Santa Fe, N.M.
New Mexico’s teachers, like their colleagues around the country, have had to adjust to a lot of change over the past half dozen years—new standards, tests, and evaluations. And many feel like they didn’t have a say in any of it.
New Mexico’s Public Education Department—the PED—is trying to change that. Hanna Skandera, the former state schools chief, put in place a spate of initiatives aimed at giving teachers a voice in policymaking. Her successor, Christopher Ruszkowski, has continued them.
The initiatives are about two years old. It’s tough to say yet whether they will transform the tense relationship between the education agency and many teachers in the state. Some teachers feel empowered by the new forums, while others see them as little more than a public relations push.
Skandera, who stepped down as the state education chief in June, wishes she had gotten teachers to the policymaking table earlier in her tenure. Instead, she delivered her message to superintendents and expected them to pass it on to principals, who would then relay it to teachers.
“It was the worst game of telephone ever,” Skandera said. Teachers wound up with misinformation. Some thought, for instance, that Skandera planned to fire every educator who got an ineffective rating in the state’s tough teacher-evaluation system. The education agency, she decided, would have to create its own “tangible pathways for conversation.”
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.
New Mexico isn’t the only state that’s been working to elevate teacher voice, said Olympia Meola, a spokeswoman for the Council of Chief State School Officers. But the Land of Enchantment is “exemplary” for its goal of having a state liaison in every school, she added.
‘Huge Lack of Trust’
Some teachers involved in the education department’s programs say they feel heard by policymakers for the first time.
“I feel like there was a huge disconnect between the PED and the classroom prior to this starting,” said Dawn Bilbrey, a 17-year veteran who teaches 8th grade language arts at Texico Middle School in Texico, near the state’s Texas border. “I feel so empowered.”
But others say the department has a long way to go if it really wants to earn teacher support.
“There’s a huge lack of trust, and there has been a big lack of transparency,” said Aiofe Runyan, a teacher at Kearny Elementary in Sante Fe, who is both her school’s union representative and a member of the secretary’s advisory council. “I know they are trying to make things more transparent,” she said, but many teachers in her school hadn’t heard of the advisory council or PED liaisons. “There is definitely some work to be done,” she said.
That’s not for lack of trying, said Alicia Duran, one of the teacher liaisons working on the initiative. She’s sent emails to all New Mexico teachers, letting them know about these programs, professional development opportunities, and more.
Another initiative participant, Alanna Purdy, who teaches at Six Directions Indigenous School near Gallup, said it doesn’t feel like all of the communication is a two-way street, at least not yet.
“It’s a nice idea, but I don’t see it as being super effective at this stage of its development,” Purdy said.
Purdy said she saw more give-and-take as a New Mexico fellow for Teach Plus, a national advocacy group aimed at elevating teacher voice. Teach Plus helped revamp the state’s educator-evaluation system and develop the state’s plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Over the summer, the education department also held its second annual “teacher summit” in Albuquerque, offering professional development and a chance to network with PED staff.
That was a “beautiful opportunity,” said Shelbi Simeone, an 8th grade special education teacher at Vista Middle School in Las Cruces, and a Teach Plus fellow. She was impressed that Ruszkowski let teachers air their concerns. “He wanted to hear from us, he didn’t get up there with the PowerPoint,” she said.
But Betty Patterson, the president of the National Education Association affiliate in New Mexico, saw the summit, held at a resort near Albuquerque, as a commercial for the department.
She sees the PED’s teacher initiatives as an attempt to circumvent unions. The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers represent about half the state’s districts, including the biggest population centers.
“I’m annoyed they’re going around us,” she said.
Stephanie Ly, the president of the New Mexico branch of the AFT, said the department is handpicking teachers to participate in these initiatives.
“I think it’s PED’s way to build a team around what their talking points are,” she said.
But the department’s two teacher liaisons—Duran and Isaac Rivas-Savell—said they don’t consider whether a teacher is part of a union when they look at applications for the various initiatives.
“Everyone can say whatever they want,” Duran said. “Teachers are a strong voice. I know I came in pushing back against everything.”
But Rivas-Savell did agree with the unions on one point: The teacher-voice initiatives are, in some ways, an effort to get around the state NEA and AFT, in part because interactions with the unions have been strained. Both unions have filed separate lawsuits against the teacher-evaluation system.
“Because the relationship isn’t there with the unions, we have had to create a different voice for teachers,” Rivas-Savell said. And he’s hoping the initiatives survive pending political changes when a new governor is elected, including Ruszkowski’s possible departure. “We’re trying to establish roots that are so solid in every school that this work remains even after the new administration comes in.”
Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2017 edition of Education Week as New Mexico Offers Teachers A Seat at Policymaking Table