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Teacher bonuses dependent on union OK

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – For the first time, teachers rated “exemplary” under New Mexico’s controversial grading system are in line to get bonuses of up to $10,000 next year.

But there’s a catch: Approval by a union – if the teacher is covered by one – would be required before the money could be doled out by districts or charter schools.

And union leaders say the evaluation system for teachers is too flawed to be the basis of compensation. In fact, the head of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation says they will not participate.

Executives under Gov. Susana Martinez argue that every exemplary teacher ought to get the award, as part of a multipronged effort to keep high-performing educators in the profession.

Debate over accepting the bonuses will unfold district by district across New Mexico, as local union groups decide for themselves how to respond.

The new program is possible because state lawmakers agreed this year to include $5 million for it in the state budget – at Martinez’s request – but with the provision requiring union approval.

Lida Alikhani, spokeswoman for the state Public Education Department, said the union language was inserted into the bill at the eleventh hour.

“Bottom line: Every teacher should have the opportunity to earn this award,” she said.

Union leaders, by contrast, say the state’s evaluation system is too unreliable to be tied to financial incentives, and they object philosophically to merit pay.

“Quite frankly, we think this provision is insulting to teachers,” said Charles Bowyer, executive director of the National Education Association New Mexico. “It sort of implies that teachers are holding something back and will do more if they get more money.”

The negotiating teams for each NEA local union group are expected to decide how to respond to the bonus offer, perhaps after surveying their members.

Who gets bonuses

The new program is called the Excellence in Teaching Awards. Each classroom teacher rated as exemplary under the state’s evaluation system this school year – based on student test scores, classroom observations and other factors – would receive a $5,000 bonus next year.

Exemplary high school math or science teachers would get an extra $5,000, or a total of $10,000. The higher bonus would also be available to exemplary teachers at schools designated by the state as in need of “more rigorous intervention.”

The actual bonuses could be reduced if the $5 million appropriation isn’t enough.

Generally, fewer than one in 20 teachers is rated as exemplary. In 2017, the state Public Education Department put about 4.5 percent of teachers in that tier, up from 3.8 percent in 2016.

The bonus idea is the latest twist in a long-running debate over how to evaluate New Mexico teachers and encourage the best to stay in the profession.

Under Martinez, the state has created a system of rating teachers based on classroom observations, growth in their students’ test scores, student surveys and teacher attendance. The state has also offered various merit-based pay programs over the years, a priority of Martinez’s.

But a one-time bonus for exemplary teachers statewide is new.

Alikhani, the PED spokeswoman, said an exemplary teacher can help students achieve 24 months of growth in one academic year – a success that should be celebrated.

“Recruiting, retaining, and championing our teachers has consistently been a top priority for Gov. Martinez,” she said. “One way to do this is by creating groundbreaking opportunities for professional growth and teacher leadership.”

Test scores

Union leaders, in turn, say the evaluation system is unfair and damages morale – not something to base compensation on.

A key sticking point is that 35 percent of the ratings are based on growth in test scores.

A much larger share – 50 percent – was part of the calculation when the evaluation system began in 2013. The state reduced the percentage in 2017 after pushback from teachers and administrators. The number of highly rated teachers has ticked up since then, although the PED says that was driven by performance, not changes to the criteria.

Opponents of the current evaluation system say it still depends too much on student achievement, which is shaped by too many factors outside a teacher’s control – especially students’ health and home environment – to be a meaningful reflection of an educator’s work.

‘Collective endeavor’

Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, said education is collaborative and that rewarding one teacher for students’ performance isn’t appropriate.

“All of the research on what makes schools function even better than they do is that it’s a collective endeavor,” said Bernstein, who taught for 17 years. “It’s not an individual pursuit.”

The Albuquerque teachers union has had a long-standing policy, adopted by representatives at different schools, against merit pay and won’t participate in the bonus program, she said.

Alikhani said union leaders are out of touch.

The bonus program, she said, would enhance schools’ “ability to reward, recognize, recruit, and retain some of their highest-performers with the biggest impact on student outcomes.”

The provision in the legislation requiring union approval was added to the bill as part of a package of budget changes adopted by the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 10, five days before the session ended.

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