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Teachers unions, APS slam NM’s education plan

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico has submitted a federally required plan to the U.S. Department of Education that will guide policy for years, though teachers unions and Albuquerque Public Schools were critical of its mandates.

The state Public Education Department’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan maintains controversial policies like school grades, PARCC testing and teacher evaluations, with a few tweaks. For instance, by 2020, high school students will have to score higher than now on PARCC to demonstrate competency for graduation.

School grades will also include new measures like science scores and English-language learner student progress by the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.

Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera touted the plan Tuesday as an important step forward that was designed with extensive input from educators, families and community leaders statewide.

Skandera and her staff crafted the ESSA document after holding 25 public forums in six cities across the state last fall. New Mexico First, a nonpartisan policy organization, collaborated with PED to organize and facilitate the series of meetings, which attracted 663 participants.

“We didn’t talk at these other than to kick it off and say, ‘We’re here to listen,’ ” Skandera told the Journal editorial board Tuesday. “This was an incredible opportunity to hear from folks and make change based on what matters in our community.”

Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera

Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera

Skandera said the PED is a national leader on listening to “teacher voice,” and education chiefs in other states have been calling to ask about her approach.

But teachers unions argue that Skandera has not heard their concerns.

Betty Patterson, National Education Association New Mexico president, attended ESSA forums in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and said she was uncomfortable with the process.

“Simply stated, the process was not as neutral as they claim and keep working hard to make it appear it was,” she said in an emailed statement. “Many of the concerns I heard during the two meetings I went to don’t appear to have been addressed. The group doing the sessions was said to be unbiased, but most sessions were run by PED cheerleaders and all sessions were attended by teachers on the advisory committees.”

Albuquerque Public Schools, six other districts and 15 charter schools held their own forums in partnership with the University of New Mexico Center for Education Policy Research and Learning Alliance New Mexico in an attempt to influence the ESSA plan. The UNM center compiled feedback from more than 4,000 participants and submitted it to PED.

Last week, Carrie Robin Brunder, APS director of government affairs and policy, told Board of Education members the PED’s forums received different feedback than the district’s.

“Most noticeably is the disconnect between the two reports regarding social and emotional well-being of students and the need for more individualized learning experiences for both teachers and students,” APS administrators wrote in a response to the state ESSA plan. “APS believes the ESSA plan should highlight these themes and seize the opportunity to work on new innovative models to shift the paradigm in our schools.”

The UNM center also reported that its forum participants wanted more limited testing, hands-on learning and individualized assessments.

Asked about the UNM CEPR report, Skandera said she “worked hard to incorporate feedback only under the presupposition that all students can learn.”

“Students deserve that we have high expectations for them,” she said.

Ellen Bernstein, Albuquerque Teachers Federation president, said she felt Skandera’s response “marginalizes” those who don’t agree with her educational philosophy.

Bernstein was critical of the state’s ESSA plan overall, arguing that it includes ideas recycled from the federal policies it is replacing: No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

“The teachers I talk to are interested in professional support, not PED punishments,” she said.

Critics also expressed concern about funding.

Charles Goodmacher, NEA New Mexico government and media relations director, said many of the specifics in the ESSA plan are “unattainable so long as our Legislature and the governor fail to sufficiently fund our public schools.”

PED is asking districts to meet the new targets by the 2019-20 school year, including increasing the graduation rate to 80 percent, up from the current 71 percent. At the same time, half of students must show math and reading proficiency by earning a 4 or 5 score on PARCC. In 2016, when a score of 3 was acceptable, proficiency rates hovered around 20 percent to 30 percent.

APS administrators are worried about reaching the goals.

Brunder told the APS board that it could be difficult for the district to raise the bar on PARCC and graduation rates at the same time.

Several board members said at the meeting they were disappointed with the ESSA plan.

Board member Barbara Petersen said the plan is almost harder to stomach than recent budget cuts because she believes the policies are not good for students and teachers.

“This is undermining the vision of the district,” she said. “I have such a headache listening to this right now, I can barely talk.”