Teaching Profession

In New Mexico, Teachers Are ‘Leading From Within’ the State Ed. Department

By Madeline Will — December 13, 2017 4 min read
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State education departments looking to amplify teachers’ voices and include them at the policymaking table should look to New Mexico, a new report says.

The report, released by Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit group for district and state education chiefs, praises the Land of Enchantment’s teacher leadership model for its “sustained, bold reform.” Chiefs for Change had previously released a policy brief on what makes an effective teacher leadership system—namely, a culture of innovation, a call to address specific challenges, and a sense of empowerment to create and sustain education policy.

(Hanna Skandera, the former longtime New Mexico education secretary, and her successor Christopher Ruszkowski are both Chiefs for Change members.)

See also: Best State-Level Practices for Teacher Leadership Outlined in Report

Teachers in New Mexico had been distrustful of the state education department after a series of changes were made—new standards, tests, and a rollout of a really tough evaluation system—without incorporating their input or concerns.

“If you had asked me seven years ago if it was my job to reach teachers and principals directly, I would have said no,” Skandera told Education Week opinion blogger Rick Hess. “As a state chief, the chain of command typically goes through the superintendents. But I realized quickly that was the worst game of telephone, ever. There was a lot of confusion out there about what changes were taking place, and voices in the classroom were not getting back up to my office.”

Over the last three years, however, New Mexico’s education department has worked to identify the most effective teachers in the state and then leverage their expertise. As my colleague Alyson Klein recently reported, the department created several pathways for teacher voice. She writes:

Those pathways include an advisory council, made up of 26 teachers who meet quarterly in person and once a month by phone. There are also 50 "teacher leader ambassadors," who have biweekly, virtual meetings to talk about different professional topics. They also receive leadership training. A 36-member literacy "dream team" helped develop curriculum materials, and a similar group is in the works for social studies. The PED is also hoping to place a liaison in every one of the state's nearly 850 schools, to improve teacher communication. So far, more than 600 teachers have applied for the posts. And two full-time teacher liaisons work at the department, both of them fresh from the classroom.

Klein reports that “some teachers feel empowered by the new forums, while others see them as little more than a public relations push.”

Still, Michael Magee, the CEO of Chiefs for Change, said in an interview that the teacher-leadership system has created a “continuous feedback loop” between highly effective teachers and policymakers.

“As teachers see that their ideas and policy recommendations are actually taken seriously and have an impact on policy implementation, you build trust, and that’s absolutely critical,” he said.

See also: Here Are 10 Policy Lessons Teachers Should Know

The Chiefs for Change report found that many teachers are interested in joining the department’s initiatives—for example, more than 700 teachers applied for the 50 spots in the ambassador program. And tickets to the state teacher summit this year—a two-day convening for teachers across the state—were all distributed within 72 hours of their release.

The report concludes with the New Mexico state education agency’s takeaways on building a successful teacher leadership system:

  • “Teachers must lead from within.” High-quality teachers should serve as a bridge between educators in the state and the state agency. They should both represent their peers and ask state education leaders tough questions. (The federal education department also has teacher liasons.)
  • “Teachers must have opportunities to voice their feedback.” When teachers have an opportunity to weigh in on initial plans, the rollout process should go more smoothly, because teachers feel like the education department is taking their concerns seriously.
  • “Start somewhere—even if it feels small.” New Mexico started with 18 teacher-leaders involved at the state level, and now about 650 teachers are doing work for the department.

Chiefs for Change acknowledged the role of the Every Student Succeeds Act, and its increased flexibility for state leaders to deploy Title II funds for these sorts of initiatives. (Title II funding is at stake in Congress, as the House and Senate work to reach a compromise on federal education policy: The House and President Trump both want to scrap the entire program.)

“I think it’s a pivotal moment in the broad effort to transform America’s public schools—one where there’s a much greater and increasing awareness that our highly effective teachers and teacher-leaders need to be deeply involved in that process,” Magee said.

Chiefs for Change has also highlighted teacher leadership systems in Louisiana and Tennessee. And Margie Yeager, the director of advocacy and policy for the group, said there are initiatives underway in Nevada, Mississippi, and the District of Columbia.

“We’re just scratching the surface about what’s possible,” Magee said. “There’s an enormous amount of pent-up teacher demand for change that’s being unlocked. ... It’s an exciting time [that’s] probably long overdue.”

(Clarification: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the way tickets to the New Mexico teacher summit were distributed—they were given out free of charge.)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.