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It’s not hard to understand why teachers are leaving

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By Sherry Robinson

New Mexico is short of teachers – about 740, according to NMSU’s College of Education. Vacancies are up by 264 from last year. Add in counselors, librarians and nurses, and we’re short 1,173 skilled professionals.

Some 53,455 students are being taught by substitutes.

Understanding why isn’t too hard. It’s pay, job insecurity related to testing, and the lack of respect for teachers, according to NMSU’s survey of teachers and comments from union representatives. Half of 1,900 survey respondents would not recommend a career in education.

These shortages didn’t just sneak up on us. The warnings began in 2012.

During the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, when 23.2 percent of teachers left, New Mexico had the nation’s second highest rate of teacher turnover, according to the Learning Policy Institute, a California think tank. Only Arizona was worse, at 23.6 percent.

Remember that in 2012, Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera imposed by administrative order a teacher evaluation so reliant on standardized test scores that teachers found it unfair, punitive and demoralizing. Some kids come to school with issues a teacher can’t fix during the school day, they said. They preferred evaluations based on classroom observations.

In 2015, Charles Goodmacher, of the National Education Association, said: “The policies of the current PED and governor denigrate the education professions, while also keeping pay very low compared to other professions. This is driving away current and future teachers in every New Mexico ZIP Code.” 

During the 2015-16 school year, the number of New Mexico teachers leaving jumped by 27 percent, according to the Legislative Finance Committee. Two-thirds resigned; of that number, 36 percent left to teach somewhere else. 

In 2016 NMSU reported 600 vacancies, most of them in teaching. That year, New Mexico ranked 43rd in the nation for teacher pay, and a study ranked New Mexico sixth for “testing-related job insecurity” after 20 percent of New Mexico teachers “strongly agreed” that test scores could negatively affect their employment.

PED responded that New Mexico had raised starting salaries twice and offered financial rewards for high performing teachers. Skandera said resolving teacher turnover was just a matter of matching teachers with the right jobs. 

Cash for so-called high performing teachers has been another irritant. If a class of poor kids doesn’t match test scores with a class of rich kids, should one teacher be punished and the other rewarded? 

During the 2017 legislative session, several bipartisan bills took on teacher evaluations. One, called the “Teachers Are Human Too” bill would have let teachers use all ten of their allowed sick days without being penalized on their evaluations. It passed both houses nearly unanimously, but the governor vetoed it, arguing that teacher attendance had improved, and the bill would cost districts more for substitutes. After the session, the governor announced that teachers would be allowed six sick days instead of three before they’re penalized, standardized test scores would be 35 percent of the evaluation instead of 50 percent, and classroom observation would also be 35 percent.

This year, the state has a teacher attractiveness rating of 2.18 on a scale of one to five, based on compensation, working conditions, teacher qualifications, and teacher turnover, according to NMSU. And 32 percent of the state’s teachers feel insecure about their jobs because of standardized testing, compared with the national average of 12 percent.

And yet PED, claiming New Mexico is “on the rise,” cites the same hated teacher evaluation program, along with stipends for highly rated teachers. In May the department said it would make $1 million available to districts for recruiting, but that’s divided among 89 districts and 90-plus charter schools.

For eight years, we’ve had top-down “education reform,” teacher bashing, and political games. The wonder is not that teachers are leaving but that many stay.