Skandera draws critics on visit to Los Alamos

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Education > Some teachers are unhappy with PED’s new evaluation system

By John Severance and Tris DeRoma

Secretary of Education designate Hanna Skandera came to Los Alamos Wednesday to tour the middle school and high school, and celebrate the high school’s academic success.


There was a little tension in the air, however, as teachers demonstrated across the street from Los Alamos High School while she toured the school.

The demonstration had to do with Skandera’s new evaluation system for teachers that she is trying to get passed through the state legislature. To many teachers, it’s the last straw from a state government they think is clueless when it comes to public education.

A mixture of teachers and parents confronted Skandera at the high school.

One teacher, Jenny Diesburg-Lathrop, who teaches fifth grade at Aspen Elementary, said even though she had a chance to talk to Skandera one-on-one about the issue during the visit, she felt like Skandera wasn’t listening.

“No. I don’t feel like I got my point across,” she said. “I really do feel like she has an agenda and that agenda is to get the evaluation passed through.”

Across the street, roughly 10 people held up signs and voiced their displeasure about Skandera’s evaluation system on the sidewalk of the lemon lot.

Organizing the protest across the street from the high school was Los Alamos resident Michael Baker, who has served in the military for 24 years and has a wife who teaches in the school district.

Baker said the evaluation system was the sole reason he set up the protest.

”Too many teachers were talking about this but nobody was hearing them,” Baker said.

When asked about the grading system and why teachers were upset, Baker replied, “no one knows what it is about. They are changing it. My wife is a special ed teacher. They told her one thing two weeks ago and something else this week. There are other teachers where they had no tests in elementary or middle school.”

Baker also was quick to say this was not a union event.

“Ellen (Mills), the president of the union, does not even know about it,” said one protester, who wished not to be identified. “She is taking care of her father in Chicago.”

Diesburg-Lathrop, meanwhile, said one of the issues is that she felt the state has implemented so many other regulations and tests when it comes to their profession, this new plan would be too much for already overburdened teachers to handle.

“It’s not that teachers are against being evaluated, we’re always being evaluated,” she said. “...having to jump through these extra hoops of evaluation will take away from our time of planning and instruction in the classroom,” she said.

Diesberg-Lathrop as well as other teachers also took issue with Skandera’s background, seeing it as another indication that according to them, no one at the state level knows much about educating children.

When asked if she was qualified to be education secretary, Diesberg-Lathrop said, “Absolutely not. The woman has never been a teacher. How can she make policy when she’s never been an educator?”

She also had a few words to say about the Los Alamos School Board as well when it comes to Skandera’s evaluation plan.

“I think our school board needs to stand up to the state,” Diesberg-Lathrop said. “What I’m hearing from all our administrators is that they aren’t in agreement with it either, but we are still going to do it. If we are the Los Alamos Public Schools, and we have the (prestigious) reputation we have, then we should be standing up and fighting this.”

When asked about why she thought that was, she said it probably had to do with reputation.

“I think that we are worried about our reputation in this state, so we aren’t willing to go out on a limb to do what’s right for teachers and kids, because it would look bad,” she said. “But I think we’d hear a loud applause from across the state if we said ‘we don’t like this evaluation system, we don’t want to do it.’”

When asked about the teachers’ grievances, Skandera replied that if the district is truly committed to excellence, then they should give her plan a chance.

“We made a commitment, and I think Los Alamos has absolutely made this commitment to see improved achievement for every student. Our new evaluation system, for the first time ever, captures some of that improvement. It’s about growth and progress, not static test scores, and that’s important.”

Los Alamos schools recorded two A’s, four B’s and one C from the PED this year after receiving four A’s and three B’s last year.

The grades assigned by the Public Education Department depend heavily on results of standards-based tests taken by students and reflect other factors such as a survey of students to gauge their views about learning opportunities at their school. For high schools, graduation rates and participation in college entrance exams also play a role in the grades.

This is the second year for the A-to-F grading program, which replaced an unpopular federal system for rating schools under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The federal system determined whether schools were making “adequate yearly progress” in meeting targets for improving student achievement. Educators criticized that as a pass-or-fail approach rather than measuring the progress that schools and students might make.

Had the federal ratings continued, only three schools statewide would have met performance measures and 99.6 percent would have been considered failing, according to a release from PED.

Skandera's Comments

Severence and McKenna's article paraphrases Skandera as saying that "if the district is truly committed to excellence, then they should give [my] plan a chance." If this is an accurate representation of her comments, I have two areas of concern:

1.) She sees it as "her" plan, not a plan that involves and values the contributions of actual stakeholders in the education system--be they students, parents, teachers, administrators or taxpayers. As the Secretary of Education Designate, any plan that comes solely from her should be carefully scrutinized. The implication that she knows what's good for us smacks of paternalism--what reason do we have for believing that her experiences in California and Florida allow her some special insight into what New Mexico needs? We are a unique state with a unique set of education skills and challenges. "One size fits all" thinking is as problematic in education reform as it is in her new teacher evaluation system.

2.) If the Secretary of Education designate is not able to look around our school system and see ample evidence that we are now and have always been "committed to excellence," then we have even bigger problems. To imply that anyone's disagreement with "her" plan is evidence that we don't have a commitment to excellence is an ad hominem attack on her opponents. Not only is such a logical fallacy patently untrue in the current and historical circumstances of Los Alamos public education, it is also evidence of poor critical thinking. Rather than defend "her" program, she chooses instead to attack the values of people who find fault with it.