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Evaluating … the evaluations: Critics decry new system for rating teachers; supporters say it helps kids

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

While teachers and administrators at Albuquerque Public Schools have been vocal in opposing the state’s new teacher evaluation program – hundreds of APS teachers rallied at a protest attended by the superintendent last month – the reaction has been mixed elsewhere in the state.

At Santa Fe Public Schools, teachers are critical of the new evaluation system but without a major outcry, and the district is collaborating with the state as it moves forward with evaluations.

Down south, in the state’s second-largest school district, Las Cruces, the teacher’s union strongly opposes the new system.

Davida Garcia teaches an English class at Santa Fe High School. Although teachers in the district are critical of the state’s new teacher evaluation system, the district is collaborating with the Public Education Department in moving forward. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Davida Garcia teaches an English class at Santa Fe High School. Although teachers in the district are critical of the state’s new teacher evaluation system, the district is collaborating with the Public Education Department in moving forward. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

And within Albuquerque, at least one state charter school says a similar teacher evaluation system has helped improve test scores and the quality of teaching.

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Santa Fe just wrapped up the first of three rounds of classroom observations each teacher will undergo this school year. The observations make up 25 percent of teacher assessments under the state Public Education Department’s NMTEACH evaluation plan.

“We’re all scrambling to meet the Nov. 1 deadline the district imposed to have the first ones completed,” said Santa Fe High principal Leslie Kilmer, who had just left a meeting of district principals last week. “It’s been hectic.”

Reaching an accord with the state in mid-August, Santa Fe was one of the first districts to have its teacher evaluation plan approved by state Public Education Department.

Superintendent Joel Boyd said the district was initially “wary” of what was being imposed on it but decided to work within the rule in a collaborative effort with PED.

“This is a difficult process. It’s an extraordinary shift in how we go about evaluating our teachers,” Boyd said. “This is an extremely heavy lift for our district and is creating some anxiety among teachers. But we’re committed to doing it together and working side by side with our teachers because a change is definitely needed.”

In contrast, APS Superintendent Winston Brooks has been sharply critical of many of the system’s details and the state has rejected APS’ proposed alternatives, which varied greatly from the state plan.

Boyd said the Santa Fe school district collaborated with teachers before negotiating its plan with PED in which student surveys reduce the Standards-Based Assessment testing component value by 5 percent.

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SBA and other test scores are used to measure student achievement growth under PED’s model and are supposed to count for 50 percent of the overall evaluation. Instead, the test scores in Santa Fe account for 45 percent of a teacher’s rating.

PED’s model also calls for 25 percent of the evaluation to be based on classroom observations by a school administrator and another 25 percent on locally adopted measures approved by the state.

Under its agreement with PED, Santa Fe’s evaluations break down this way: 45 percent based on test scores, 10 percent from the student surveys of teacher performance, 25 percent on classroom observation, and 20 percent on measures of teacher planning and professionalism.

Bernice García Baca, president of the National Education Association’s Santa Fe chapter, said teachers there are accepting of incorporating teacher evaluations into a system of “shared accountability” that the school district is working to instill.

But she thinks the plan put forth by PED is too rigid and places too much emphasis on testing.

“Teaching is a skilled art, it really is,” she said. “The creativity that we all remember being a part of teaching is really being limited by the system PED is subjecting us to. Trying to quantify it by sifting it down to numbers makes no sense at all.”

Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera doesn’t see it that way.

“I reflect on the old system, which was 100 percent subjective,” she said. “Also, it was binary, meaning either you met competency or you didn’t, which is rigid.”

Skandera said the art of teaching is captured by the new evaluation system. Through classroom observations and student surveys, teachers get feedback on how well they engage students and how well they are getting through to them.

“Through these evaluations, we can capture and acknowledge highly effective teachers, and for those teachers who are struggling we can capture where improvement is needed,” she said. “It gives us the opportunity to acknowledge good teaching while putting kids first.”

In October, a rally at Del Norte High School in Albuquerque heard speakers opposing teacher evaluations and more tests for New Mexico students. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

In October, a rally at Del Norte High School in Albuquerque heard speakers opposing teacher evaluations and more tests for New Mexico students. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

‘Going with the flow’

García Baca said teachers in the City Different are no different from their colleagues elsewhere in the state who have strong reservations about the evaluation plan. But there hasn’t been the kind of uproar there has been in Albuquerque, where 600 to 700 people attended a demonstration last month protesting the new teacher evaluation program and testing methods.

“This town is good at going with the flow,” García Baca said of Santa Fe. “It’s something we just have to deal with. We do the best we can and try to change things as we go along.”

She said Santa Fe’s teacher corps has had morale issues in recent years, but much of that can be attributed to wages. Santa Fe teachers hadn’t received a raise in more than five years until they received a 1.5 percent bump in August.

She said the biggest objection she and the union have with the new system is the emphasis on student achievement growth, measured by students’ SBA test scores.

She especially objects to the “group achievement growth” component contained within that measure. It factors in results from past years and in some cases uses test scores from students the teacher never had in the classroom.

García Baca’s biggest concern, however, is the emphasis on testing. She said teachers complain that they spend so much time testing, or preparing their students for tests, they don’t have time to hone their craft. She noted that in Santa Fe, there’s mandated testing going on somewhere in the district 15 days out of each month.

Skandera said that, over the course of an entire school year, about 1,100 hours are available for instruction. Her data suggested that the total time spent on conducting student assessments amounts to about 1 percent – a little more than that at the high school level and a little less at lower grade levels.

Skandera noted that teachers or union representatives were involved while the new evaluation system was being vetted. And she said teachers also provided input for what they thought was important for students to learn, and tests are designed to reflect learning.

“If we’re assessing what we want our students to learn, that’s a good thing,” she said.

Different unions

Most teachers in Santa Fe are represented by the NEA, whereas the American Federation of Teachers is the dominant union in Albuquerque.

García Baca speculated that more outcry might be coming from Albuquerque because it’s by far the largest school district in the state and AFT has more of a presence in the Duke City.

“The union in Albuquerque is more visible and has two full-time people working for them,” García Baca said. “AFT tends to be more obstinate. There’s more energy because of the full-time people, and they tend to be more aggressive with their opposition, especially with the new PED under Skandera.”

AFT New Mexico last month joined a small group of teachers and state legislators in filing a legal petition in state District Court in an effort to stop the PED from implementing its teacher evaluation plan.

NEA New Mexico may be headed down that same road. Late last month, its state board passed a resolution for its leadership to consult with general counsel to explore a legal course of action.

“So many of us think this will all blow over in a year or two – maybe if there’s a change in governors,” García Baca said. “But we can’t count on that, so it was decided to step things up a little bit.”

Despite her criticism of the PED’s evaluation plan, García Baca said she hopes it will eventually evolve into something that restores the art to teaching and better reflects the effectiveness of a good teacher.

“Maybe we have a false hope, but I think most of us are hoping that we will make worthwhile changes as time goes on,” she said.

Kilmer said there is some consternation over the evaluations. “With my teachers at Santa Fe High School, I’m sure there is concern because this is something new,” she said. “I’ve tried hard not to stress them out, because I know that there is that level of concern. But I know my teachers are working hard and doing the best they can.”

Kilmer said she thinks the evaluations can serve as a good tool teachers can use to improve, but it will take time to refine.

“Something I’ve emphasized is that this is a process, not an event,” she said. “It’s not perfect, but we’re all learning, and we expect it to get better little by little. We’re trying to work through the process and work out the kinks.”

Las Cruces

In Las Cruces, NEA representative Patrick Sanchez said teachers’ reaction to the teacher evaluation system has been “close to nuclear.”

“Teachers feel they are under attack,” he said. “They don’t think this is going to do anything but exacerbate testing, and we’re already test crazy.”

Las Cruces Public Schools’ evaluation process has been approved by PED and is underway. One piece of the evaluation is being left to the teachers themselves.

Superintendent Stan Rounds initially planned to tell PED the district would use teacher attendance as a component to count for 10 percent of the evaluation, but backed off after hearing opposition from teachers.

Telling them he wants to be fair, Rounds last week told teachers they could decide for themselves what would make up that portion of their evaluation, either teacher attendance or a yet-to-be-developed student survey.

“The choice is yours,” he says on a nearly five-minute video memo to teachers posted on the district’s website.

Rounds explains that PED sets the rules that school districts must follow, and the district has control over a small portion of the composition of the evaluation.

He tells teachers he appreciates their hard work, trusts them and believes they should have an opportunity to decide the criteria to be used for the part of the evaluation the district can control.

“So we get to pick our poison,” Sanchez said. “But (the student surveys) haven’t been developed yet, so what kind of choice is that?”

PED already rejected the district’s first two evaluation proposals.

Jo Galván, spokeswoman for Las Cruces schools, said after receiving input from teachers, the district submitted proposals that included such things as professional development, pursuit of advanced degrees, service on committees or as a sponsor of a student club to count as part of their evaluations.

PED rejected those ideas, but Galván said PED told them it would accept teacher attendance or student surveys.

Nothing to fear

At left, Kathy Sandoval-Snider, principal of the Albuquerque Institute for Math and Science, cheers students participating in a PE activity while evaluating teacher Paul De Herrera, who is next to her. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

At left, Kathy Sandoval-Snider, principal of the Albuquerque Institute for Math and Science, cheers students participating in a PE activity while evaluating teacher Paul De Herrera, who is next to her. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

In contrast to the harsh criticism by APS leadership, the union and many teachers, one Duke City school administrator can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

“A lot of the fear and complaints about the evaluation system that’s on the table are fraught with error,” said Kathy Sandoval-Snider, director of the Albuquerque Institute for Mathematics and Science. “I don’t know where people are coming up with some of this stuff. If their intent is to scare the crud out of teachers, they are doing very well.”

Sandoval-Snider attributes the teacher evaluation system her school implemented to playing a crucial role in the leap in student success that has occurred in recent years at AIMS, a state-sponsored charter school for grades six through 12 located on the University of New Mexico south campus.

She boasts that AIMS is the only charter school in New Mexico, and one of just 12 in the country, recognized as a 2013 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. “But we weren’t always very good,” she said.

The school has some built-in advantages – it’s small, with 312 students reported for 2013-14. Also, 30 percent of its students are eligible for reduced or free lunches based on income, compared to 64 percent in Albuquerque Public Schools. Families who send their children to AIMS are involved enough to enter a lottery seeking admission and there is a waiting list.

Still, Sandoval-Snider said it wasn’t until her school started implementing a teacher evaluation system five years ago that things started to improve.

Sandoval-Snider said that, in 2007, incoming sixth-graders at AIMS were measured to be 37 percent proficient in reading and 42 percent proficient in math.

“That same class (now in the 12th grade) is now 100 percent proficient in both reading and math,” she said. “I’m convinced, and my staff is convinced, that it’s because our teachers now have the tools they can use to help with instruction.”

Sandoval-Snider, who in 2011 was appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez to serve on an effective teaching task force, said one of those tools is a comprehensive system of evaluating the impact of teachers in the classroom, the framework of which she said was similar to the one introduced by PED.

Teachers are evaluated four times per year, twice by administrative staff, once by an experienced teacher and once by a neutral specialist affiliated with UNM. Together with test scores, these observations are used to evaluate teachers.

The teachers receive feedback after each observation, including suggestions for improvement and a framework of support. Teachers in each department and at each grade level meet to develop goals for professional growth, which are all data-driven and tied to student achievement. They then develop interventions and classroom strategies that can be applied in the classroom the next day. The results are reported back to their teacher groups.

Sandoval-Snider said the evaluations allow teachers to fine tune their teaching.

“We wanted (an evaluation system) that was objective and with multiple components, but also gave teachers scores that tell them this is what we’ve got to work on,” she said. “It gives them the power to make good decisions, and every decision is made with the classroom in mind.”


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