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Schools to Skandera: What’s your hurry?

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By Sherry Robinson

School superintendents, by necessity, are practical people who have to wrap thinner and thinner budgets around more and more needs. They’re not ideological hotheads. So it’s telling that in the great teacher evaluation debate, superintendents are saying to the state Public Education Department, we need more time.
Many, like Ruidoso District Schools Superintendent George Bickert, want another year to work the bugs out and not “just ram this down everybody’s throats this year,” he told the Ruidoso News. “That’s been the big problem and PED has been very inflexible in terms of, ‘No, we are doing it this way, we are doing it this year, we are doing it right now.’ ”
Bickert compared the process to flying an airplane as you build it.
Portales Muncipal Schools Superintendent Johnnie Cain described in a letter to lawmakers the “almost frantic implementation” of PED’s implementation system.
The Legislature tried for the last two years to produce evaluations everybody could live with, but teachers and the administration were miles apart. So Public Education Secretary-designate Hannah Skandera is trying to force educators to eat their broccoli by administrative decree. There’s some support for this among members of the public grown impatient over New Mexico’s dismal standing in test results, but the magnitude of the pushback and the unintended consequences call for, at the very least, a cooling period.
A strike is only one possibility. More worrisome, because of existing teacher turnover, are the resignations. Morale is in the basement. Esther Romero, human resource officer in the Española School District, warned of an exodus of experienced teachers, according to the Rio Grande Sun. A high school counselor I spoke to predicted a wave of resignations or retirements at the end of the calendar year, followed by long-term substitutes. “Teachers are terrified,” she said.
Notice that nobody has said evaluations aren’t necessary.
“No one is afraid of being held accountable,” said Nancy Patterson, Deming Public Schools associate superintendent for human resources. “It’s just the way it’s all being quickly mandated.”
Skandera has said the changes have been under way for years and that “politics that get in the way of doing what’s right for our kids,” which justifies her line in the sand. That’s true only if you’re taking the political measure. The administration’s bill two years ago called for evaluations, beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, to be based 50 percent on testing, 25 percent on observation, and 25 percent on multiple measures adopted by the Public Education Department.
Democrats offered a competing bill based 30 percent on testing and the rest on classroom evaluation, observation, school progress and student feedback. Both bills failed. In one committee hearing, a Republican and a Democratic lawmaker questioned why PED was necessary at all.
At that point in 2012, they were 20 percentage points apart on testing, and there was opportunity to compromise and collaborate. Instead PED added more layers of testing, stuck to its 50 percent, and moved the start date forward. And it signed a two-year contract with a California testing company for $3.6 million, when many schools don’t even have enough textbooks and teachers pay for supplies from their own pockets.
The department’s idea of preparation was an evaluation pilot program only for the classroom-observation piece. “We didn’t really know what’s going on,” Silver Consolidated School District Associate Superintendent Gus Benakis told the Las Cruces Sun-News. “They’re not releasing information, and then — boom! — we’ve started.”
That suggests that the hurry-up is political, and it’s the same kind of uncompromising, take-no-prisoners approach that shut down the federal government. The same approach the governor criticized.
What’s the hurry? Did the governor give Skandera a deadline? Is the governor, whose eye is on future campaigns, bent on showing instant results? Is our absent governor even paying attention?