A Busy Saturday in Santa Fe

While most New Mexicans might expect Saturdays at the Roundhouse to be rather quiet, yesterday was full of action as the House Education Committee convened to take comment on and contemplate six bills connected to the evaluation of New Mexico teachers, known as NMTeach.

Over the course of the morning and early afternoon the Committee, chaired by Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard (D), heard testimony from roughly 50 teachers, administrators, non-profit leaders, union organizers and parents. Sadly, no student voices were heard, an oversight all too common in conversations about education. Democracy belonged to those able to show up.

The most impassioned comments were on HB125 ("Teacher & Principal Evaluation System"), HB158 ("Teacher Evaluation Pilot Project") and HB350 ("Teacher & Principal Effectiveness Act").

The essential questions underpinning the day were threefold: first, what is the right composition of factors by which we evaluate NM's teachers? Second, to what degree if any should student academic growth data be used in evaluation? And finally, is now the time to memorialize our teacher evaluation systems into state statute? Currently, the system exists by NMPED rule only.

While improving public education is rarely straightforward, there is certainly some common sense to be called upon in determining the best ways to evaluate and support one of New Mexico's most valuable assets, our teachers. Teachers matter more to student learning than any other aspect of schooling. Providing them with meaningful, actionable and fair evaluations is a vital piece in continuing to uplift public education here. And since most school leaders do not currently have autonomy over staff hiring, state policy is where that conversation takes place.

In answering the three questions above I call on and dare my fellow New Mexicans to think boldly, with an eye towards our future. We must work collaboratively for the benefit of our students, teachers and communities. Here's my advice to members of the House Education Committee, the legislature, the governor and NMPED:

  1. It is clear we have room to improve upon and iterate on the present form of NMTeach. While there was much praise from teachers and administrators about the value they glean from data provided, there is also much frustration and misunderstanding about the current handling of students with special needs and English language learners. Let's work together to pilot new ideas within our current system. From what I've seen and have been told, NMPED is keen to do just this. What we can't do is start from scratch, again. This is not helpful or healthy for teachers, students or the future of our state.
  2. While the exact weight of student achievement is and should be determined collaboratively, it is a disservice to divorce student test score growth from teacher supports and evaluation. Let's make adjustments as necessary, for example increasing the weight of classroom observations (as proposed in HB350) as well as beginning the school year with an informal observation and feedback, as numerous teachers asked for Saturday. HB158 is right in spirit though misses the mark by putting a pilot but not comprehensive system into statute. A teacher evaluation pilot is a smart strategy (and is a key opportunity within ESSA) but should be pursued through NMPED rule and once we better know what the memorialized statewide system will be over the next five years.
  3. We must commit our teacher evaluation to state statute at some point. Again working collaboratively, we must bring together a diverse group of stakeholders to refine and iterate upon our current system. NMPED has played an integral if controversial role in breaking down historic barriers in getting the state to this point. Now is the moment for NMPED to cede some control and for us as engaged, invested citizens to step up and reshape public education for the benefit of students, teachers, and our economy and communities.

What we know for certain is our students can't afford for us to go back in time. Let's roll up our sleeves, come to and stay at the collective table and hammer out smart and forward-thinking solutions to move New Mexico forward.