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Education reform inches along

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By Sherry Robinson

When did education become so complicated?
Legislative hearings on education bills this year were knee deep in data and jargon, some of it borrowed from business: “value-added measures,” “human capital,” “formative observation,” “core competencies.”
Pity the parent trying to follow these discussions.
To cut to the chase, there are three overriding conflicts in the debate over education reform. Topping the list is testing. Teachers say they’re saturated with tests and object strenuously to any more because they’re not a reliable measure. The governor and her education staffers think we need more tests. Like them or not, standardized tests are costly, in money and time.
The second is a top-down push vs. bottom-up buy-in. The administration’s approach is my way or the highway; the educators’ alternative diffuses decision making through so many layers of people you wonder where the buck stops.
The third is Hanna Skandera herself.  Although I’ve been saying she deserves a chance, every conversation with a teacher begins with, “She has no classroom experience.” That’s a big obstacle and one reason the Senate Rules Committee refuses to confirm her as Public Education Secretary.
You can see all three conflicts in the competing teacher evaluation bills. Right now, teachers are judged competent or not competent. Everybody agrees that’s not enough.
Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Texico, carried the governor’s bill, HB 249, which reflected the recommendations of the governor’s Effective Teacher Task Force. But even the task force didn’t agree on testing and the school grading system.
Under that bill, evaluations would be based 50 percent on growth in student achievement (tests), 25 percent on observation, and 25 percent on multiple measures adopted by the Public Education Department. Districts would have to develop assessments for subjects that aren’t tested. Principal evaluations would be based on the school’s letter grade and for moving the school forward, along with leadership standards adopted by the department.
Educators were so opposed to this system that they asked House Education Committee Chairman Rick Miera, D-Albuquerque, for another option. His HB 251 called for a council to develop a teacher evaluation program based 20 percent on classroom evaluation, 20 percent on observation by a principal or certified observer, 30 percent on student learning (not tests but “standard learning objectives”), 10 percent on school progress, and 20 percent on student feedback.
Lining up behind Miera’s bill were the League of Women Voters, the American Federation of Teachers, the Coalition of School Administrators, and the Albuquerque Public Schools Principals Association.
Roch and Miera compromised and combined their measures. Evaluation would be 50 percent based on student growth and achievement (not a test) and measures to be developed by a council, including student surveys and observations. Principal evaluations would be based 50 percent on student and school growth and council measures, including instructional leadership and feedback from teachers, staff, and parents
The compromise passed the House and died in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which, ironically, passed SB 315, a similar bill supported by educators but not the administration. It died on the Senate floor.
When you hear pronouncements that education reform failed, it just ain’t so. Several came close, which is noteworthy, considering that it was a short session. They could make it through next year.
And remember, the previous education reform took years as all the reformers struggled to reach consensus and then wait for Gov. Gary Johnson, who didn’t support their reforms, to leave office.
In committees, when you can hear one side or the other saying, “If you’d just do (x), I could support this bill,” you know you’re getting close.
Sherry Robinson
New Mexico News Service