Gov. Susana Martinez has convened her nascent New Mexico Effective Teaching Task Force for the first time. Martinez says she’s keeping a campaign promise that was thwarted in March when the House flunked her plan to evaluate and reward public school teachers based on student achievement. But others say she’s just being a bully.
Members of the task force include a mix of superintendents and teachers from around the state; a venture capitalist; a legal secretary; a teacher’s union boss; and Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Curry, an assistant superintendent of Texico Municipal Schools who’s on the House Education Committee.
“We need to honor the effort of teachers in the classroom, but it’s also important that we set the bar high, and our current evaluation system hasn’t been doing that,” Roch says. “It has to be tied to student achievement—not 100 percent, I guarantee that—but you can’t do it without looking at student achievement. That would be like evaluating a doctor’s performance without seeing whether the patient has gotten any better.”
Roch is also a former classroom teacher who was picked to serve on the unpaid task force from a group of approximately 200 applicants from around the stateNotably absent are a number of longtime education advocates in the Legislature, including Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Bernalillo.
Stewart, a retired educator who’s been critical of the governor’s reforms, isn’t surprised she wasn’t named.
“I’m glad she has teachers,” Stewart says. “I don’t know most of the people on the task force.”
Stewart bristles at the governor’s allegation that some people think “if we just keep on doing what we’re doing, or throw more money at the problem without any sort of real strategy, that we can magically turn things around.”
On the contrary, Stewart says, the Legislature has invested a great deal of energy into producing a three-tiered licensure system for teachers that relies on comprehensive evaluation. “That new system is keeping about 8 percent of teachers from moving on, with a requirement that if you don’t pass out of level one within five years, you can’t teach anymore. It’s the first good evaluation system that has been working, that weeds out bad teachers. And [the governor] is just dissing it,” she says.
Merit pay isn’t a bad concept, according to Stewart, but she wants the task force mandate to include consideration for those who teach electives and special education, as well as librarians, counselors, social workers and other education professionals.
“If you just base merit pay on test scores, you leave out half of the people who work with our children,” Stewart says.
It also remains unclear how any type of merit pay program would be funded. As presented to the Legislature earlier this year, the governor’s plan to evaluate teachers contained no financial provisions.
Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, vice chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, says he is glad to see the task force includes LFC Director David Abbey (other state members are Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera and Legislative Education Study Committee Executive Director Frances Ramírez-Maestas).
Having accurate financial information is key, Varela says, to assessing any plan the task force may ultimately offer up.
“With all these changes proposed by [Skandera], we need to keep in mind that money is driving everything, so we need to have that direct collaboration with the LFC and LESC,” Varela says.
He expects the task force to be effective so long as it takes plenty of legislative input and is looking forward to “perhaps playing devil’s advocate” after the group presents a plan.
Stewart has a darker view of whether a task force on teaching can do much to solve New Mexico’s underlying crisis in public education.
“Years of inadequate funding, universities that don’t teach teachers how to teach reading very well, blaming the public schools for all the ills of society…” Stewart says, detailing a list of troubles she fears won’t be addressed by the task force.
“I could go on and on.”