In many ways, the summer of 2014 has become the summer of teacher evaluations in New Mexico.
And now concerns are coming from even those allied with Gov. Susana Martinez, who appointed Hanna Skandera in 2011 to lead the charge in education reform. Such was the case during a meeting between an oil entrepreneur and at least three public school superintendents who met with the governor and state education officials in mid June.
The attendees came from oil-rich Eastern New Mexico—an area where many remain firmly in support of the governor—to discuss their concerns with the state education department's teacher evaluations and A-F school grading system, two of the Skandera's chief reform efforts over the past few years.
Among them was Mark Veteto, the president of Me-Tex Oil & Gas and a big time Martinez donor. Over the years, Vetteto and his family's companies have given Martinez more than $101,000 in campaign donations. Veteto himself even served as a defendant in a lawsuit seeking to eliminate campaign finance contribution limits.
“Our process to go through the foundation is pretty in depth,” Veteto tells SFR, noting that it includes a long questionnaire and a panel of judges. “So I’m pretty defensive when someone calls our teachers ‘minimally effective.’”
Veteto says in June he learned about an upcoming meeting between Martinez, Skandera and Hobbs Superintendent TJ Parks, a friend who this summer became president of the New Mexico Superintendents Association.
“I said, ‘I don’t understand the teacher evaluations,’” Veteto says. “He said, ‘Neither do I.’ If teachers are going to be evaluated, let’s understand the process.”
Parks says he arranged the meeting to try to establish a better relationship between the education department and superintendents, whom he says haven’t done a good job of communicating with PED. But he adds that he and many of his colleagues became alarmed when the Albuquerque Journal ran a front page story in May detailing the state's preliminary teacher evaluation results before superintendents had any time to verify the data.
At first, PED said that 76 percent of the state’s teachers scored “effective” or better in the evaluation, but the agency recently amended that number to 73 percent. Incidents of inaccurate data have marred the evaluations in critics' eyes, most recently when PED first claimed that less than 50 percent of Santa Fe Public Schools teachers ranked "effective" or better, only to change that number to 67 percent after the local school district pushed back and accused PED of miscalculating the data.
The problems recently prompted state Sen. Tim Keller, D-Bernalillo, to send a letter to Skandera asking for an audit to gauge how the teacher evaluation and school A-F systems are working. Keller is running for State Auditor as a Democrat in this November's election.
Both Veteto and Parks insist that the June meeting went well, with Skandera and others listening to their concerns. They say there's no truth to rumors about the meeting circulating around the education community, particularly that it was a strategic, secretive meeting between Martinez and her supporters.
"The main topic of discussion was how we can move forward with the implementation of reforms in a collaborative way," says PED spokesman Larry Behrens.
Skandera also recently wrote an op-ed in the Journal touting five changes her agency has made since hearing concerns from several superintendents. They include extending the deadline for school district to turn in evaluation material, modifying the “professional growth plans” for teachers who score low on evaluations and giving districts more time to certify teacher evaluation data, among other changes. She defended the new evaluations as a vast improvement over the evaluations of the previous administration, which found that 99 percent of teachers across the state were doing a good job.
Kathy Korte, an Albuquerque school board member who is one the state’s most vocal critics against Skandera’s education reforms, points out that even with Skandera's changes, the teacher evaluation model is still keeping its most disputed and controversial aspect: using 50 percent of its calculations from student test scores.
She also raises her own concerns over how Veteto got a face-to-face meeting with Skandera to share his concerns while several teachers aren't getting the same access. Instead, many are filing public records requests to answer questions about how their evaluations were scored.
“For little people, we don’t have access,” Korte says, “and the big wigs get an audience.”