The hearing at the Public Education Department was disturbing to behold on Wednesday. One teacher after another tried to explain the plight of public schooling to the only person with real power to help. This being modern government, their stories fell on the deaf ears of a cabinet secretary who’s laser-focused on enacting her agenda.
Education Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera was criticized when she got hired for having no experience as a teacher. Her background is in policy making and running for-profit education companies, so does she really understand what it’s like to grind out tough days in a classroom? It doesn’t seem so, but her grasp of test-score statistics is astonishing. The fact she’d be hired at all to run public schools without “public school teacher” on her resume demonstrates that education for Gov. Susana Martinez is more about data than children.
It takes a cold heart to sit through the testimonials of these gritty educators and still hold fast on the notion that the most important problem with New Mexico’s public schools is that teachers aren’t evaluated enough. Teachers took turns telling Skandera about high schoolers who are pregnant and addicted to drugs. Some New Mexico students never had a book in their homes. Others are homeless, or come to class so hungry that they can’t focus on learning. One teacher said she didn’t have enough chairs for the 48 students in her history class, where the temperature sometimes pushes 100 degrees.
What should the secretary of education do? Ideally, we wouldn’t even know who Hanna Skandera is because education happens in classroom. The PED chief should, on a daily basis, do whatever she can to make the jobs of our teachers as easy as possible, and to respond when they need help. She should supplement the on-the-ground talent with whatever it needs, as though teachers were soldiers in a war. Given all the societal factors wrecking children’s lives these days, they are in a type of war.
Instead of a savvy professional who understands the complex work of teaching in rural New Mexico, Governor Martinez imported a policy expert from Florida. Skandera is pure politics, and she’s surrounded by clones at the PED. It makes no sense for teacher evaluation to be at the very top of PED’s priorities when issues like funding and class size go unaddressed, except in the context of politics. A generation of kids get lost when education becomes about winning a debate.
Consider another crippling distraction in classrooms: the overabundance of standardized testing. Students don’t like being constantly tested by this abstract government entity that isn’t their teachers, so it messes with their minds at delicate periods in their development. And teachers have a hard-enough time getting kids to pay attention without being told to constantly teach certain subjects certain ways because test scores are so closely tied to funding.
Some teachers and administrators say top officials in state governments are trying to crash public education so it can be privatized to turn profits for campaign donors. It doesn’t matter if that’s true right now, because the situation in classrooms is too dire for the PED to worry about anything but helping them. Any political agenda needs to be postponed until schools are at least functioning properly.
New Mexico’s schools and teachers aren’t getting help from Skandera. They’re getting evaluated, tested and graded. The governor and the secretary-designate and their layers of advisors and media arms have denounced criticism of their plans as “defending the status quo.” This is completely backward. The status quo is testing and evaluation. The status quo is data-driven education policy.
Helping teachers instead of making their jobs harder would be a change.
Phil Parker has tried and failed all year to get an interview with Skandera.