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When your school board seriously debates defying a state mandate, you know things are bad.
That’s exactly what happened Tuesday night after the Los Alamos Board of Education sat through hours of testimony from the district’s teachers. The teachers urged the board to help them stop or at least slow down, a new teacher and administrator evaluation process being ushered in by New Mexico Education Secretary designate Hanna Skandera.
The program is called NMTeach, and is billed as “New Mexico’s Educator Effectiveness System.”
Before the teachers made their presentation, Assistant Superintendent Gerry Washburn and Curriculum Expert Pam Miller gave theirs, hoping to dispel the many fears and misperceptions the teachers may have about the system.
A summary sheet created by the Public Education Department emphasized three facts: that the system was created with plenty of teacher input, that only administrators from their district would be doing observations and that the system is not something that was “made up” as a means to fire teachers.
While teachers said they understood the PED’s goal of making sure teachers are effective in the classroom, this system they said, has a lot of bugs in it.
Teachers labeled the state-mandated process as too time consuming, not well thought out, and probably the most damning charge of all, that the state is trying to push a mandate that could possibly do real damage to a teacher’s career, not to mention a student’s grade point average through no fault of the student.
It’s also not dovetailing too well with the state’s rollout of the “Common Core” Program, which could prove disastrous for students, especially high school students looking to get a higher education.
As Brian Easton, an economics teacher at Los Alamos High School pointed out to the board, the state has not given teachers enough time to teach students what the state wants them to know for their end exams, setting the students up for a potentially low score on a crucial test.
He recounted to the board information he received earlier in the day that had him very worried about the new evaluation system.
“Next Friday, we are half way through the semester, and I’m finding out today that my students will be tested on things that we don’t teach, and that’s 50 percent of my evaluation,” he said to the board.
“This isn’t even a final list. They won’t be telling me until November what the actual standards and benchmarks are. In early November I will be finding out what test my students will be taking the following month. It makes no sense, we can’t teach that.”
Easton was one of about 60 teachers that spoke before the board Tuesday, each one highlighting a different facet of the program they didn’t like.
One of their other chief complaints about the new system was how much time they had to dedicate documenting their lesson plans using computer programs, as well as creating printouts of those plans that they have to post in their classrooms---just in case someone dropped in to observe them. This process takes at between 10 to 30 hours a week, a task that’s often performed outside their contract hours, teachers told the board.
“I know a few teachers who flat out refuse to do anything on Teachscape (one of several programs teachers use to document their lesson plans) because they know that it will be evident to anyone who walks in their classroom that they are doing their job and doing it well,” said Chelly Young, a sixth grade teacher at Aspen Elementary.
After hearing dozens of similar testimonials from teachers throughout the evening, school board members began asking some really tough questions about what to do.
“If we do not conform to the mandate, what would be the consequences?” board President Jim Hall asked.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gene Schmidt replied that while he was confident the New Mexico Public Education Department wouldn’t penalize the district by cutting off funding, it is possible the PED could dissolve the school board as well as fire the superintendent.
Hall also said that while he thought the evaluation process had good intentions, he also revealed to the audience that he and the rest of the board had voiced repeatedly to PED their concerns over its implementation, that coupled with the implementation of the Common Core plan was too much too soon, but were time and time again frustrated by PED’s tepid response.
“Their response hasn’t been in my mind, satisfactory,” Hall said. “We are ignoring the maxim that says, ‘time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once’, and it’s not to our benefit.”
Hall then called on Schmidt to put together a taskforce that would identify components in the process that they could at least delay or make optional.
“We need to identify the minimum actions to meet state requirements, and once we have that information, we identify the state mandates that are either entirely unreasonable or we believe won’t work at this time,” Hall said.
“We could write the state a letter saying we don’t intend to implement them at this time and we respectfully tell them this is what’s right for our schools. Further, we tell them attempting to implement those things at this time hinders our fundamental responsibility to our students and our community.”
The audience apparently approved of the board’s approach, cheering and applauding in response to Hall’s proposal.
After the audience settled down, Hall tempered his comments with some reality. Hall urged the administration to have its faculty work with the evaluation system as best it can.
“We all want a fair, objective teacher evaluation system that provides for professional development and better services for our kids, and I don’t think that what we have now is it,” he said. “One thing we’re going to have to have, if we’re going to the PED with this, is credibility. We have to be able to demonstrate to them that we know what we are trying to do, but we can do it better,” he said.