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School accountability must start at the top

President, Albuquerque Teachers Federation

Last year, the New Mexico Public Education Department labeled three elementary schools in Albuquerque Public Schools as failures in need of the “most rigorous intervention.” That label and the upsetting, shifting consequences created an indelible amount of stress for the educators in each school during the entirety of the spring semester.

Setting aside our real concerns with the methods and mathematics behind PED’s system of school grading, these public pronouncements by PED created environments filled with uncertainty as educators tried to decode unclear expectations for changes that would supposedly address a grading system (few can)understand or explain.

Community leaders, parents, district administrators, teachers and their union worked collaboratively in order to meet – in good faith – the demands of PED. Each of these stakeholders believe deeply in the value of neighborhood strong public schools and recognize the adverse effects to each community of shuttering a school.

The fear of losing years of expertise and energy dedicated to each community’s school was clear on teachers’ faces during this stressful and emotional process. Attempting to answer their questions about what the future held often left more questions than answers as the demands from PED kept changing throughout the process. One constant, however, was the persistent threat of displacing teachers, closing schools or turning the locations into charter schools, none of which were embraced by these communities.

Imagine how everyone concerned felt when PED then released a new round of school grades on Aug. 17. I was stunned to see two of the three targeted schools were no longer failing, and miraculously are now “average.” So what changed? Well, nothing – the mysterious “C” grades from the PED are based on the same schools, teachers, kids and instructional programs that created the shameful “Fs” for so many years.

It’s no longer a question PED’s school grades are arbitrary and do not reflect an accurate picture of the teaching and learning going on in a school. Unfortunately, these politically motivated games and false labels of failure are having a real effect on our teacher shortage problem.

A new report from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education indicates enrollment in teacher preparatory programs is down, despite a nationwide growing need for teachers. One reason cited is overreach from so-called reformers, with school letter grades being only the most recently publicized example. …

These schemes, in which accountability rolls downhill and never reflects on the people who mastermind them, are old, worn out and discredited. An article in The Washington Post summed up the issue succinctly: “Prospective teachers, much like the young educators already working in schools, are especially skeptical of accountability measures that tie a teacher’s job security or pay grade to student test scores. And many are bothered by the way teachers are blamed for social problems.”

Who is really accountable here? People who dedicate their lives to the students in their charge or bureaucrats who don’t work in schools but nonetheless produce nonsensical algorithms, school grades and teacher evaluations?

PED (credits reforms) for any and all “improvement” but spews blame for “failure,” and the fact is neither is true. Its system is arbitrary. Our union has never supported the school grading system, nor have we had any role in the development and implementation of it. Yet, I can’t shake the need to apologize to teachers, students, parents and communities who had to go through all this unnecessary stress.

It’s time for a new accountability system starting at the top, holding PED responsible for creating accurate and transparent systems with integrity. It’s the people at the top of the bureaucracy who must be accountable to public educators – accountable for caring, supporting school employees and bringing positive change for our public schools and communities.