Hundreds of educators around the state on Wednesday wore black clothes and participated in “Take It Back” rallies protesting education reforms mandated by the New Mexico Public Education Department.
The idea, explained NEA New Mexico President Betty Patterson, is for educators to “take back” what they say has been stripped away from them, including “the joy of teaching, the joy of learning, time to teach and professionalism in public education.”
NEA New Mexico represents 30 local chapters and about 23,000 teachers and school staff statewide. Teachers at more than a dozen sites around New Mexico staged rallies, ranging in size from a few teachers to about 300 in Las Cruces.
Stephanie Ly, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, called the widespread rallies a repudiation of the policies of state education chief Hanna Skandera and Gov. Susana Martinez.
The PED “does not operate independently,” said Ly. “They follow the direction of the governor, and the environment created by the top down policies implemented by the governor and the PED do not reflect the vision our communities have of education.”
Many teachers are critical of the new evaluation system because they say it places too much weight on student achievement. Improvement in student test scores accounts for 50 percent of the evaluation.
Teachers also complain about problems with Teachscape, the software that’s used in the evaluations, and they say the system – on top of a variety of other changes – has been imposed too quickly.
Ly said that the PED’s “culture of over-testing and high-stakes testing is killing effective teaching and learning,” and the focus on tests has not improved scores but is “destroying educators’ morale and stressing our students.”
Skandera, who was well aware of the statewide rallies, said Wednesday that “the energy spent on yet another protest would be better spent on focusing how to improve our education system and help our students. … Some have accused us of going too far, too fast; what I’m saying is we’ve done too little for too long on behalf of our students.”
Teachers clearly do not see it that way.
Twenty-year veteran Marsha Short of Sierra Middle School in Las Cruces called it “deform not reform.” She was among the crowd of nearly 300 people protesting near the district offices of the Las Cruces Public Schools.
Yvette Crofford, who teaches special needs students at Sunrise Elementary in Las Cruces, said “we’ve just had it,” and the bar PED is setting is “unattainable, we can’t do it no matter how hard you try.” When a student asked her why she wore black, she responded: “Because we’re fighting for you. You are more than a test score.”
Steve Eisenberg, president of the Rio Rancho Public Schools Employees Union and a fourth-grade teacher at Cielo Azul Elementary, said the new teacher evaluation system and excessive testing requirements have taken the joy out of teaching.
“We are here to stand up for education and take back our profession from the state,” he said during small rally at N.M. 528 and Southern that drew up to 30 people and shrunk to a dozen in the rain. “We are not able to teach anymore because we are too busy doing paperwork or testing.”
Among the crowd of about 100 teachers and supporters at a rally in front of the Belen Consolidated School District main office was Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen. He said teachers have told him they’re spending too much time with testing and evaluation. “I spoke to a principal the other day at Belen Middle School, and she told me it took about four hours to do one teacher evaluation,” he said. “… From what I’m hearing from teachers in our school district, many of them may be retiring as a result of what’s going on now.”
More than 100 people, mostly teachers, rallied in Santa Fe, where speakers included a number of state legislators, including Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, who is running for governor and who was a special education teacher for 10 years and has a Ph.D. in education.
New Mexico, he said, “ranks 49th or 50th” in education, but that data has been skewed by education reformers who “pull out pieces and use it to blame you guys.”
Morales told the crowd that he introduced a bill to change the teacher evaluation system that was vetoed by the governor, and another bill to change the A-F school grading system, and that too was vetoed by the governor.
“When it becomes a political game, that’s when it starts affecting the education system,” he said.
Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, also a former teacher, said that a 2009 study concluded education in New Mexico was underfunded by about $375 million – likely more since then, he added.
“Teachers are not getting paid adequately enough. They should be respected more. They’re the ones doing the heavy lifting.”
In Albuquerque, educators did not march or rally, but they wore black and created signs with a template: “I’m taking back …” followed by a space to fill in that thing they believe has been lost in the rush to implement the reforms. The teachers then had a photo taken of themselves holding the sign, which they emailed to a website and will later be used to create a YouTube video, said Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, which represents 7,000 people.
“This week, Nov. 18-22 is American Education Week, so what better week than this to reclaim what has been stripped away from us,” she said.
Bernstein said the PED has created “a blame and shame ‘gotcha!’ system, where you can’t win, no matter what kind of excellent teacher you are.”
Skandera noted that the NEA has apparently done an about-face because last September, she and NEA New Mexico executive director Charles Bowyer jointly wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Albuquerque Journal in which both touted the reforms the PED is now trying to implement, particularly regarding teacher evaluations.
Bowyer on Wednesday explained that the turn-around occurred with his experience on the New Mexico Teach Advisory Council.
“When the secretary and I co-authored that letter, I believed that the New Mexico Teach Advisory Council was going to have some real authority to make changes. That hasn’t proven to be the case,” he said.
One of the main issues was with the speed of the rollout. “U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan assured me and the NEA President Betty Patterson that he’d ask Secretary Skandera to seek the delay that he was offering states who had waivers for No Child Left Behind. She’s resolutely refused to do that and that’s a gigantic mistake.”
He further noted that the implementation of Common Core state standards this year, on top of a new evaluation system “that’s not well understood,” along with a “student achievement component that’s not well understood,” is just “too much to ask people to do at one time.”
Journal staff writers Lauren Villagran, Elaine Briseño and T.S. Last contributed to this report.