is not the answer to the education woes in New York today. “New York has spent a lot of money, $54 billion a year, on education and I would say that for $54 billion a year you can run a system. I don’t think its money. I think its expectations, the gap between the wealthy and poor districts, the quality of teaching and so many different factors. Money is not the only issue, certainly, in New York State, where so much money is already spent.”
The talk in education circles today is about the Race to the Top, a federal competition where states are rewarded for developing comprehensive statewide education reform in four key areas:
Last August, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced New York will receive $70 million of the $4.3 billion available nationwide to reform education.
“As with the rest of the country New York is at its own crossroads,” Tisch says. “The Race to the Top was an enormous boost in the arm for us to be able to define the next generation of standards, curriculum and assessment and to help young students develop the competencies required to be competitive in the 21st century. That requires rethinking what is expected of them, and what are ways that youngsters can show those competencies. That’s an intricate conversation because we are talking about raising standards, we are talking about changing graduation requirements. We are talking about building a robust data system throughout the state to inform those decisions.
“We’re talking about appropriate ways to evaluate and develop teachers. No Child Left Behind [Act of 2001, requiring standards-based education reform] spoke about accountability. The next generation says okay, accountability, which has standards, curriculum and appropriate assessments, is not good enough. We’ve got to build those other three legs.”
It costs money to implement this program, which cash-strapped New York is hard-pressed to come up with, according to Tisch. “The state education department over the last five to seven years has gone through an enormous contraction. We have lost many people, responsibilities are quite varied, we monitor 32 professions, we are in charge of cultural education. We are in charge of all the VESID (Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities) offices, which is the vocational rehabilitative work around the state. These are enormous undertakings. Every governor has seen fit to cut our resources and now we got this grant from the Feds under the Race to the Top and it requires us to do many, many very complicated things, including fixing our assessments, building our curriculum, building our data system, etc. These are not easy things to do. We simply needed the opportunity to bring in some more help to provide a skill set that was not there to do all the research and to bring in some technical expertise that was not present in the department.”
As a response, Tisch recently established the Regent Research Fund.
“I always put my money where my mouth is,” said Tisch, who is married to James Tisch, president of Loew’s Corporation, one of the largest diversified holding companies in the United States. The family owns the corporation. “I felt that we were going to be raising $10 million to allow this work to continue to support the work of the department and I felt that because I had the resources to participate I should give a leadership gift of $1 million. We are about 50 percent of the way to our goal, “she reports. “I happen to believe in public-private partnerships,” she added.
“The next decade is going to be very involved with the federal government taking a larger role in statewide decisions. For instance, the development of a common core standards in English and math, the development of national assessments around those common cores, the ability of the federal government to force states to use those common cores. Those are all a significant departure to what states are used to doing. States like New York and Massachusetts, which have been at the head of the class in terms of standards and assessments, they’re going to have to be very careful that the common core standards and assessments don’t force them to diminish their own standards and that’s why it’s significant that New York is a leader in the consortium around developing these statewide assessments.”
The chancellor, 55, and her husband James, 58, have several passions besides education. “I would say health, education and the arts are a very big focus of our philanthropic work,” she said, adding that “social service networks are very significant to us, homelessness, food programs, etc.”
The Tisches affiliate with two Manhattan synagogues—the modern Orthodox Kehilath Jeshurun, and the Reform Central synagogue.
Tisch serves on the executive committees of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the UJA-Federation of New York, the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Citizens Budget Commission. Additionally, she serves on the board of The Trust for Cultural Resources of the City of New York. She was appointed to the Graduate School of Education’s Board of Overseers at the University of Pennsylvania in 1998 and has been a board member of both Barnard College and the Dalton School.