What's Next for This State's Tough Teacher Evaluation System?
Santa Fe, N.M.
If you're a teacher, it's almost a sure bet that you will get a satisfactory performance rating, even if your state tries to make the process more objective by incorporating student-test scores into evaluations.
That is, unless you happen to live in New Mexico.
The Land of Enchantment has either the toughest evaluation system in the country or the most accurate, depending on who you talk to. Experts at Brown and Temple universities looked at evaluation systems in 24 states, including New Mexico, that incorporate student growth on tests and found that 95 percent of teachers get proficient or better ratings. By contrast, more than a quarter of New Mexico's teachers are labeled as "minimally effective" or just plain "ineffective." Another third are seen as "highly effective" or "exemplary."
The state's system has won plaudits from national teacher-quality organizations and some New Mexico educators for showing real differences in teacher performance. But it's angered other teachers—and their unions—who see it as deeply unfair. And it may not survive a looming political shift.
For two years in a row, more than a dozen teachers, including some that had been rated highly effective, burned their evaluations in front of the Albuquerque district headquarters. State affiliates of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers filed separate lawsuits over different aspects of the performance reviews.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez—a champion of the system—will leave office in early 2019. And expectations are that her successor—whether a Democrat or Republican—will replace the current state education chief, Christopher Ruszkowski. The state's performance-review system—which largely exists in regulation but not in law—could go out the door with him.
Some teachers say that change can't come soon enough.
"I have good evaluations and I still know it's a horrible system," said Sean Thomas, a social studies and psychology teacher at Eldorado High School in Albuquerque and a vice president of his local union. "So much of it's subjective, and what's objective they can't explain."
But others don't want to see the end of a system that has recognized their efforts for the first time in their careers.
"I have always been that teacher who worked too hard, and, according to a lot of people, expected too much of kids," said Janet Weeden, a 30-year veteran who teaches high school English at Explore Academy Charter School in Albuquerque and a participant in an initiative to bring teacher perspective to the state's education department. "When the teacher evaluation went through, I had the highest scores. It validated what I did in my classroom. I thought 'yes!' "
New Mexico launched its new teacher-evaluation system, which tied performance reviews in part to student growth on standardized tests, in 2012. At the time, nearly every state was in the same boat. The Obama administration required states to embrace such evaluations, in exchange for flexibility from the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act.
Opening Door to Change
Congress put a stop to that when it passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which explicitly prohibits the U.S. secretary of education from interfering in teacher-performance reviews.
Since the law passed, at least six states—Arkansas, Alaska, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—have nixed the student-growth component in their evaluation systems, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.
Elizabeth Ross, the managing director of state policy at NCTQ, is heartened that New Mexico has stuck with its system despite years of pushback. After all, she said, there's no way teachers can improve if they're not getting meaningful feedback.
And Ruszkowski thinks that states that step away from teacher evaluation tied to student outcomes are doing children a big disservice.
"I see states and other districts that have turned their back on decades of research about teacher quality as a black mark upon their records," Ruszkowski said. "Policymakers have essentially said this is too hard. And I don't think too hard should ever be a reason we don't do what's right for kids."
Tweaking the System
Earlier this year, the New Mexico education department, then led by Hanna Skandera, made some important tweaks to the system, in response to feedback from teachers and mounting pressure from the Democratic-controlled state legislature.
The education department dialed back the student-growth component of the performance reviews, from 50 percent of a teacher's overall rating—one of the highest such proportions in the country—to 35 percent. That brought New Mexico closer in line with other states.
And the agency upped the number of sick days teachers could take before their absences count against their evaluation, from three to six. Classroom observations became the single largest factor in evaluations, making up 40 percent of a teacher's overall score. The state also considers results from student-satisfaction surveys and teachers' professional practices.
The makeover was based in large part on recommendations from the New Mexico branch of Teach Plus, a national organization dedicated to elevating teacher voice in policymaking, Ruszkowski said.
State lawmakers' opposition to the system began almost from the get-go. They introduced bill after bill to remake teacher evaluation in New Mexico. None of them made it over the finish line, thanks in part to opposition from Martinez.
After the changes, there were some immediate—though modest—shifts in the data. The number of teachers rated highly effective or exemplary ticked up. And the number of teachers on the lowest rungs of the ladder dipped slightly.
But some teachers don't think the revamped review system feels very different from the one it replaced.
"Since the system is not transparent, since we can't understand it, we don't know" if it's really any better, said Aoife Runyan, a 5th grade teacher at Kearny Elementary School in Santa Fe, who is also part of a cadre of teachers advising the secretary.
Others say the uptick in sick days is a step in the right direction but still doesn't accommodate teachers with family obligations. Anna Dreskin, who teaches 4th grade at Mitchell Elementary in Albuquerque, said she was dinged for taking her epileptic son to the hospital.
Districts are supposed to allow teachers who qualify for family and medical leave to have excused absences, said Matt Montano, the deputy cabinet secretary for teaching and learning and a former special education teacher himself.
He said the impact of including attendance in the evaluation mix has been dramatic. In 2012, 47 percent of New Mexico's teachers missed 10 days of schools or more. By the 2015-16 school year, after the evaluations were in place, that figure fell to 12 percent.
Teachers also argue the current evaluation system holds them accountable for factors far beyond their control. Some elementary students, for instance, have difficulty using the computer-based tests and their frustration can lower scores, teachers said.
Runyan and some of her colleagues don't think it's fair that teachers at schools with wealthier populations are judged by the same metrics as high-poverty schools like Kearny, where more than three-quarters of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. They also note that the school has had a lot of principal turnover, which can contribute to sluggish student achievement.
Ruszkowski argues that in other professions, allowances aren't made for outside factors. Salesmen, he said, still have to meet their targets, even during an economic downturn, and doctors have to treat patients under all sorts of circumstances.
"The fact that one school has an incredible leader and another school does not is not justification for not having a meaningful evaluation system," he said.
One of teachers' most common criticisms: The evaluation system labels teachers, but they don't always get the tools to improve.
Sujata Hara, Kearny's technology teacher, who is new to the profession, got a minimally effective rating. But she wasn't called on the carpet—or given extra help. In fact, nothing really changed, she said.
Teachers who like the system have also noticed that problem.
"The old evaluation system didn't really pinpoint if you did do your job well. It was, 'Oh great, you passed,' just like 90 percent of other people in the state. The information we get back is more specific now," said Jody Martinez, who teaches 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades at Eagle Nest Elementary and Middle School in Cimarron, a rural town in the northeast corner of the state.
But school leaders don't always know what to do with the added detail. "Our principals are overwhelmed and overworked, too," said Martinez, another participant in the education department's teacher outreach.
The quality of the professional development informed by the evaluation system is uneven, Ruszkowski agreed. But he sees that as a separate issue.
"Do we have 840 principals that have the tools in the toolbox to give teachers the individual support, coaching that they need? I think that's still a work in progress at this point," he said. "If you're a teacher, and you're not getting the coaching and professional development you need, that isn't an [evaluation-system] issue. That's a coaching and implementation issue."
Districts have the option of putting minimally effective and ineffective teachers on intensive professional-development plans, Montano said.
On the other end of the evaluation scale, teachers rated effective or better could be eligible for bonuses of $5,500 to $10,000. Those teachers can also be put on the fast track to a higher teacher license, which comes with extra pay of up to $10,000.
New Mexico has provided teachers with a multi-page report on their evaluations since the 2014-15 school year. And this year, the PED will give educators an interactive, detailed breakdown of that data, so that teachers better can see where their strengths and weaknesses are, Montano added.
It's unclear, though, if New Mexico will get the chance to further refine its support system for teachers. The performance reviews may be facing a political expiration date.
State Sen. Mimi Stewart, a former elementary teacher who is now vice chairwoman of the Senate education committee, said she's counting the days until Martinez leaves office. The Democrat wants to help push through changes to the state's evaluation system, its ESSA plan, and its system of grading schools.
"We're running teachers out of the state," she said. "It's terrible. I have to go around and tell teachers, 'Hang on, hang on.' It's only another year. We will change things."
Vol. 37, Issue 13, Pages 1, 16-18Published in Print: November 15, 2017, as N.M. at a Crossroads on Reviews