Districts may get more leeway on plans for ineffective teachers

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The New Mexico Public Education Department is considering rewriting its regulations to give school districts explicit discretion to decide whether ineffective and minimally effective teachers are placed on performance improvement plans.

Matt Montaño, the PED’s director of educator effectiveness and development, testified Monday that he will recommend that the regulation be worded to say districts “may” put these teachers on 90-day growth plans, rather than that they “shall” do so.

The change would go into effect in August, although there are still several steps to be taken, including a public hearing.

Montaño said the PED wants to give districts the ability to make determinations about “all aspects of employment and licensure of their employees.”

“Regardless of performance, it is ultimately the district’s determination,” Montaño said.

If a principal and superintendent agree that a teacher is unsatisfactory, according to the proposed change, they then follow the PED’s regulations on growth plans.

The department communicated these changes to districts in January 2016 but is now moving to place them in administrative code.

Montaño discussed the proposed regulation change to support his claims that the evaluation system is not harming teachers while testifying in a lawsuit filed in 1st Judicial District Court. A Logan Municipal Schools pre-K teacher filed a lawsuit arguing that the PED should not be able to weigh attendance in teacher evaluations.

Angela Medrow, the plaintiff, says teachers’ contractually earned leave is a form of property with clear monetary value, and PED is taking that property by subtracting points from the evaluation if a teacher has more than six absences.

A 1st Judicial District judge in 2015 granted the American Federation of Teachers a partial injunction that blocks “consequential action” based on evaluations, including growth plans, but Medrow’s attorney, Warren Frost, said the threat still looms.

The injunction is in place until the teachers union and the PED resolve the lawsuit, and it could be reversed in the final ruling.

Montaño also testified that the attendance portion of an evaluation is “nuanced” because teachers can argue that absences for severe medical conditions not be counted against them.

Montaño said the PED believes teachers should not lose points if their absence could fall under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, whether the teacher actually has FMLA or not. For instance, a teacher who has been on the job for only six months would not qualify for FMLA, but Montaño said the teacher could still take maternity leave as though she were under FMLA.

Montaño said Medrow could have qualified for FMLA during the 2016-2017 school year, when she used sick days for surgery.

But Medrow testified that she didn’t want to tap her FMLA leave in case she becomes more seriously ill.

Judge Francis Mathew is expected to rule in the coming weeks on Medrow’s request for an injunction that would stop the PED from considering attendance in evaluations.

The next round of teacher evaluations will be released in mid-August.

The PED announced several changes to the system in April, including new rules for attendance.

Teachers can now take six days without affecting their evaluations, up from three.

The weight of student test scores was also dropped from 50 percent to 35 percent of an evaluation’s total.

Classroom observations were boosted to 40 percent.

Attendance counts for 10 points out of a total of 200 – a sufficiently small percentage that a teacher can lose all of those points and still be ranked in the top tier of an evaluation, or exemplary.

The PED also points to a dramatic drop in habitually truant teachers as evidence that the “incentive” is having results.

New Mexico went from 47 percent of teachers “chronically absent” five years ago to 12 percent today, adding up to 400,000 more instructional hours by regular classroom educators.

Some teachers have argued that the attendance portion of the evaluations hurts morale and pushes them to go to school sick.

A bill that would have granted teachers 10 days without penalty made it through the Legislature during the last session but was vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez.

A veto override succeeded in the New Mexico Senate, then failed in the House of Representatives.

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