Tanya Kuhnee is thinking hard about her future.
The West Mesa High School English teacher loves education but worries about the working conditions, particularly the amount of standardized testing.
“To be completely honest, I have in the past couple of years questioned my career choice,” said Kuhnee, who has been a teacher for a decade and is a vice president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation. “That is hard for me, because I always wanted to be a teacher. I feel like it is what I was meant to do. I also have to take care of myself.”
Other New Mexico educators also are considering their options, judging by a recent study on the national teacher shortage from the Learning Policy Institute.
The nonpartisan San Francisco-area think tank found that New Mexico has the second-highest rate of teacher “churn” in the country.
From the 2011-12 to the 2012-13 academic years, 23.2 percent of the state’s educators left their schools or the line of work – nine points above the national average. Only Arizona fared worse, at 23.6 percent.
On the other end of the spectrum, Rhode Island’s rate was 7.4 percent.
Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein said she isn’t surprised by New Mexico’s poor showing.
Like Kuhnee, Bernstein blames the high turnover on policies like testing, evaluations and school grades.
“I listen every day to teachers who talk about why they cannot do this anymore,” Bernstein said. “I listen every day to teachers who say, ‘I love to teach, but I hate my job.'”
State Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera said the root of the problem is “placing and matching teachers” to the right jobs.
“We definitely have work to do there, but we have a plan and a pathway,” she said.
Overall, the LPI study – “A Coming Crisis in Teaching?: Teacher Supply, Demand and Shortages in the U.S.” – paints a mixed picture for New Mexico’s teachers.
The Land of Enchantment fares well on diversity, but badly on school camaraderie and perceived job security. Teacher salaries are also low compared with those in other states, but are considered highly competitive relative to pay for other jobs in the state.
On the negative side, New Mexico ranked sixth for “testing-related job insecurity” behind Indiana, Florida, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Louisiana. Twenty percent of New Mexico teachers “strongly agree” that test scores could negatively affect their employment.
The Public Education Department weighs assessment results, including the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, as half of a teacher’s evaluation.
The Albuquerque Teachers Federation and American Federation of Teachers New Mexico sued to stop the system, claiming it is unfair and unreliable.
In December, the unions won an injunction that prevents PED from using the evaluations for advancement decisions.
Skandera has argued that she is holding teachers accountable and helping them improve.
Another dismal statistic: the state’s teachers reported low “collegiality,” a measure of cooperative effort among staff. Only 30.4 percent said their schools were collegial places to work in a 2012 survey cited by LPI, compared with 38 percent nationwide, the second-worst showing in the country behind Maryland.
In addition, New Mexico teachers’ starting salaries are comparatively small – $31,960 on average in 2013 compared with the $36,141 national average.
There were some positives in the report.
New Mexico tied for sixth on wage competitiveness within the state. New Mexico received a score of 78 based on several factors, while the national average was 74.
Skandera noted that teacher pay has gone up 13 percent under her administration.
“When you include our retirement, we fare very well compared to all surrounding states,” she said. “So we have a good package for teachers that we have worked on.”
Another plus: diversity in the classroom.
Forty-three percent of the state’s teachers are minorities – the third-highest – and experienced teachers are working in high-minority schools.
According to the LPI report, teachers of color have been shown to “enhance school experiences and academic outcomes for students of color” and “seek out difficult-to-staff teaching positions in low-income communities of color.”
While New Mexico faces a unique set of challenges, nearly every state is struggling with teacher attrition.
The LPI study found that about 200,000 educators move out of the profession each year – 8 percent of the teacher workforce nationwide.
By comparison, in high-achieving countries like Finland and Singapore, only 3 to 4 percent of teachers are exiting.
“The teaching profession continues to be a leaky bucket,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president and founder of the Learning Policy Institute. “And the gross numbers mask what already has become a critical shortfall in qualified teachers assigned to low-income and high-minority schools.”
According to LPI’s study, “dissatisfaction” is driving the exodus.
Fifty-five percent of teachers who quit in 2013 said they were unhappy with the job; 31 percent were leaving for retirement.
This attrition has helped create the worst teacher shortage since the 1990s.
The nation’s schools need an additional 60,000 teachers to fill classrooms this year, and that could grow to 112,000 by 2018, LPI reported.
Darling-Hammond suggested a number of remedies, including higher pay, better mentorship and common licensing exams that would allow teachers to move easily.
“Teaching conditions have hit a low point in the United States in terms of salaries, working conditions and access to strong preparation and mentoring – all of which would attract and keep a stronger, more sustainable teaching pool,” Darling-Hammond said.
New Mexico is already using some of these ideas.
Skandera highlighted Teachers Pursuing Excellence, which offers two years of mentorship and has shown good results.
“I think we have done a really good job looking at creative solutions in our state as we think about turnover and needs for teachers,” she said.
Albuquerque Public Schools offers a different mentoring opportunity in partnership with the Albuquerque Teachers Federation. The districtwide program provides “beginning teachers” with feedback based on classroom observations.
Antonio Gonzales, APS interim associate superintendent for human resources, said that those efforts can do a lot of good but that the atmosphere within a school is also critical.
“It’s all about collaboration,” said Gonzales, former principal of Atrisco Heritage Academy High School. “If teachers feel like they are part of the team, they will want to be part of the game.”