It's been a rough few weeks for the Public Education Department as the backlash against a new teacher evaluation program continues to mount.
Critics say the evaluation system imposed this year by the state puts too much emphasis on test scores and reprimands educators instead of helping students.
"I think teachers are sort of feeling like an animal at the zoo," says Todd Hansen, a music teacher at EJ Martinez Elementary and a union communications director with the National Education Association's Santa Fe chapter. "You're behind a fence, a pane of glass, and you're being observed—which is fine, but it seems like it's going to an extreme."
Last week, PED Secretary Designate Hanna Skandera faced a hostile crowd of educators during a community meeting in Albuquerque where she talked about the evaluation system. There, someone reportedly dressed up as "Scantron Dera," a tongue-in-cheek play on Skandera's name and a private company that manufactures standardized test sheets. The Albuquerque Journal also reported that another yelled out about a misspelled word on Skandera's PowerPoint presentation, arguing that a teacher who makes a similar mistake on a PED evaluation form would be marked down for it.
Santa Fe teachers, however, have been more low-key in their criticism.
"People tend not to get hyperbolic about things around here," says Bernice García Baca, a counselor at Aspen Community Magnet School and president of the local NEA chapter.
That doesn't mean local teachers have avoided recent tension between the state department administrators and classroom educators. No Santa Fe teachers, for example, applied to a controversial $5,000 stipend program offered by the PED to educators who were willing to transfer from high-performing schools to low-performing schools.
The stipend proposal drew heavy retort from local labor unions that claimed it divided teachers and was not realistic about the diversity of each classroom. Critics also said it would disrupt schools, but since no one took the bait here, that's apparently not a factor.
In fact, only 16 teachers in the state requested to be a part of the stipend program, according to PED spokesman Larry Behrens.
Meanwhile, it could be some time before anyone can measure the effectiveness of the evaluation system that is comprised of complex benchmarks and rubrics. Its four-part matrix includes student-testing performance, classroom observations, teacher attendance and "professional responsibilities" such as lesson planning and continuing education.
The state did allow individual districts to modify the evaluation plan as long as the basics of the criteria remained in place. Santa Fe Public Schools got permission to use alternative teacher evaluation standards that put less weight on test scores—35 percent of the evaluation instead of PED's recommended 50 percent. The district also replaced teacher attendance standards with student evaluations and will have principals and teachers work together on developing student growth achievement targets, says SFPS Chief Accountability and Strategy Officer Richard Bowman.
Teachers marked as ineffective will be placed on a "professional growth plan" to get them to improve their performances, he says, maintaining that the district has adopted a program that is not intended to lead to staff changes.
"The teacher evaluation system is not a teacher firing system," Bowman says.
Hansen says what bothers him most about the evaluations is that they're being conducted by "a lot of people who are at the top that are not teachers and never have been."
So far, just three months into the school year, Hansen says he's had five different evaluators—two from the district and three from the state—come to his classroom. Though he says the program is well intentioned, he argues that it ends up interfering with the lesson plans.
"Usually they'll come in and have meetings with principals, teachers and students," he says. "It takes time away from the kids and ultimately takes time to redirect those kids [back to the curriculum]."
Others, however, welcome the in-class observations. Bruce Hegwer, executive director of the New Mexico Coaltion for Charter Schools, says the observation program so far is providing "great feedback" to schools.
It's the standardized testing mandates that he and many others are most critical about. Since many charter schools focus on a specialty like performing arts, for example, standardized testing may not be applicable.
"We're set up to where you measure students differently based on what you say in the charter," Hegwer says.
The big test that the state will use for the evaluations is the Standards Based Assessment, given to students here each spring during a two-week period in a marathon of No. 2 pencils.
SFPS also administers the Discovery Education Assessment, part of state-mandated testing, three times a year.
Attributing the results of tests to teachers' performances goes against the original purpose of standardized testing, García Baca says.
"The reason testing was developed [is] it should show that progress is being made," she says. "To specifically draw a line from that test to show how a teacher is doing in one subject, to me that's ridiculous."