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Korte Against APS Pact

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque Public Schools board member Kathy Korte, saying she has had many frustrations with a few “lousy” teachers over the years, plans to vote against the teachers’ union contract tonight because she says it’s too cumbersome for principals to fire bad teachers.

“I registered my kids and see that my battles will continue at the schools because of a few rogue teachers who aren’t doing their jobs, and no one is forcing them to,” Korte wrote in an email last week to district administrators, the local teachers’ union president and the school board.

“Sleeping on the job; lack of a clear curriculum; lack of communication with parents; bipolar-like tendencies that tell kids to do one thing as they rush out the door when the bell rings and do another when the kids return to class the next day; the list goes on and on and my frustration grows.”

Her email stressed that she is a strong supporter of teachers but complained about principals’ failure to deal with the unsuccessful ones.

Korte wrote the email in response to one sent by Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein to administrators criticizing what Bernstein called a “negative” Journal story about the union contract and ongoing negotiations.

Korte said in an interview that the teachers she was referring to are ones who have instructed her children over the years or about whom she has heard from others. She said she has complained to principals, who have been unwilling to go through the steps of putting the teachers on improvement plans, or who have put them on plans but the process has dragged out and the teachers remain in the classroom.

Korte, who lives on the West Side, said she has several reasons for voting “no” on the proposed contract, one of which is that it would pay employees who are also legislators for time spent serving in Santa Fe, despite a board policy to the contrary.

But Korte said in the interview she also believes the contract makes it too difficult for principals to fire bad teachers. She said principals often tell her they don’t use the system because it is cumbersome.

Bernstein said the process really isn’t onerous, but principals are not using it because they are busy with other things or unwilling to have tough conversations with teachers. Bernstein said her union does not want to keep bad teachers in the classroom.

“We continually get blamed as a union for protecting teachers who are not doing a good job,” she said. “The last thing any teacher wants is to teach with somebody else who is struggling and not doing a good job. We all want everybody to do a good job.”

The contract lays out a process for placing teachers on improvement plans. Korte and Bernstein pointed to the same section to make opposing points: Korte, as evidence the process is complicated, and Bernstein, as evidence that it’s straightforward.

The contract states that a principal who hears concerns about a teacher should keep track of complaints to see if there is a pattern. The principal must then do classroom observations to confirm the pattern, and have a conversation with the teacher to notify him or her of the specific concerns.

The principal must schedule a follow-up and provide the teacher with help to improve. If there is no improvement, the principal must meet with Human Resources to review the documentation and schedule a meeting with HR, a union representative, the teacher and the principal. A teacher is then placed on a formal improvement plan and enters the Peer Assistance and Review, or PAR program.

Bernstein said the steps for documenting problems are part of the state school personnel act and cannot be changed by the union contract. The PAR program, however, is specific to APS.

In that program, experienced “consulting teachers” are assigned to help struggling teachers improve. Part of the idea is to lighten principals’ burden, although principals still bear ultimate responsibility for supervising and evaluating teachers. Teachers can be dismissed if they don’t improve.

The district has a total of about 5,000 teachers. As of spring 2011, Bernstein said, 60 teachers had been through the program, which began as a pilot in 2007. Of those, 26 had left the profession by retiring, resigning or being fired. Ten had improved their teaching and stayed in the classroom, and 12 had voluntarily opted in and out of the program. Most of the rest were still in the program.

Bernstein said the tools for a good evaluation system are there, but principals aren’t using them. She acknowledged principals are busy, but said maybe their time should be organized differently so they can spend more time observing classes and helping teachers improve.

“I think if teachers could say what they wanted out of a teacher evaluation system, they would say they want somebody who is knowledgeable about teaching and learning, spending enough time with them to know what they’re doing, and giving them useful feedback that will help them stretch as a professional,” Bernstein said.

In her email, Korte commended the district and the union for moving forward this year on teacher evaluation and reforms at Emerson Elementary, but “those types of reforms should have been going on many, many years ago and only took hold when the state started breathing down districts’ necks.”

Korte said in her interview that she would like to see a team-oriented evaluation system, where those who teach the same subjects and grade levels work together to share strategies. Korte said she believes a team approach would help put pressure on those who are pulling the team down.

“I’m not talking, ‘We’re all going to rat you out.’ But I’m talking about a system where teachers say, ‘This is the expectation for all of our kids at the end of the unit test.’ For a teacher who doesn’t achieve, it’s ‘Well what happened? What did you not do?’ ”

Korte said she hopes such a system would create peer pressure on teachers to either improve or leave the profession. She acknowledged the problem is a difficult one.

“I don’t have answers, I just can tell you my experiences,” she said. “It’s such a few teachers, but why are we even dealing with these few, when everyone knows who they are?”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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