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SANTA FE – New Mexico’s oft-maligned system for evaluating public school teachers could have an expiration date of early 2019.
That’s because all three Democrats running for governor and the lone Republican candidate – U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce – have expressed misgivings about using students’ standardized test scores to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers, a key component of the current system imposed by the administration of outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez.
In statements to the Journal, the gubernatorial candidates cited different concerns about the current system, but all described it as fundamentally flawed and said they would move quickly to overhaul it.
One of the Democrats running for governor, state Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, said Thursday that he would revamp the system within 100 days of taking office by a combination of executive order and legislation.
“As governor, I would immediately reform the state’s teacher evaluation system to put an emphasis on overall classroom learning and student achievement, not test scores,” Cervantes told the Journal. “I will work with the Legislature on a long-term solution to reform our entire education system, including teacher compensation and evaluations.”
He also said he would push to eliminate another Martinez administration education initiative: the annual issuance of A-F grades for public schools.
U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, another Democrat running for governor, told the Journal in response to a candidate questionnaire that the current evaluations “punish” educators working with vulnerable students and discourage high-quality teaching.
A Lujan Grisham campaign spokesman said Thursday that the three-term congresswoman, who is forgoing a re-election bid to run for governor, would bring together lawmakers, education professionals and others to come up with a new system.
“Unlike previous reforms, this cannot be a top-down effort,” Lujan Grisham spokesman Victor Reyes said. “By following the schedule of mandatory hearings for this rule-making and working with these stakeholders, we can put in place a new evaluation system as quickly as is possible while ensuring quality.”
The third Democrat running for governor, former Albuquerque media executive Jeff Apodaca, said he would also immediately scrap the evaluation system and implement a new system involving principals, superintendents and community members.
“I feel there’s enough support on both sides of the aisle in the Legislature to pass a bill doing so, but if there is not, I will do it through executive order,” Apodaca told the Journal.
Formally known as NM Teach, the teacher evaluation system was implemented administratively in 2012 by then-Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera after bills seeking to enact the system stalled in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Though Martinez and other backers of the evaluation system have described it as a way to hold teachers accountable, the system has been controversial from the start.
Skeptics have long maintained that the evaluation system does not accurately reflect educators’ classroom performance, and more than three dozen Albuquerque school teachers publicly burned their evaluations in 2015 to protest what they described as the “unfairness” of the process.
In addition, teachers unions have sought to have the evaluation system struck down in courts, arguing in separate lawsuits that the Martinez administration overstepped its authority in enacting the evaluation system and that it’s based on flawed methodology.
Under the system, student test scores on state-issued standardized exams currently make up 35 percent of a teacher’s rating – down from 50 percent when the evaluations were first implemented. Other factors included in the rating include teacher attendance, classroom observation by principals and student surveys.
Based on the data, teachers are designated as falling into one of five categories – exemplary, highly effective, effective, minimally effective and ineffective. Those categories are used to determine whether teachers qualify for $10,000 merit pay bonuses or whether they should be placed on performance improvement plans.
‘Let teachers teach’
New Mexico will have a new governor next year, since Martinez, a Republican, is barred from seeking re-election to a third consecutive term and will step down at the year’s end.
Pearce, who is giving up his southern-New Mexico-based congressional seat to run for governor, has joined Democrats in criticizing the Martinez administration’s handling of public schools. He has specifically described it as a centralized approach that has taken authority away from local school boards.
Along with making changes to the evaluation system, Pearce indicated Thursday that a cultural change is needed to improve New Mexico’s public education system, which has one of the nation’s lowest high school graduation rates.
“The current testing system in New Mexico is not working, and it’s contributing to our teacher shortage crisis,” Pearce told the Journal. “Instead of giving our communities the support to address students’ needs, we are jamming all of society’s problems into the classroom and telling teachers to fix them.”
“Worse, we are then testing the students, not to evaluate and fix their deficiencies, but rather to judge our teachers, who barely stand a chance,” he added. “That’s backwards. We must let teachers teach.”
A PED spokeswoman did not immediately respond to questions about the candidates’ stances on the evaluation system and its fate under a new governor.