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Expert: NM teacher evals are toughest in the nation

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico rated more than twice as many teachers below effective than any other state in a 24-state study conducted by a Brown University economist who studies teacher evaluation systems across the country.

New Mexico placed 28.7 percent of its teachers in that category in 2015-2016, while the majority of states rated fewer than 4 percent of teachers below effective, according to Matthew Kraft, Brown University assistant professor of education and economics.

“The New Mexico system is very different than others,” Kraft said. ” ‘Tough’ would be one way to describe it.”

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Although Kraft questioned whether New Mexico’s system is alienating too many teachers, the bulk of his paper criticized those states with the highest teacher proficiency rates – often nearing 100 percent.

Kraft attributed New Mexico’s dramatic results to its evaluation system, particularly its heavy weight on student test scores.

Christopher Ruszkowski, New Mexico’s acting secretary of education, said New Mexico’s system reflects a “commitment to putting students first.”

“In the New Mexico context, we have put student learning at the forefront, the centerpiece of everything that we do,” Ruszkowski told the Journal. “The fact that other states have not always done that, to me, is more of a testament to the work that New Mexico has done and more of a black mark on those other states.”

Education Week, a respected national publication, also called New Mexico’s teacher evaluations “the toughest in the nation” this spring.

The purpose of Kraft’s study was to look at the new evaluation systems many states implemented in recent years and whether they were doing a better job of differentiating teachers’ skill levels. He found the answer was often no – that although states had made changes, too many still had nearly 100 percent of their teachers rated as effective or above.

Ruszkowski, who called Kraft a “fine scholar,” agreed with that view. He said the most important story in the research was the high number of states “painting a picture that we know is not accurate” by rating nearly all teachers effective or better.

“That is not true of any profession,” Ruszkowski said. “Every state leader, commissioner, governor and Legislature has had to look at themselves in the mirror and say, ‘Are we putting students first in our teacher evaluation system?’ … I think a lot of the other states have turned their back on their commitment to kids in that regard.”

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New evaluation systems

Kraft’s results are included in a recent paper, “Revisiting the Widget Effect: Teacher Evaluation Reforms and the Distribution of Teacher Effectiveness,” co-written with Allison Gilmour, a Vanderbilt University special education expert.

The study includes data from 24 of the 38 states that instituted new teacher evaluation systems by the 2014-2015 school year.

New Mexico’s evaluation system uses five tiers: exemplary, highly effective, effective, minimally effective and ineffective.

Other states use different descriptions, such as proficient, developing and unsatisfactory.

Kraft told the Journal that even though the study does not examine every state, he is confident that New Mexico has by far the most teachers rated ineffective and minimally effective – 5.4 percent and 23.3 percent, respectively.

After New Mexico, Oregon had the second-highest rate of teachers needing improvement – 11.7 percent. Arizona placed 7 percent of teachers in that category, and Colorado was at 4.2 percent.

In New Mexico, “minimally effective” and “ineffective” teachers are supposed to be placed on performance improvement plans, but the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico won an injunction in 2015 that blocked any “consequential actions” based on the evaluations.

Ruszkowski said New Mexico should be proud of its system, which replaced an approach that rated 99 percent of teachers effective.

“Let us not forget that just five years ago there was no meaningful teacher evaluation system in New Mexico,” Ruszkowski said. “Teachers were treated differently than other professionals – with limited accountability for their performance – and our students were at the mercy of arcane practices that left our students and profession trapped in the 20th century.”

Charles Goodmacher, government and media relations director for National Education Association of New Mexico, said many teachers feel devalued by the state’s evaluation system.

“This report shows the PED system delivers results that are extreme and out-of-touch with what all other states find about teacher proficiency,” he said in an emailed statement.

Goodmacher claimed that PED intentionally designed a tough evaluation system to place blame on teachers for the state’s poor education outcomes.

But Ruszkowski said the New Mexico Public Education Department did not set out to place any specific number or percentage of teachers into a given category.

“Our system was designed to have multiple measures,” he said. “It is not designed with quote unquote end results in mind.”

NEA and AFT have sued to stop the evaluation system, arguing that it is unfair and misclassifies a significant number of teachers. They are particularly concerned about the heavy weight of student test scores.

In 2015-2016, students’ improvement on assessments like PARCC made up half of the total of many teachers’ evaluations, putting New Mexico among the states with the strongest use of test results to judge teachers.

This spring, PED announced it would drop the weight of test scores to 35 percent after receiving feedback from the New Mexico Teach Plus Fellows, a group of teachers from across the state.

Classroom observations are 40 percent, and the remainder is made up of measures such as attendance and parent surveys.

States that emphasize classroom observations, rather than test scores, have more teachers rated effective or better, according to Kraft’s paper.

‘Complicated picture’

Kraft said test scores have “a role to play in understanding the big and complicated picture of teachers’ performance on the job.”

He wants evaluations to differentiate teachers to help improve their skills – as opposed to labeling everyone effective or proficient.

But he said placing half the weight of the evaluation on test scores can lead to “an emphasis on test performance” and changes in curriculum, such as teaching test-taking skills rather than critical thinking.

New Mexico’s recent shift to weighing test scores as 35 percent of the teacher evaluation is “more in line with a balanced approach,” he said.

Kraft added that with New Mexico rating such a high number of teachers not effective, it runs the risk of making many teachers defensive and unwilling to listen to feedback from the evaluations.

“The really contentious relationship between the teachers’ unions in the state as evidenced by the ongoing lawsuits suggests that the (evaluation) process might undercut the potential for this differentiation to be seen as accurate and valid and inform teachers’ efforts to try to improve,” Kraft said.

Asked whether he worries that the evaluation system is alienating teachers, Ruszkowski said his “biggest concern is whether or not our students are showing progress in each and every classroom and each and every school throughout the state.”

“When the question gets tilted or sort of perverted, as it often has over the last five years, into a question that is not about putting our kids front and center, I think we have to wonder, why is the question being framed in a way that is not about student learning and college and career readiness and instead is about something else that’s not about student learning?” Ruszkowski said.

To Kraft, the main challenge is not identifying and removing the ineffective teachers, but boosting the majority from “good to great.”

Read Kraft’s full study at https://scholar.harvard.edu/mkraft/publications/revisiting-widget-effect-teacher-evaluation-reforms-and-distribution-teacher

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