Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Teacher vacancies at New Mexico public schools have exploded this year – with a persistently high volume of openings for elementary and special education teachers, according to preliminary research shared Tuesday.
Rachel Boren, director of the Southwest Outreach Academic Research Evaluation and Policy Center at New Mexico State University, said she and her students are still finalizing an annual report on teacher vacancies.
But the initial analysis suggests New Mexico had more than 1,000 openings this fall, up from 570 last year, she told legislators in a hearing at the Capitol.
“It’s a staggering number,” she said of teacher vacancies.
New Mexico has about 21,000 to 22,000 teachers overall.
The eye-opening vacancy report came as members of the Legislative Finance Committee weigh academic and policy research ahead of the 2022 legislative session. They heard from a number of experts during a hearing Tuesday afternoon.
Improving student achievement is a particular priority for the upcoming session, following a landmark court ruling in 2018 that found the state is violating the rights of some students by failing to provide a sufficient education. Much of the case focused on students who are English language learners, Native American or from low-income families.
Boren said job advertisements reviewed by her students suggest New Mexico needs more teachers at the elementary level and with a special education background. There’s also high demand for teachers in math, science, health, English and other subjects.
Danny Espinoza, a research and policy associate at the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute, told lawmakers that teacher qualifications and experience are an important predictor of student achievement.
Teachers, for example, appear to get better over the course of their careers, he said, making retention an important strategy for helping students. But New Mexico teachers leave the profession at a much higher rate than the national average, Espinoza said.
Compensation, the working environment, support from administrators and mentoring are factors that aid in retention, Espinoza said.
About 23% of New Mexico’s teachers are inexperienced, he said, a figure that grows to 36% for schools serving high-poverty communities.
“New Mexico has struggled with teacher shortages for years,” Espinoza said.
The state has jumped up the national rankings in teacher pay in recent years, he said, but it still trails neighboring Colorado and Texas. Average teacher salaries in New Mexico range from about $43,000 to $61,000, according to his presentation.
Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, said the Legislature needs to ensure its spending is directed appropriately to improve retention.
“Evidently, we’re not spending the money in the right place to do that if we’re having so many leaving,” Woods said.
Sen. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, a retired educator and Democrat from Ranchos de Taos, said higher pay will have to be part of the answer.
“The main part is going to have to be better salaries,” he said.
Representatives from the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation, a nonprofit group in northern New Mexico, shared quotes from local teachers to provide insight into why teachers might be leaving. Many said they don’t feel valued and need better support from leadership, increased pay and ongoing professional development.
One teacher said each educator is expected to be a “miracle worker” and treated as “defective” if they don’t succeed.