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Bill aims to amend attendance portion of teacher evaluations

A bill that will come before the Legislature in January would largely eliminate the controversial attendance component of teachers’ evaluations.

Rep. Jason Harper

Rep. Jason Harper

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said he wants to introduce the legislation because he has seen his children’s teachers come to school sick, fearful that they will hurt their rating.

“We are punishing good teachers,” Harper said. “This is such a morale issue. These poor teachers feel like they are beat up every which way.”

Under the New Mexico Public Education Department’s evaluation system, attendance counts for 10 points out of 200, or 5 percent of the total.

Educators can be absent from the classroom for three days without penalty, but lose points on the fourth day.

Harper’s “Teachers Are Human Too” bill would allow them to freely take all of their contractual sick leave, two weeks in most districts.

Teachers who are caught abusing sick time – for instance, claiming they have the flu while they are on vacation – would receive no attendance points.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, the bill’s co-sponsor, said the changes are designed to create better working conditions for educators while still holding them accountable.

“We think it is inherently unfair to penalize teachers on their evaluations if they are out for legitimate reasons,” he said.

But PED argues that the attendance measure is a reasonable incentive that has dramatically reduced teacher absences.

Statewide, districts saved $3.6 million on substitute teachers in the past year and the time teachers spent in the classroom increased by 400,000 hours.

“Our students learn best when their teachers are in the classroom – that’s what our parents expect and our kids deserve,” PED spokesman Robert McEntyre said in a prepared statement. “But here’s the bottom line: Our teacher evaluation system doesn’t prevent teachers from using sick days or taking leave – it encourages them to spend as many days as possible with their students.”

In addition, attendance has a minimal impact on the overall evaluation. Teachers can lose all 10 attendance points and still receive the top ranking, exemplary.

The bulk of the evaluation – 50 percent – comes from students’ standardized test scores. The other half is made up of a variety of measures, including attendance, student surveys and classroom observations.

Brandt acknowledged that the attendance requirement has reduced teacher absences, but thinks it comes at a cost.

“Sick days are way down and my question is, to what effect on the teachers,” he said. “I know teachers who go to teach sick.”

Albuquerque Teachers Federation president Ellen Bernstein believes every educator in the state will be grateful if the bill goes through.

“Teachers are so upset because they feel punished when they legitimately use sick leave that they have earned and is guaranteed to them contractually,” she said. “There are examples of amazing, stellar teachers all over New Mexico, who say, seriously, I was downgraded on my evaluation because I got pneumonia? I was downgraded because I have cancer?”

The union has long battled PED’s evaluations, arguing that the heavy emphasis on standardized test results – known as the “value-added model” – unfairly penalizes teachers.

In February 2015, ATF and the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico sued in state district court to halt the evaluations.

Judge David Thomson granted a temporary injunction in December 2015, preventing PED from using the evaluations to make employment decisions until the lawsuit has worked it way through the courts.

He noted that the system is “not easily understood, translated or made accessible.”

In response, PED simplified the formula. Attendance and parent and student surveys are now mandatory components of evaluations statewide. Previously, districts could choose one or the other.

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