Tisch was born Merryl Hiat to Rabbi Philip Hiat.  Meryl's sister, Susan Hiat, was married (since divorced) to James' brother, Andrew Tisch. She received a B.A. from Barnard College, an M.A. from New York University and an Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University. She taught first graders at the Ramaz School in the Upper East Side of New York, New York and at the B’nai Jeshurun School from 1977 to 1984.
Tisch has served in various civic service positions, including at 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. Tisch is the chairperson of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. Tisch is on the Board of Dalton on the Upper East Side and Barnard College.
Tisch was appointed to the New York State Board of Regents on April 1 of 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011. The Board elected her Vice Chancellor effective April 1, 2007 and Chancellor effective April 1, 2009, and re-elected to a three year term effective April 1, 2010.
She said that budget restraints left the Board in May 2011 with no choice other than to cancel January Regents tests. At the end of May 2011, principals affiliated with the New Visions for Public Schools signed a letter of complaint directed to Tisch and the Board, arguing that the elimination of the tests would lead to a higher dropout rate and would cost the state money.
She has criticized Pearson PLC, the education text and test publisher, recently questioning its ability to handle its growing workload. “Obviously, the public is starting to question, I think, very aggressively with us whether or not they’re able to manage all of the things they’ve taken on.” Following a protest rally at Albany by the New York State United Teachers, she acknowledged that New York State would hold off on a plan to raise the percentage by which test scores would count in a teacher's evaluation from 20 percent to 25 percent. A provision in the state’s evaluation law, passed in 2010, allows for the increase if officials adopt a more complex “value-added” model to measure student growth.
She faced organized opposition when she returned on May 21, 2013 to her alma mater, Teachers College, for an award. Education professor and activist Diane Ravitch dubbed her “the Doyenne of high-stakes testing.
In April 2013, Tisch announced that she would become chairwoman of the campaign of former New York City comptroller Democrat Bill Thompson. Among her activities in the Thompson campaign, she hosted the June 12 Women for Thompson event, at which major attendees were Randi Weingarten, Hazel Dukes and Kauturia D'Amato, wife of former Republican U.S. Senator Alphonse D'Amato. The New York Post criticized her concurrent work in the Board of Regents and her leading role in the Thompson campaign as “moonlighting.”
- Jessica Sarah Tisch (born 1981) - earned law and business degrees from Harvard University in three years and works in the counterterrorism bureau of the New York City Police Department. In 2006, she married Daniel Zachary Levine in a ceremony officiated by her maternal grandfather, Rabbi Philip Hiat, at the Central Synagogue in Manhattan.
- Benjamin Jacob Tisch (born 1983) - worked for the hedge fund Fortress Investment and then as a portfolio manager in the investment department of the Loews Corporation. In 2011, he married Daniela Weber in a ceremony officiated by his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Philip Hiat, at the Central Synagogue in Manhattan.
- Samuel Aaron Tisch (born 1985) works for Citigroup and in 2013, he married Eliana Bavli in a ceremony presided over by his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Philip Hiat, at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan.
- "Eliana Bavli and Samuel Tisch". The New York Times. 24 February 2013. Retrieved 4 December 2013.
- Schneider, Anna (2012-02-06). "The Tisch Family | Observer | News and Commentary on Politics, Culture, Lifestyle and Real Estate". Observer. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- "NYSED::Board of Regents:Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch". Regents.nysed.gov. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- "Merryl H. Tisch to Address Second Macaulay Commencement June 5 – CUNY Newswire – CUNY". .cuny.edu. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- "Urban Education Leaders Program @ Teachers College :: Dr. Merryl H. Tisch, Chancellor, NY State Board of Regents". Uelp.tc.columbia.edu. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- Otterman, Sharon (7 June 2011). "City Principals Demand Return of January Regents Exams". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 December 2013.
- Decker, Geoff (2013-04-22). "Pearson’s NYC misstep draws state education officials’ concern". GothamSchools. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- Decker, Geoff (2013-06-11). "Under pressure, Tisch signals a concession on teacher evals". GothamSchools. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- "Teachers College to Honor Doyenne of High-Stakes Testing | Diane Ravitch's blog". Dianeravitch.net. 2013-05-06. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- Donn, Yochonon. "Big Name in Education Backs Thompson Mayoral Bid". Hamodia. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- "Tischk-tischk | New York Post". Nypost.com. 2013-05-28. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- "NYS Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch Hosting Women For Bill Thompson Breakfast | New York Daily News". Nydailynews.com. 2013-05-17. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- "Like father, like son: A Tisch family story (Fortune, 2004) - Fortune Features". Features.blogs.fortune.cnn.com. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- New York Times: "Advancing Education, Through Work Ethic and Connections" by LISA W. FODERARO April 4, 2009
- New York Times: Weddings: "Jessica Tisch and Daniel Levine" November 19, 2006
- New York State Board of Regents: MEMBERS OF THE BOARD OF REGENTS: Merryl H. Tisch, Chancellor retrieved June 7, 2012
- New York Times: "Daniela Weber and Benjamin Tisch" November 20, 2011