Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Five million dollars for teachers.
That’s how much money was made available for bonuses for highly ranked educators working in a state with high teacher turnover and large amounts of vacancies.
And teachers unions, which have openly disagreed with the bonuses and called them an infringement on collective bargaining agreement rights, are now saying they won’t stand in the way of teachers getting the money.
The Excellence in Teaching Awards – $5,000 for exemplary teachers and $10,000 for exemplary math and science teachers in the 2017-18 school year – was included in the budget Gov. Susana Martinez signed earlier this month. It contained a $5 million allotment for the rewards, part of an effort to keep high-performing teachers in the profession.
The bonuses come after New Mexico had 443 teacher vacancies in 2016, according to New Mexico State University’s educator vacancy report. In the same year, New Mexico was ranked second in the country for teacher turnover by the Learning Policy Institute.
While there is a consensus that New Mexico needs to keep its qualified teachers, the consensus on how to do that isn’t clear. And although the unions aren’t blocking the bonuses this coming fall, they remain steadfast that they ideologically disagree with the system.
Betsy Patterson, president of the National Education Association of New Mexico, who had previously said unions might be able to stop the bonuses by invoking their collective bargaining rights under state law, told the Journal last week that she won’t take any legal action against the bonuses, but rather plans on “electing a governor that sees what should be done right.”
Originally, a provision was placed on the bonuses that would have given unions the ability to decide whether to participate, but that was ultimately vetoed by the governor.
Patterson also said NEA, which disagrees with the bonuses because of what it calls “flawed” methodology, won’t interfere with the process in the coming year.
An educator’s ranking is determined by the state’s evaluation system, which includes student test scores, classroom observations and attendance, among other things. Teachers are rated on a scale of ineffective, minimally effective, effective, highly effective and exemplary.
“What we have done so far is, any district that applies for the money and is receiving it, we are having the local districts let the teachers get the money,” she said.
But Patterson said that if districts are planning on the money for the 2019-2020 year, NEA wants the districts to bargain beforehand through a union.
She said NEA won’t “ever stand in the way of teachers getting paid more money.”
The Albuquerque Teachers Federation is taking a similar stance, saying the union is still fundamentally against merit pay, but it’s up to the individual teachers to decide whether they will take the money.
“It is the union’s job to bargain for everybody we represent in the most fair and equitable way,” said Ellen Bernstein, ATF president. “This is the opposite of what a union does. This is divisive; we are collective.
“We would like the Martinez administration and the (Public Education Department) to stop pushing a broken system.”
Sean Thomas, a teacher of 13 years who scored as “highly effective” last year, doesn’t support the bonuses.
“When you look at our profession as a whole, it’s starting to pit teachers against other teachers with the idea of who’s good and who’s bad,” said Thomas, who is also the executive vice president of ATF.
Thomas said he was in the running for the bonus and was about one point away from being an exemplary teacher last year.
And if he is rewarded with the bonus in the future, he said he won’t take it.
“It’s based on such an unclear equation,” he said. “If you don’t have a good tool to measure, then you can’t punish or reward teachers.”
Thomas, a social studies teacher at Eldorado High School, would rather see more funding go toward mentorship programs for new teachers and a different evaluation system put into place.
“I want my evaluation to be based off of what I actually do in the classroom and not over tests I have no control over,” he said.
Joe Dan Lovato, who has been a teacher for a decade, agrees the evaluation system may have some flaws but says he ultimately agrees with the rewards.
The science teacher at the Albuquerque Public Schools-chartered La Resolana Leadership Academy thinks at the end of the day it’s important to reward people who are doing a good job.
“Coming from one of the lowest paid states for teachers and probably doing a little harder work than some school districts might require outside of our state, I think any kind of reward is good, especially for people who are doing a good job,” he said.
For APS, teachers start at about $34,000, according to the district’s website.
But Lovato wants to see a more inclusive way to reward teachers.
“I wish the PED would be able to find another way of tiering an incentive pay for those close to being exemplary,” he said, adding that highly effective teachers are still part of a school’s success.
Lovato also said the evaluation system is “hit or miss” and can be too subjective.
“You could have someone come in and evaluate you and they may not like you,” he said.
Lovato said he has been an exemplary teacher two years in a row, and anticipates getting the $10,000 bonus this year. He plans to accept the money but wants to put it back into the school, sharing it with school staff who are rated as highly effective.
“I do think we are moving in the right direction,” he said about the bonuses.
“Excellence in teaching should be celebrated, rewarded, championed and recognized,” Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski said.
PED stood by its evaluation system, citing “decades of research.”
Ruszkowski noted the system itself is based on a study of effective teaching methods called the MET project, “a research partnership between 3,000 teacher volunteers and dozens of independent research teams,” according to the project’s online description.
“One of the things that’s new and why the unions don’t like it is because we do emphasize that teachers do impact learning in our model,” Deputy Secretary Matthew Montano said. “It goes from a time that we didn’t use any kind of student performance to evaluate how teachers are to now using a really good measure of student performance.”
Montano also said PED has never claimed the test is flawless.
“We have never said any system we have is perfect,” he said. “It’s significantly better in evaluating teachers and schools than any other system in the country.”
Ruszkowski said he agrees that highly effective teachers should be rewarded, too, but “from an appropriations perspective, we had to fight tooth and nail just to ensure the $5 million for exemplary.”
Montano said PED has made higher salaries accessible to a broader range of teachers through eligibility changes in its licensure program.
“That actually equates to between an $8,000 and $10,000 raise in these teachers’ salaries,” he said.
How the bonuses work
After the 2017-18 exemplary teachers are officially identified for the bonuses by late summer, districts will be given award letters for the total amount of the bonuses earned by each teacher. It will then be the districts’ responsibilities to distribute the money through their payrolls, according to PED. By late fall, the awards will be sent to districts.
Ruszkowski said all teachers under the exemplary distinction are eligible for the bonuses despite collective bargaining terms at the school.
PED can also adjust the award amount as needed to ensure that all exemplary teachers receive awards.
If the money isn’t used, it reverts to the general fund. But PED said that is “exceedingly unlikely.”
“The only way this would happen is if there are drastically fewer exemplary teachers and even by awarding everyone the maximum awards not all funds are expended,” PED spokeswoman Lida Alikhani wrote in an email to the Journal.
Exemplary teachers in NM
The percentage of effective teachers in the state grew last year overall and exemplary teachers grew 0.7 percentage points in 2017 from the previous year.
For APS, 3.7 percent of teachers were rated as exemplary in 2017, up slightly from 3.1 percent in 2016.
PED told the Journal that 135 APS teachers and 972 teachers statewide were rated exemplary during the 2016-2017 school year.
Within APS, which has approximately 6,000 teachers this year, according to APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta, 63 of the exemplary teachers were elementary teachers, 42 were middle school teachers and 30 were high school teachers.
In Rio Rancho, a total of 56 teachers were rated exemplary: 29 high school, 20 elementary and seven middle school.
To earn an exemplary rating, educators must score at least 173 out of 200 points on their review.