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The Road Continues  Past Retirement

NEA-Retired members help to make over New Mexico school board and join the fight against unfair evaluations

Ask a millennial to define the word “cool,” and they may say it’s when you use Twitter to find the nearest taco truck. But for a retired high school math teacher of nearly 40 years, “cool” means running for school board against a popular incumbent.

Following a long career teaching in Pennsylvania, Ed Frank retired nearly 10 years ago to Las Cruces, N.M.

In his new locale, Frank stayed informed about local education issues—including the amount of time it took to prepare for and take standardized tests, and New Mexico’s flawed evaluation system, which is based on student test scores and teacher attendance.

When two school board positions opened up in last year’s general election, Frank wanted in.

“I was on the look out for an opportunity like this,” he says.

Frank’s opponent was a two-term incumbent with a Ph.D. in engineering who garnered 80 percent of the vote in the previous election cycle. Frank knew from the start that winning the seat would require a “huge commitment” and an upward battle, but he won.

Today, he says his opponent was “a really nice person,” but didn’t have experience to question actions of the local superintendent. He adds that voters wanted a board member who understood a teacher’s experience. “I taught for 39 years. I have experience,” Frank says.

The State of Education in Las Cruces

Last year, Deborah Romero, who teaches first grade in Las Cruces, missed the first week of school—a critical time of the year when teachers connect with their students, routines are established expectations are set, and the anxiety of a new school year turns to excitement.

Instead, Romero went to court to take a stand against New Mexico’s teacher evaluation system. The process uses value added modeling (VAM)—a formula with a proven connection to unfair and inaccurate performance evaluations.

Nationwide, educators are fighting to eliminate test-based evaluations, which are unfair, riddled with errors, and limited when it comes to providing guidance. The evaluations leave educators vulnerable to punishment or firing, and all of these issues are playing themselves out in New Mexico.

“I did it because I believe in what I was doing,” says Romero, a teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary School. “Down the road, this is going to help teachers and my students.”

She is part of a lawsuit filed by NEA-New Mexico, which seeks to overturn the evaluation system that strips local control from school districts. The Association argues that the state constitution gives local districts—and not the state—the power to set parameters for teacher evaluations. The plaintiffs say the state has already overstepped its boundaries.

The NEA-New Mexico lawsuit will be heard this fall. Educators remain hopeful that the evaluation system will undergo a complete overhaul.

“The system seems to be crumbling,” says Romero, referring to the removal of a measure that tied teachers to data from students they never taught and to data that was more than a year old. “It’s not that we don’t want to be evaluated, but we want something that’s appropriate and meaningful.”

‘A Hand or a Foot?’

VAM was first used in New Mexico for the 2013–2014 school year. Then, the secretary of education for the state’s Public Education Department (PED) directed local district superintendents to choose from several criteria to make up a portion of the evaluation.

The Las Cruces superintendent offered the following options: Attendance can count against teacher evaluations or student surveys.

To Romero, this was like asking, “Would you rather have a hand or a foot?”

Neither option was good, she says, but most chose attendance. “It was the one thing we could control to a certain measure.” No one knew what the student survey contained, how it would be administered, and how much would count toward the evaluation.

Student test scores already made up 50 percent of an evaluation. Attendance accounted for an extra 10 percent, if educators used all 10 days of their sick time.  But even if one day was used, it still counted against them and had the potential to change their rating from “effective” to “ineffective.”

The way sick days were calculated into the evaluation also added frustration. If five sick days were used in one school year, and all 10 days the next school year, the district recorded 15 days of absences.

That’s why, after 18 years of teaching, Romero was labeled minimally effective in 2015, despite being nominated three times throughout her career as Teacher of the Year and as a runner-up one year.

“I used my sick time and I had several children opt out of the test,” she explains.

Las Cruces is one of a growing number of cities where parents have opted out their children from taking the standardized tests, like PARCC. If less than 95 percent of a class takes the test, a teacher’s evaluation suffers.

Romero also objects to rigorous demands required by administrators. For example, lesson plans must be placed near the door of her classroom each week and include detailed accounts of her teaching methods.

“It starts to shake your core,” Romero laments. “If I know little Johnny has a speech impediment, and he needs to be looking at my lips when I’m talking because he needs to see how my tongue and teeth are forming letters and sounds...why in the heck do I have to write all that down in my lesson plan every week?”

Why School Board Elections Matter

Today, four out of five public education friendly members sit on the Las Cruces school board, and it was no fluke.

For change to happen you must be a part of the process, says Becky King, a retired educator from Las Cruces. “You can’t be passive. Otherwise, you don’t accomplish things.”

King spent nearly 40 years in the classroom, teaching kindergarten and first grade. She retired in 2009, but remains active in her school community.

“I’ve seen education go from child centered to test centered,” she says, explaining that she and her students spent about one-third of the year preparing for and taking tests. “Educators need to get more involved outside of their classrooms and school buildings.”

Research shows low voter turnout for school board elections is becoming normal nationwide. But in Las Cruces things are different. Educators turned out in force on Election Day, and many of them were a part of the organizing efforts steered by Las Cruces-NEA to support Frank—the NEA-Retired member who bested the two-term incumbent—and another candidate, Maury Castro, a long-time social justice rights activist and war veteran.

“We had an overwhelming victory against this person because we had educators behind us,” says Frank.

For example, King held a meet-and-greet at her home with the two candidates, attended events, and was among the many who knocked on more than 2,000 doors.

“When I went door to door, I found that most people knew a teacher or [they were] married to one. They knew what was going on,” King says.

In Las Cruces, the new school board immediately changed the attendance policy so that sick leave wouldn’t count toward teacher evaluations.

“To penalize them for taking off a day when they’re sick makes no sense at all. You shouldn’t want an employee [at school] when they’re sick,” Frank told a local radio station.

But New Mexico’s secretary of education, Hanna Skandera, threatened the board with a school takeover if the decision wasn’t reversed. The board complied to avoid further calamity.

Despite this overreach from the state’s top official, “the new board is still fighting for teachers,” King says, adding that she’s seen a shift toward more progressive and student-centered policies.

Franks adds, “We’ve been much more aggressive in trying to represent the interests of the teachers and support staff, and it’s neat to be using my experience.” 

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