SANTA FE – Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce said Thursday he would immediately suspend New Mexico’s embattled teacher evaluation system if elected. He said educators are being judged unfairly as the state struggles to improve student academic performance.
Pearce, currently a U.S. congressman, said he would devise a new plan within six months in consultation with teachers and other stakeholders. He said teachers are currently being judged on metrics that do not accurately reflect their effectiveness.
“We all want accountability and quality results, but the current system has crushed the spirit of many talented educators and contributed to our state’s teacher shortage,” Pearce said.
Outgoing two-term Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has pushed to incorporate teacher evaluations and students’ standardized test results into a system aimed at instilling greater accountability. That has prompted protests by teachers and legal challenges from unions.
Union leaders said Pearce was late to denounce shortcomings in the evaluation system and questioned whether he would respond to the concerns of the majority of classroom teachers.
Pearce also raised concerns about teachers being penalized on performance reviews for taking days off that they are entitled to under their contract, though recent policy revisions from the state Public Education Department have allowed additional excused absences.
Pearce said the need to suspend the current system became clear based during conversations with teachers, local school officials, state lawmakers and advocacy groups.
He is running against Democratic nominee Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has garnered early endorsements of major teacher unions. Lujan Grisham also has called for reform of the state’s teacher evaluation system.
Martinez cannot run for a third consecutive term.
The fight over evaluations comes as New Mexico lags behind most states in rates of student academic proficiency. While the Martinez administration has cited improvements in high school graduation rates and has been trying to clamp down on poorly performing schools, waiting lists have been growing for top-performing schools and some parents have been left to compete in admission lotteries for their children.
The New Mexico chapter of the National Education Association applauded Pearce for recognizing major flaws in the evaluation system but questioned whether classroom teachers would have a real voice in devising what comes next.
“The question is, ‘Who will he be listening to as he develops the alternative?’” said Charles Goodmacher, a spokesman for the union, which represents more than 30,000 New Mexico teachers and staff that has endorsed Lujan Grisham. “Will it be educators in the classroom or will it be policy wonks that are funding the campaign?”
Stephanie Ly, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers, which also has endorsed Lujan Grisham, said she was wary of hand-picked policy changes from select teachers.
Pearce spokesman Kevin Sheridan said problems with New Mexico’s education system date back decades and that the candidate wants to “work with all sides to improve education in New Mexico.”
Across the state, just one-fifth of students in grades 3-11 demonstrated proficiency in math on the most recent annual standardized tests, while 29 percent were proficient in language arts. Education Weekly’s Quality Counts evaluation ranked New Mexico second-to-last behind Mississippi in academics.
The Public Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Amid public criticism and legal setbacks, the agency has reduced the weight of student test results in teacher evaluations and increased allowances for work absences to six days.