Karlu Smith didn’t make it very far into his teaching career. He calls his former profession “the worst job in the public schools system” for its low pay, lack of respect and constant subjection to the will of politicians.
“It’s the classic shit-flows-downhill thing,” says Smith, who taught at Ortiz Middle School for four years. “You’re always at the bottom of whatever shit’s coming down from No Child Left Behind or standardized testing.”
Nationwide, nearly half of all new teachers like Smith quit their jobs during the first five years. In New Mexico, teacher retention rates rank fairly consistently with the rest of the country. The teacher turnover at Albuquerque Public Schools, which employs more than a quarter of the public school teachers in the state, is between 18-20 percent, meeting the average for urban areas in the United States.
Santa Fe Public Schools fares slightly better at between 10 to 12 percent over the past few years, which replicates overall national averages.
In the classroom, teacher turnover leaves a mark. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research that observed New York City elementary classrooms over five years found that turnover lowered kids’ average math test scores by at least seven points and their English scores by at least six points.
More alarmingly, the top three countries that lead the world in test scores—South Korea, Finland and Singapore—also boast low year-to-year teacher turnover rates at 1 percent, 2 percent and 3 percent respectively, according to the McKinsey consulting firm.
“Losing even one good teacher is losing one too many,” SFPS Superintendent Joel Boyd tells SFR.
Yet the reasons why teachers depart point to another troublesome trend.
“They’re not considered professionals anymore by the district, by the state and by the federal government,” says Bernice Garcia-Baca, president of Santa Fe’s National Education Association branch. “People are trying to program them to teach a certain way. They’re not asked to weigh in on how things should be.”
Deborah Barkoff, a special education teacher at Truman Middle School in Albuquerque who will soon leave a nearly three-decade teaching career to work with a foster care agency, says her job has turned into “torturing” kids.
“What’s making me leave is what we’re doing to children,” she says. “We have created this system where all we do is teach for the test and test.”
Barkoff also isn’t a fan of the state’s latest incarnation of teacher evaluations, which consist of a four-part matrix that grades teachers on student test performances, teacher attendance, classroom observations and teacher “professionalism” conducted by upper-level administrators.
Student test scores make up half of the rubric teachers are marked on. That’s raised ire among many teachers, parents and local advocacy groups like Stand4KidsNM, who criticize the evaluations for an overemphasis on tests and an agenda of punishing teachers.
Carol Singletary, a former English teacher at Clovis High School who left her job in December, argues that standardized tests miss covering skills like “composing a research paper that takes a stand and uses that research to back up opinions.”
“None of that can be tested on a short multiple-choice test,” Singletary says. “So it gets short shrift.”
Another important factor left out of the evaluations, according to Barkoff, is measuring teachers on their abilities to forge long-term, personal relationships with their students.
“We are ignoring the importance of that,” she says. “There are people who do really, really well with that who don’t get credit and they should.”
The overwhelming bureaucracy, of course, also flows down to the district level. Paul Allen, who taught sixth grade at Chaparral Elementary School in Santa Fe from the mid- to late-2000s recalls having to readjust his curriculum to new textbooks all the time.
“Every year in the four years I taught we had a different math program,” Allen says. “Every year. So I had to go to training and learn how to teach this new Macmillan math, or whatever the latest one was.”
New textbooks often break up the continuity in learning because of different teaching methodologies from one set of books to another, he says.
Others are upset with their unions. Neil Meharg, an Albuquerque Public Schools veteran, left his union last October after 27 years of paying dues. He’s specifically upset that the American Federation of Teachers supports the federal Common Core standards, which he skeptically views as another step in the privatization of public schools.
“I couldn’t get a straight answer of why we support Common Core,” says Meharg, who is leaving New Mexico at the end of the school year for Washington state.
"It ended up being a bunch of runaround for not exactly a good job."
As for Smith, he left teaching after failing his professional development dossier, which requires teachers in the state to document the academic progress of a handful of their students and write about it in a gigantic, jargon-heavy tome that totals more than 100 pages and, he says, took hundreds of hours to put together. New teachers must get approval of their dossier from the Public Education Department by year five of their teaching careers, otherwise they lose their licenses.
The dossier was part of the last wave of major statewide education reform in 2003, under then-Gov. Bill Richardson. Failing and rewriting the dossier is common enough; nearly 1,500 of the state’s estimated 22,000 teachers have had to rewrite and resubmit their dossier since 2010.
Smith didn’t bother. Now he stocks wine at Trader Joe’s. If he wants to go back into teaching, he can inquire about resubmitting a dossier, but why do so when he now makes $7,000 more a year than he did in the public school system?
“It ended up being a bunch of runaround for not exactly a good job,” he says of the dossier process.
Still, he concedes that he was just learning how to teach and would have probably stayed in the profession had he passed his dossier.
“That was the thing that was really hard to accept,” he says. “Four years and I was just getting the hang of it. It probably would have taken two more years and I would have been at the top of my game.”
In many cases, former teachers like Smith, Barkoff, Allen and Meharg are the lucky ones. Garcia-Baca says she knows at least 50 Santa Fe teachers who would quit in a heartbeat but can’t because of financial restraints. Below, SFR talks more in-depth with the teachers mentioned above to hear why, in their own words, they’ve dropped out of school.
The following interviews have been edited and condensed:
Karlu Smith, 43, left teaching after four years when he failed his first attempt at a professional develoment dossier. He works in the wine section of Trader Joe’s, making more money than he earned as a teacher. He pays $60 per paycheck for his family’s health insurance, compared to the $189 he paid for similar coverage during his teaching career. “And I’m working at a frickin’ grocery store!” he says.
It was a second career. I decided I needed to do something. After doing lots of other jobs and finishing college and never doing anything with that—I was a literature major, you know, so I read a shit-ton of books—but other than that, I had a daughter and I needed to get a job that’s more professional.
It’s idealism; that’s why you go into it. You think, “I can make a difference. It’s going to be cool.” There’s a lot of bright young teachers that go into this.
When you come in as a rookie teacher, it’s hard, especially in a school like Ortiz, a lower-performing school. It’s mostly a lot of burnouts—people who are coasting the final couple years until retirement—or very young, new teachers.
Most people I know who stayed in the teaching field, they all went to Acequia Madre or Wood Gormley. So if you’re going to stay a teacher, it’s funny that all the good teachers tend to cluster at certain schools, you know, where you get more support and all that kind of stuff.
I was always trying to do different things. I definitely had my weaknesses as a teacher, but I was always trying new things. I would start a project and if 15 minutes into the class it’s not working, I would pull the plug. It was totally experimental, and I think that’s what you have to do if you want teachers to get better, if you want the education system to get better.
You get no support. If I had a kid that was acting up in class, what was I supposed to do with him? One of my first years, there this kid’s being a dick, so I’m like “Go to the office.” He’s like, “OK.” And the secretary’s like, “What am I supposed to do with you? Go back to class.” He comes back like three minutes later.
In four years, never a single time did I leave school at the end of the day thinking, “Man, what a great day!” Never once did I leave thinking, “Man, did I learn them kids something!” It was a total workout. I would spend three, four hours a day doing homework and grading before and after school.
I made $32,000 as a teacher. You’re not going to attract the brightest and the best at that price point. You can work at a grocery store and make $45,000 a year. And it’s a lot easier. And you work less hours. I don’t have to think about work when I go home.
I still like teaching; I still have that instinct. At work we do a lot of tastings. There’s a lot of people here in the crew who’ve never even had Brie, and we have nine different kinds. So I put together a whole thing about the history of Brie, how it’s made, where it comes from, the molding of the types of cheese. I did a little 15-minute presentation, bullet-pointed. I tried to make it simple. So I guess there is still that part of me that likes to teach.
Carol Singletary, 52, taught English and journalism for more than 20 years at a public high school in eastern New Mexico. She left around Christmas for another teaching job at Eastern New Mexico University, where she says she regained the “autonomy and professionalism” that had been long gone by the end of her high school teaching career.
When I started teaching, we were professionals, we were educated, we had degrees. I remember when I first started, my boss gave me the keys to the classroom, copies of my textbooks and the professional autonomy to do what I felt was best for each kid.
I started picking up [bad] vibes after No Child Left Behind. And about three or four years ago, it just became really apparent that the SBA—Standards Based Assessment—was the be-all and end-all. And everything had to be for the test.
I started having administrators tell me not to do things that I knew from research and experience were very effective for students. I taught sophomore English, and we’d set aside every Friday for reading and writing. We’d start off with creative writing. I’d put [up] different photographs and have the students write about them. And then we’d spend the rest of the period reading. They could read whatever they wanted to, whatever books they were interested in. When they’d finish a book, they’d come and talk to me and we’d do book talks.
I remember I had this one kid who was fascinated by string theory, so he was always reading books on string theory and physics. I would have other kids reading The Count of Monte Cristo. Or honestly, I had kids reading teen fiction, you know, nothing really literary. But they were reading and they were thinking about what they read. They were excited by books. It was wonderful.
A couple of years ago, my administrator said that that was a waste of time. I needed to do close readings of excerpts from text in the standardized test books, like a blurb from Huck Finn maybe. Which is fine—we read the book in my Advanced Placement class. Or maybe an expert from a newspaper or magazine on Carlsbad Caverns and analyze how the author makes his points about the caves.
They were no longer encouraging independent reading. They said, “Well, there’s no data to support this.” So I pulled a bunch of data together to prove what I was doing was right. I gave it to them, but I don’t think they actually read it.
At Clovis High, we got to the point where we were really discouraged from teaching anything that wasn’t on the testing framework—which means all those other skills that we thought were important standards to include but couldn’t be tested. Like the speaking and listening skills; listening to a speech and pulling out information from it; or giving a speech and clearly articulating a stand and supporting it for an audience to follow. Those used to be part of our standards. But you can’t test somebody’s speaking ability in a multiple-choice test.
I took a pay cut when I moved here to the university. When I left I was making $60,000 and now I’m making $37,000. I took a substantial pay cut because my emotional and mental well-being was more important. If I were still at the high school, I probably would have retired at the end of the year. But since I got this job, I’m really happy.
Paul Allen, 46, got into teaching in his 30s after years of doing “that tough-guy thing” with hands-on jobs like river raft guiding, ski instructing and working as an emergency medical technician. Although he says he liked being with students, these passions didn’t segue well in the bureaucracy of the Santa Fe Public Schools system. The job’s low pay was the last straw.
I’m probably not the cookie-cutter fit for Santa Fe Public Schools. I’m a little bit anti-authoritarian. I have lots of educational experience—more sort of experiential education. I really enjoyed teaching; I liked being with the kids. I liked interacting with all the kids in the school whether they were in my class or not.
I became overwhelmed by bureaucracy and paperwork and not the actual interacting with the kids and producing interesting learning outcomes with them. It just seemed like I was going to meetings for the different special ed kids I had in my class. Or all the planning time was taken up by some anti-bullying training or something like that.
"I became overwhelmed by the bureaucracy and paperwork and not the actual interacting with the kids."
A lot of people, I feel like, got qualified for special ed but they didn’t really need to be. They were sort of like this burden on the system from people wanting extra help for their kid, when what they needed was extra kicks in the butt from their parents. Like a kid in sixth grade that was reasonably intelligent but really struggling with math because they didn’t learn their times tables in third grade.
They didn’t have some learning disability. They just didn’t get the basic building blocks from the grades before. What they didn’t need was less homework; what they needed was more. They needed to catch up.
The professional development dossier later on was obviously an overwhelming thing in the land of bureaucracy. I had just had a daughter. She was months old the last year I taught, and I was supposed to be completing my dossier. It was my third year teaching but my first year parenting. I was probably a crusty, grumpy individual already...I started calculating how much time this was going to take for me to complete.
After going to these meetings Monday afternoons already sleep deprived—there’s not enough coffee in the world—I decided I wasn’t going to do it that year. I’d hate to do 200 hours of work and have it not pass.
By the end of that year, my wife and I sat down and did the math. She works at the lab, and it was like, well, what we’re paying for her to go to childcare and what you’re making, you could stay home for almost the same amount of money, and if we have another kid it’s going to be for sure that way.
So I started doing that. And being the stay-at-home dad has been pretty good for what it is. It’s as hard as teaching, but now I work back at ski area again and that balances things out. Both of my kids can ski for free.
Deborah Barkoff, 53, is leaving her job at the end of the school year because she’s sick of “torturing children.” After 29 years of teaching, she says the last few years have been dominated by preparing for and taking tests, which she laments hardly leaves any time left to teach. “The kids are so burnt out and beaten down by this system that I can’t stand it,” she says.
When I was a little girl, I knew that I wanted to work with special needs students. I just have always had a real affinity for kids who are struggling.
I’m leaving because the job I love no longer exists. Everything that is beautiful and fun and teaches kids to think and to be creative and to be good citizens of our world is gone. All we do now is teach for the test and test and test and test and test.
The system right now is trying to churn out little robot people who can’t really think. Now I have students that do well and reach grade level, but once that happens, I move them on and they’re no longer my students. So by definition, any kid who’s in my class isn’t going to have proficient scores, because if they had proficient scores, they wouldn’t need to be in my class. So my evaluation will always be based on the fact that my students have low scores.
My evaluations here are just fine. I’m not leaving because of the evaluations, even though I really hate them.
All the stuff that teaches them to really think and be creative, things like music and art, recess— we’re taking that away. I used to be able to spend a lot of time doing things like team-building and social skills activities because if kids don’t have that, then those are the people who aren’t going to make it in the workforce. But we’ve taken all that out of the curriculum. There’s no time left anymore to work on any of that.
Back when I taught elementary school, we had a program that had a series of lessons where we would read a scenario and then we would reenact the scenario. We would try and have different people just role-play different characters in the scenario to try and come to a solution. And then afterwards we would talk about how it went and write about how it went. That was a really easy way to tie in reading and writing, and we did a lot of reading and writing about that.
Now nobody really teaches anything that is not going to be on the test. There’s not time. Some of the students are frustrated because they have to take so many tests—none of them like that. But because it’s been going on long enough, they’ve never known anything different, unless they’ve come from either a private school or home school. So because they don’t know anything different, they have nothing to compare it to.
I have a job lined up as a treatment care coordinator with a treatment foster care agency. I’ll still be able to work with struggling families; I’ll just be in a place where I can make more of a difference.
After 22 years of teaching in Albuquerque, Neil Meharg, 55, is ready to leave the state. He says the last four years under Gov. Susana Martinez and Education Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera have been particularly demoralizing. “There’s no law saying I have to teach in New Mexico,” he says. “Why not go?”
They’re going after a business model of schools. Improvement on these standardized tests is their product to say education is getting better, when education traditionally is looking at the human being as a whole—how are they growing emotionally, how are they growing academically, how are they growing socially. And now it’s just “How do you fill a bubble out on a test?” It’s insane.
$1.21—that’s how much money I get per student to supply my chemistry lab. So that’s under $200 to fund my chemistry lab. And yet the state is pumping millions of dollars into these standardized tests. The money that’s been used for these reforms is taking away money that could actually be used in classrooms.
It’s close to 20 days of testing between the Riverside testing and the [Standards Based Assessment] testing and the PLAN test and everything else. Does it break the flow of education? Yeah. The SBA week is a total waste of a week. That definately reduces some instructional time.
Last Monday we had class. Then Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday, the juniors sat there for six and a half hours a day and took tests, for reading, math and science. It’s a total waste of time because some of these tests, they were given 95 minutes to take the test and they’d be done with it in 25 minutes. And you couldn’t start the next test. So the kids were stuck in their chairs all day. Why do we do it this way? We can probably get it all done in a day at most, or we can give a test for a couple of hours in the morning and have kids come in late and have class.
" I think part of the plan on the reformers’ part is to blame the teachers for everything."
Now the SBA in science, there’s biology questions, there’s physics questions, there’s geology questions and there’s chemistry questions. Well, the only thing I taught them was chemistry, but I’m being graded on all those topics. I don’t mind being evaluated over my teaching and over my professionalism. What I do mind getting evaluated on is over kids’ scores on tests that I don’t even teach.
I think part of the plan on the reformers’ part is to blame the teachers for everything. Kids aren’t doing well; well, I’ll take some of the responsibility. I don’t know a teacher who doesn’t show up every day and tries to do the best for the kids. There’s always exceptions—there’s bad cops, bad doctors, bad lawyers and yes, there are bad teachers.
You need to look at the poverty rate in the state of New Mexico. When you’re poor and you haven’t had breakfast and you’re hungry, you don’t learn as well as if you’re well fed and you slept in your own bed. There’s lots of social issues in New Mexico that are not being addressed that in education really are out of the teachers’ control. Over 50 percent of our kids [at APS] are on free lunches.