The New Mexico Public Education Department has launched its second year of the Secretary’s Teacher Advisory Committee, a group of educators from across the state who work directly with top officials.
Former PED Secretary Hanna Skandera created the advisory and several other groups to connect more directly with teachers after being criticized for not doing so earlier. The first group provided input on a variety of initiatives, including community meetings, teacher resources and an annual New Mexico Teacher Summit.
But some are questioning whether the committee is truly representative.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, Legislative Education Study Committee chairwoman, said she does not believe the advisory committee is a real grassroots group because PED is “picking and choosing” who can join.
The Albuquerque Democrat, and outspoken critic of PED, said she has also heard that the department is asking advisory members to attend school board and legislative meetings to advocate for the state’s education policies.
“I’m hoping that I can hear more from them other than promoting the PED reforms,” Stewart said. “I’m really looking forward to that. I hope it happens.”
She has been joined in her criticism by union leaders, who have also claimed PED only selected teachers who support state initiatives.
That’s a position blasted by PED Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski, who questions why union leaders are “choosing to besmirch” teachers who serve on the committee.
Patricia Martinez, a special education K-5 head teacher at Kirtland Elementary in Albuquerque, is a member of this year’s committee.
She disagreed with the characterization that PED is pushing the advisory members to become spokespeople for the state and said PED is “promoting open communication” between department officials and the teacher community.
“The PED knows it needs to do a better job communicating with teachers,” she said.
Martinez wanted to join the committee to “be proactive” and help improve education across the state.
“I’m excited,” she said. “It’s easy to complain. I’m tired of that. I was one of those people – I could tell you everything I didn’t like.”
Rigorous selection process
PED chose 26 teachers for the current cohort – roughly 10 percent of the applicant pool – after a rigorous selection process, including a survey and video interview. The teachers’ overall evaluation scores were also a factor.
PED is spending $18,000 to organize the current cohort.
The group held its first meeting with Ruszkowski in mid-August.
Before resigning in June, Skandera told the Journal that she regrets not communicating directly with teachers sooner.
Skandera said she used to think she could talk to superintendents and expect them to pass on her messages to teachers, who would then speak to parents.
“It was the worst game of telephone,” Skandera said.
PED created a number of groups to reach teachers directly, including the Secretary’s Teacher Advisory Committee, the New Mexico Teacher Leader Network, New Mexico Literacy Dream Team and teacher liaisons.
Last year, the New Mexico Teach Plus Fellows, a group of 15 educators from around the state, made suggestions that led to significant changes in the teacher evaluation system, including a reduction in the weight of student test scores.
PED said it did not select teachers based on their support for state programs and did not know how many were members of a union.
Ken Strawn, a Las Cruces fourth-grade teacher, serves on the National Education Association of New Mexico board of directors and was selected to be on the Teacher Advisory Committee’s first cohort.
He said he felt the meetings became political over time.
Still, Strawn said it was worthwhile to participate because he got to know top PED officials on a first-name basis.
Strawn recommended that PED ask superintendents to select the advisory group members to demonstrate the group’s independence.
Ruszkowski said PED coordinates with superintendents on many programs, and he is happy with the selection process.
Open to dissent
NEA of New Mexico spokesman Charles Goodmacher said he believes advisory group members are well-intentioned, but he said PED is highlighting them to create a false sense of support for its policies.
“It is the pressure brought by our unions, legislators and community allies which, according to PED Secretary Skandera herself, gave rise to these groups as a counterweight to the majority of educators,” he said.
Ruszkowski said Goodmacher’s statement doesn’t “deserve the ink on the paper it’s printed on” and called for him to apologize to the advisory members.
“I am honestly sitting here wondering what has it come to that there is opportunity after opportunity after opportunity to come to the table with ideas and solutions about how to improve student outcomes and student achievement,” he said. “Instead, they (NEA) are choosing to besmirch a group of 26 classroom teachers from across the state.”
Goodmacher, in turn, said PED is discounting the unions, which provide a platform for many teachers to express their opinions. Roughly half of the state’s teachers belong to a union.
The other Albuquerque member of the Secretary’s Teachers Advisory Committee, Jacob Kolander, who teaches English at South Valley Academy, said PED was open to dissent during the first 2017-2018 cohort meeting last month.
“We have been able to express contradictory viewpoints,” he said.