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Stop turning teachers into algorithms

My youngest daughter just started kindergarten in Rio Rancho on Monday. Like so many other parents across the state, I am excited and nervous – we all hope that our children will be taking this important step with the best resources available to them.

Unfortunately, my daughter, along with hundreds of other children across our state, could be in a classroom without a permanent, full-time teacher. This is a problem that many schools are grappling with across the state – Albuquerque Public Schools has over 100 openings the district still needs to fill, while Rio Rancho has 36, and those are just two of our 89 school districts.

What’s more, New Mexico’s Education Secretary Hanna Skandera is adding to the problem with an evaluation system that is driving teachers away from the profession. Superintendents in districts across New Mexico have reported an increase in retirements that is only compounded by a lack of new teachers willing to fill their places – and many attribute this to an evaluation system that is faulty and riddled with errors.

As Melrose Municipal Schools Superintendent Jamie Widner said: “Veteran teachers and administrators are leaving the profession in droves due to mandates from the Public Education Department.”

Earlier this month, Skandera announced changes to the evaluation system, which uses three years’ worth of student scores on various tests in a secret, complex algorithm that would require a Ph.D. in engineering to understand. The result is called a Value Added Score (VAM).

That number is half the rating. The other half includes observations by school administrators, student or parent surveys and attendance records.

Last year, these scores were based on data so rife with errors that, in some districts, as many as 60 percent of evaluations were incorrect.

Skandera’s changes will make it so that new teachers will no longer be penalized for not having three years’ worth of student scores on which to base their evaluations; and that teachers who don’t teach subjects included in standardized tests – such as music, art and physical education – are no longer judged on subjects they don’t teach. These are common-sense changes that should have been made at the onset.

What these changes don’t do is ensure that the vast majority of veteran educators do not continue to be persecuted by a system that is focused on sanctioning schools, districts, kids and teachers using high-stakes testing, rather than working together to find the necessary resources to create great teaching and learning environments.

Frankly, it comes as no surprise that Skandera and the PED are scrambling to amend and legitimize their sham of an evaluation process. Along with state legislators, the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, New Mexico teachers and others, AFT-NM has filed a lawsuit against the PED because the current evaluation system harms teachers and deprives students of the high-quality educators they need to succeed. We have asked for an injunction in order to give teachers the time and space they need to focus on teaching rather than on an uncertain future based on unfair measures.

The bottom line is that we need to stop turning kids into test scores and teachers into algorithms, and start developing, in partnership with teachers, administrators, parents and community members, great public schools, including comprehensive education evaluation systems based on multiple measures that support student and educator improvement.

As the new school year begins, my hope is that New Mexico’s classrooms will be led by teachers who no longer live in fear of an irrational, haphazard evaluation system – and instead are given the resources and support they need to reclaim the promise of public education for all New Mexico’s children.

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