The Public Education Department’s rollout of a controversial teacher evaluation system is hogging all the attention this year, but some educators are struggling to comply with a less publicized reform effort that is more than a decade old.
After five years on the job, teachers must write and complete what's called a "professional development dossier" that totals more than 100 pages of work. The dossier requires teachers to, among other things, pick three of their students on different academic tracks and explain what they're doing to educate them. If the dossier doesn't meet PED's expectations, first-level educators can lose their license to teach.
It sounds simple enough. But David Miles, a high school English teacher at Santa Fe Indian School, recently learned that what may look good on paper doesn't always work well in practice.
Last year, Miles, who holds a master's degree in journalism and worked 9 years on the ground as a newspaper reporter before going into teaching, failed his dossier after spending more than 30 hours of his own time putting it together. His feedback from PED for why he failed was limited to three words: "Does Not Meet."
In a panic, Miles phoned PED to find out what criteria he failed. A department employee told him that he couldn't get any more feedback "other than the type you receive when you access the system to review your scores."
"For $320 a teacher and a year or more of your life, if you want to figure out what went wrong, well: 'Does Not Meet,'" Miles tells SFR.
At a time when teacher unions are leveling most of their shots against Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera for her newly implemented teacher evaluations, the costly slog of the dossier is going under the radar.
The process still has its supporters. Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, says the accountability standards in the dossier are "way better than the arbitrary nature of test scores."
But critics like Miles dismiss the dossier as a "bureaucratic nightmare" that fails to actually help teachers hone their craft.
"I don't think it has anything to do with your teaching abilities or expertise or talents or experience," Miles says. "It's kind of like just writing this big, long research paper and trying to put in as much education jargon as possible."
Even PED isn't enthusiastic. Spokesman Larry Behrens says his agency has heard many frustrations from teachers going through the dossier process. He calls the dossier "a disconnected element of work" that fails to "directly tie to the day-to-day performance of a teacher and does not account for all their students and their progress."
The dossier system came as part of a massive education reform package passed by the state Legislature and signed by former Gov. Bill Richardson in 2003. The effort created three levels of teaching certifications, with first-level salaries starting at $30,000, second-level certifications at $40,000 and third-level certifications at $50,000. New teachers, who begin at the first level, are given five years to climb to the next certification level.
If teachers pass their dossier by the fifth year of teaching, they receive a level two certification. But if a teacher fails by then, he or she loses the license and must rewrite and resubmit the dossier or else quit teaching. Many have opted for the latter, as reported recently by SFR [cover, April 8: "Education Exodus"].
Roughly 1,500 teachers have had to rewrite their dossier since 2010, according to PED statistics.
The dossier requires teachers to fill out three sections that address their lesson plans, their students' academic growth and their workplace cooperation with other teachers. Writing is not enough. Teachers also must scan and submit a good amount of their students' homework to complete the package. That requires getting parents to sign waivers allowing teachers to use the homework, which Miles contends is a rough enough task on its own.
On top of all this, teachers must pay out of their own pockets to submit completed dossiers to PED. Miles paid a total of $430—$320 for the first submission and $110 for resubmitting the section he originally failed. PED then chooses anonymous reviewers to grade the dossiers at $25 per strand.
In other words, teachers pay $320, reviewers receive $75, and the remaining $245 stays with the state. Behrens says the money is spent on "training of reviewers, the online system that houses and stores the dossier, and the licensure staff required to review and advance licenses."
The state also pays Region IX Education Cooperative to contract with dossier reviewers and provide other help with the process, and University of New Mexico holds a state contract to provide training for reviewers and oversight of the license system. For the current fiscal year, the two contracts add up to nearly $664,000 in public money.
Reviewers, whom Behrens says must be level two or three certified educators and must pass a training process to qualify, have a maximum of 48 hours to review an entire dossier. Behrens adds that review times take anywhere from two to 10 hours per dossier.
Miles says he can't believe that's enough time to evaluate a more than 100-page tome, let alone even read it. He makes another point: Reviewers never physically observe teachers actually teaching.
Frustrated by the lack of feedback from PED for why he failed his dossier, Miles sought out a fellow teacher for help. She looked at his dossier and told him one thing: Write more jargon, and write lots of it. This contradicts the lessons he teaches his students on how to write good essays.
"They want you to be wordy, verbose and use jargon, which is the opposite of what good writing is," Miles says. "So I basically had to throw out everything I learned from my master's program at [University of] Missouri and a decade as a journalist."
In Miles' rewrite, he added nonsensical phrases like "blackboard configuration"—a jargon term to describe writing on the chalkboard—and repeated what he had already written with different phrases.
After months of hounding PED and UNM for more feedback than "Does Not Meet," he was told that he failed his dossier for lacking "clear directionality" in his summaries. To appease the bureaucrats, Miles says he threw the phrase in his new draft several times.
"I'm still not sure what that term means," he says.
His new dossier bulked up by 25 pages. This time, he received better news from the state.
"I'm down to one word," he says. "It was 'Meets.'"