April 3, 2017

Changes to teacher evaluations spark mixed reaction

Photo Credit: albertogp123 via Compfight cc

Gov. Susana Martinez’s recently announced changes to the state’s teacher evaluation system came from discussions between a panel of New Mexico educators and state Public Education Department officials.

This is according to Chris Eide, the national director of state policy, advocacy and partnerships with Teach Plus. The Boston-based nonprofit, which focuses on teacher-driven education reform, launched an initiative in New Mexico last year to look at teacher evaluations and teacher preparation.

Over the weekend, Martinez accepted two recommendations from the New Mexico Teach Plus task force. One allows teachers to use up to six absences without affecting the attendance portion of their state teacher evaluations. The other reduces the portion of “student achievement” scores used in yearly teacher evaluations from 50 percent to 35 percent of the overall assessment.

Eide also described Martinez’s changes as a win for teachers in New Mexico, saying the recommendations came from teachers in his organization’s task force.

“There are tons and tons of teachers who are incredibly dedicated who aren’t being heard in policy discussions,” he said. “Our goal is to get them into high-leverage opportunities to change the way we do education.”

Related: House attempt to override veto of teacher absences bill fails

The governor’s office and the state Public Education Department made similar comments in prepared statements to NM Political Report.

Michael Lonergan, a spokesman for Martinez, characterized the changes as compromises that were “the result of the administration listening to teachers from all around the state.”

PED Secretary Hanna Skandera praised Teach Plus for working with her department “in a constructive manner.”

“These changes maintained the critical research-driven framework that created positive results, but also made adjustments based on data and input,” Skandera said. “Our door will always be open to classroom teachers who want to collaborate with us in the spirit of ensuring that every student succeeds.”

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But the state’s two teacher’s unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), criticized Martinez’s new policies as superficial.

“It’s hard to take these compromises at face value when they’re being made by a small group of handpicked people,” said John Dyrcz, the political director for AFT-New Mexico.

The “small group” Dyrcz referred to is Teach Plus’ New Mexico task force, which consists of 15 educators from different backgrounds across the state. Eide said the task force was narrowed from 116 applications.

He also said the group also polled 1,080 teachers across New Mexico to arrive to recommendations on changing the controversial state teacher evaluations. In the poll, which was provided to NM Political Report, 41 percent of respondents said student achievement should make up only 15 percent of the teacher evaluation, while 36 percent of respondents thought that number should be 25 percent and 15 percent of respondents said 35 percent. Only 8 percent of teachers polled said student achievement should make up 50 percent of the teacher evaluation.

Eide characterized the teacher’s union as “digging in its heels” and positioning itself to favor “no evaluations.”

“The teachers knew there was going to have to be a political compromise to get something done,” Eide said.

Still, Eide emphasized that Teach Plus never thought of its recommendations “as a difference with the union” and emphasized that one of the New Mexico task force members is a vice president of a teacher’s union in Las Cruces.

Related: Senate votes to override Martinez veto on teacher absences bill

Sourcewatch, a project of the liberal Center for Media and Democracy, characterizes Teach Plus as “an alternative to the official views of unions” and notes that it’s been “heavily funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,” one of the primary backers of the Common Core State Standards.

The San Francisco-based Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which has also invested in education reform efforts, is backing the group’s New Mexico work. Eide said the donors are interested in New Mexico because it has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country, “but the room for improvement is high.”

Both Dyrcz and Charles Bowyer of NEA-New Mexico said that if it seems the unions are opposing the entirety of the state’s teacher evaluation model, that’s because a district court temporarily halted the state’s use of a value-added “student achievement” model toward a teacher’s performance.

In December 2015, Santa Fe District Judge David Thomson made the preliminary injunction against the value-added model used in the state teacher evaluation to track student performance.

The ruling came in a case brought by AFT alleging that the teacher evaluation system is too unreliable to use, which is still being litigated. Until the case is resolved, PED is currently not allowed to use a teacher’s evaluation to deny their teacher license, fire them or put them on performance plans.

“We find it ironic that after years of saying 50 percent of a teacher evaluation must be based on student achievement, based mostly on test scores, that, suddenly, without any empirical evidence whatsoever, that number can magically be lowered to 50 percent,” Bowyer said in a statement. “Why not 20 percent or 10 percent or, as we believe appropriate, 0 percent for test scores and, then, finding appropriate measures of teacher impact on student achievement from statistically valid sources?”

Both unions criticized the other change—increasing the number of teacher absences from three days to six days—as insufficient. AFT for example, pointed out that teachers get up to 10 sick days to use and thus shouldn’t be penalized for something they’re contractually allowed.

“The use of six days of leave is still four days short of what district contracts provide,” AFT New Mexico President Stephanie Ly said in a statement.

Lawmakers sponsored a bill during the recently concluded legislative session to allow teachers to take all ten absences allotted by teachers’ contracts before being docked on their evaluations. The bill passed the Legislature by wide margins but was vetoed by Martinez, who said she would compromise with allowing six days.

The Senate overrode Martinez’s veto—the first time such a thing had happened in Martinez’s six-plus years as governor—but all Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against an override.