Agents of change

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By Sherry Robinson

Three weeks into her job last year, Secretary of Education-designate Hanna Skandera had a teachable moment in the Capitol elevator.
In a chance conversation, a woman told Skandera that she left the teaching profession because there was no recognition of excellence; her students were performing well, but next door, another teacher who was just marking time earned more because of longevity.
“We have no way to acknowledge their excellence in a meaningful way,” Skandera said last week, speaking to business leaders. “How do you capture the art and science of teaching?”
This question drove a governor-appointed task force on teacher evaluations that met all summer and released its recommendations in late August. Skandera’s talk was to explain and sell the task force recommendations and enlist support ahead of the next legislative session.
What was refreshing about Skandera’s message was its overtone of support for teachers and its marked departure from the blame-the-teachers bombast that usually accompanies any discussion of reform.
“I believe in parental involvement and business activism, but our teachers are the agents of change … I believe in reading and getting a better return on investment, but who brings that? It’s our teachers.”
Democrats usually paint Skandera as a bureaucrat with no classroom experience, but she grew up in a family of educators. She made another important point: “Esteem for the education profession is not growing. Esteem is actually decreasing.”
The current system, which emphasizes years of experience and credentials, would be replaced by teacher evaluations based on student achievement (50 percent), observation (25 percent) and locally adopted measures (25 percent). Student achievement would have to account for disability, language spoken, and other student issues, such as a family’s frequent moves.
The task force didn’t stop at teachers. Principals would be evaluated on the school’s letter grade of A to F (50 percent), the effectiveness of implementing revised teacher evaluations (25 percent), and other measures.
Some critical changes left behind by previous reformers were incentives to teach in underperforming schools, rural and reservation schools and to teach math and science.
As usual, el diablo is in the details. Letter grading of schools is still untested and somewhat controversial. And even the task force couldn’t agree on how to measure student achievement. Testing is still a sore subject for teachers.
Skandera and Celia Merrill, of the Golden Apple Foundation, emphasized that reform isn’t rewarding the good teachers and getting rid of the bad. In between are the majority of teachers – competent, dedicated – who should get training and the opportunity to become great teachers.
Teacher salaries are the biggest part of a school’s budget, Merrill said. “That’s where we have our biggest investment and our biggest opportunity by making our investments more strategic.”
Studies have shown that one year in a classroom with a great teacher in a class of 20 students will make a $400,000 difference in a student’s lifetime earnings.
By great she means going beyond instruction – “teachers who light fires.” If we’re lucky, we’ve had at least one of these teachers in our lives – the ones who taught us to think, the ones who saw something in us, however unpromising we may have looked at the time.
“We need to champion our teachers, and we need to know that the reason we’re championing them is student achievement,” Skandera said.
It was an interesting speech – both call to action and extension of the olive branch to teachers.
Sherry Robinson
© 2011 New Mexico
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