January 30, 2017

Education chief pushes change in teacher evaluations

State Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera said Monday she will push for legislation to reduce the amount of weight that student test scores play in teacher evaluations.

Skandera’s announcement represents a step back — albeit a small one — from her long-running push to tie teacher effectiveness to student test scores. It received a mixed response from leaders of one state teachers’ union.

Skandera said she is responding to input that the Public Education Department received during a statewide listening tour to solicit feedback on what the state can do to prepare for implementing the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act guidelines, which go into effect next summer.

“We wanted to be responsive. We are proposing legislation around that,” Skandera said.

The Every Student Succeeds Act gives states more autonomy in trying to ensure the success of students and schools.

Currently, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on student test scores, though that amount is lower for new teachers who have not been in the classroom long enough to tie their work to exam results. Skandera’s proposal would drop that to 40 percent and increase the weight in evaluations given to principal observations of teachers in the classroom.

The bill will be introduced by Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, and Rep. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, she said, probably within the next week.

She said while she had not yet shared the news with teacher union leaders, “My hope is that we showed a willingness to compromise and I hope they will as well.”

Charles Bowyer, executive director of the National Education Association of New Mexico, praised the move while continuing to argue that the state should cede control of teacher evaluations to local school districts.

“This is a good start to reverse the harmful effects” of the evaluations, “but wrongly leaves control of the system in Santa Fe instead of with local school boards,” Bowyer said.

The NEA filed a lawsuit in 2014, claiming that the evaluation system unlawfully takes control of teacher evaluations and supervision of teachers away from local school districts. That lawsuit is pending before state District Judge Francis Mathew in Santa Fe.

That’s one of two lawsuits launched against the evaluations, which Gov. Susana Martinez implemented by executive rule in 2012. The American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, the Albuquerque Teachers Federation and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in 2014 contending the evaluations could put teachers at risk of being punished or even fired. State District Judge David Thomson is scheduled to hear that case in Santa Fe, though a date has not yet been set.

The teacher evaluation system has remained a sore spot of contention for the teacher unions, which have claimed it unfairly judges teachers based on factors outside of their control when it comes to student learning and that it relies too much on student test-score results and not enough on personal observations by principals.

Skandera has countered that the state is holding teachers accountable for student learning, and that the state can reward teachers who are rated “effective” or better and put those who are rated “minimally effective” or “ineffective” on professional growth plans.

Last autumn, the Public Education Department reported that just over 71 percent of the state’s roughly 21,000 teachers are considered effective or better in the five-point evaluation system.

The teacher evaluation system is not the only state mandate that Skandera is open to changing in light of last year’s community meetings. She said she will also push to decrease the amount of time it takes for students to take and teachers to give the annual PARCC exams for grades three through 11.

She said she will also do more to support teacher professional development programs, an initiative that might require additional funding from the Legislature, which is grappling with a budget crisis.

The Albuquerque-based nonprofit New Mexico First worked with the Public Education Department to host about 20 meetings statewide last year, taking into account the input of about 600 people who attended the meetings and another 400 who weighed in with some opinions online. Nearly a third of all those participants were teachers, and another 23 percent were school administrators.

Among the other findings of the New Mexico First report: Teacher morale is impacted by heavy workloads that make preparation challenging, large class sizes that limit the ability for one-on-one instruction, salaries that are not competitive and problems with recruiting and retaining teachers.

On the issue of the state’s system for grading schools on an A-F scale, many participants, including family and community members, found them useful, the report says. But others said that without “providing guidance and recourse to improve the schools, a failing school grade undermines the value of the community and more importantly undercuts students confidence and belief in themselves.”

Contact Robert Nott at (505) 986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.