New Mexico’s teacher evaluation system has seen fierce pushback from teachers unions since it was created by Governor Susana Martinez’ administration back in 2012. It uses student testing for 50 percent of a teacher’s rating; the other half is based on classroom observations, attendance and other measures.
The usefulness of accountability systems like New Mexico’s is in doubt from multiple sides of the education reform debate.
At Bernalillo Elementary one February morning, students in Michael Chavez' fourth grade class are brainstorming in small groups. They just learned about Benjamin Franklin, and they're writing about what life would be like without electricity.
“We would have to buy a candle, we would have to play outside, we wouldn’t have phones or tablets..."
"Awesome! Thanks for sharing that," says Chavez.
Soon it’s time for students to practice a computer-based test called Imagine Learning. As kids read aloud into their headsets, the classroom feels more like a call center, with Mr. Chavez as tech support. He spends at least ten out of the 35 minutes of computer time troubleshooting: faulty headphones, spotty internet access, laptops on the fritz.
In his ninth year of teaching now, Mr. Chavez says he sees the value in computer-based testing, especially programs like Imagine Learning that give students instant progress reports.
But the technical issues really frustrate him. Sometimes, during the PARCC or SBA standardized tests, kids will get suddenly booted off the program. Chavez says that’s just one of the glitches he’s seen in a system that factors student test scores heavily into his teacher evaluation.
“The first time they didn’t have my scores, they were missing like two years," Chavez recalls. "Then the second time they were still missing scores because of another teacher and I that were co-teaching.”
Chavez, who’s also vice-president of the local chapter of the teacher’s union, says he was never able to get that mix-up resolved with the Public Education Department. So his evaluation for last year stands at "minimally effective."
New Mexico teachers unions sued PED over the evals and in 2015 got a preliminary injunction preventing the state from tying any consequences to the teacher evaluations.
Another point of contention has been the attendance portion of the evaluation system. It bumps teachers down a notch if they miss more than 3 days in a year, even though they earn up to 10 days of sick leave.
“It makes teachers not want to take off," says Cheryl Martinez, who taught for over two decades in Belen public schools. "You come to school sick, you come to school when your kids are sick.”
During her last year in the classroom, Martinez says she was out more than a week taking care of her sick husband. Technically her absences should’ve dropped her rating down to “minimally effective,” but she got a waiver.
“Then another teacher – she was out I think 6 days – she was docked more points on her evaluation than I was, so that just causes some animosity within the staff," says Martinez. "It’s not a fair system.”
According to the California-based Learning Policy Institute, New Mexico has the second highest rate of teacher turnover in the country.
New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
But she did give an interview to the non-profit news site the74million.org this month. In it she defended the use of attendance in teacher evaluations: "In 2012, the U.S. Office for Civil Rights said 47 percent of our teachers were habitually not in attendance, meaning they were missing 10 or more days. Right now, that’s at 12 percent," Skandera told The 74. "That means we’ve saved taxpayers $3.5 million in substitute-teaching costs."
This debate over teacher evaluations is playing out across the nation as states respond to the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015. ESSA gives states more flexibility in how they test students and evaluate teachers.
But after seeking feedback this fall from New Mexico communities on how they want to see the ESSA implemented, PED is “staying the course.”
In The 74 interview this month, Skandera said "New Mexico is one of only two states in the nation that has a really good ability to identify great teachers, highly effective teachers, effective, and those who are struggling."
The National Council on Teacher Quality, a think tank that supports the use of test data in teacher evaluations, agrees that New Mexico has a uniquely high level of differentiation in its teacher ratings. But it's unclear whether that means it's a good judge of teacher quality. In a report last month, NCTQ said New Mexico is still among 28 states where teachers can be rated “effective” even if their students’ growth is not up to standards.
Skandera recently backed a bill to write the current evaluation system into state law, while easing back its emphasis test scores and attendance. That legislation stalled last week in committee.
Meanwhile, Bernalillo Elementary School teacher Michael Chavez says he’s focused on creating the best learning environment he can.
“I’m really proud of what I do and of my kids," says Chavez, choking up. He says he’s not against being held accountable. But he says it’s his relationship with students – not their test scores – that makes him good at his job.
The People, Power and Democracy project examines ethics, transparency and accountability in state government. The project is funded by the Thornburg Foundation and by contributions from KUNM listeners.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the National Council on Teacher Quality agrees that New Mexico has unique differentiation in its teacher evaluation system.