State gives mostly passing grades to teacher colleges

Christopher Ruszkowski

The New Mexico Public Education Department has moved forward with a plan to evaluate teacher preparation programs in the state, releasing this week its preliminary grades for 10 public two- and four-year colleges, two private universities and an alternative online licensing program.

Preliminary scorecards — rating a school’s recruitment efforts; the number, quality and diversity of students who complete its program; its success at ensuring students are hired after graduation and stay employed; and graduates’ performance in the classroom — showed most programs received B’s and C’s.

No program earned an A from the department, and none was given an F. Just one school, the private University of the Southwest in Hobbs, received a D.

The decision by outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration to move ahead with the grading system just months before voters will choose a new governor raised some concerns among higher education leaders.

While the scorecards might help prospective students choose good teaching programs, said Betsy Cahill, interim associate dean of New Mexico State University’s College of Education, much of the evaluation is based on factors outside a college’s control — such as where graduates choose to teach and whether those districts or schools offer mentorship and support to foster their continued development as an educator.

Colleges should take responsibility for helping a graduates find employment, Cahill added, but she questioned whether a college is accountable for ensuring a grad remains employed.

Former Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera announced plans to implement the evaluation initiative more than a year ago, and leaders of several New Mexico colleges and universities had said they were in talks with the agency about setting standards for a scorecard.

Yet, many were taken by surprise earlier this year when Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski, who replaced Skandera, announced he was starting the grading system by department rule.

A point of contention for higher education leaders was what they called the unfair use of the state’s K-12 teacher evaluations to grade colleges on how well they prepare educators to step into the classroom. The performance of its graduates counts for 60 percent of a teacher prep program’s score, according to the Public Education Department’s report.

The controversial teacher evaluation system, which heavily weighs student scores on standardized tests, has faced criticism for years and prompted two lawsuits attempting to end the performance reviews. Those cases are pending.

In May, the state Attorney General’s Office expressed concern that the Public Education Department’s lack of collaboration with stakeholders made the department’s teacher prep program evaluations susceptible to legal challenges.

Ruszkowski defended the initiative Wednesday at the New Mexico Teacher Summit in Albuquerque, where he announced the new scorecards.

“It’s our moral obligation and duty to our children and families to ensure day one-ready teachers,” he said, “and when aspiring teachers complete their preparation programs — sometimes after paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition — they deserve to be fully prepared to deliver for their students.”

New Mexico Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron agreed, saying, “It’s critical that we hold teacher preparation programs accountable and continue pushing for better outcomes for our students.”

University of New Mexico student Katelyn Nicholas, who is working toward a degree in special education, said she had mixed feelings about the grading system.

On one hand, she said, “It would be nice if the [Public] Education Department had a way of saying, ‘Yeah, you should go to UNM because there’s a good education program there.’ ”

UNM received a B in the preliminary report.

But, Nicholas said, it’s not fair to hold a college responsible for how well its students perform after they enter a classroom.

The grades released this week will have no consequences on the programs, the Public Education Department said.

The future of the teacher prep program scorecards under a new governor is unclear. Both U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democratic nominee, and U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, the Republican candidate, have said they would suspend the Martinez administration’s unpopular teacher evaluation system, a move that would impact the college program reviews.

Kevin Sheridan, a spokesman for Pearce, didn’t comment directly on the newly released scorecards. In an email Wednesday, he said, “Steve Pearce wants teachers to be excited about teaching again. As Governor, he will address New Mexico’s teacher shortage and working with teachers he will establish a fair accountability system for all educators.”

Lujan Grisham was more direct. “It’s disappointing but not surprising that in their final months in office, Governor Martinez and her Public Education Department would double down on their failed system of evaluating educators,” she said in a statement.

“Any policy that relies, in any way, on such a flawed and ineffective form of accountability cannot effectively assess the educator prep programs or measure the impact teachers have on our students,” she said.

The state can more accurately assess these programs, Lujan Grisham said, “once we fix the flawed teacher evaluation process and adequately fund colleges and universities.”

Teacher prep program grades

Scores, released earlier this week by the state Public Education Department, are out of a possible 188 points.

Central New Mexico Community College: B, 155.71

University of New Mexico: B, 155.17

New Mexico State University: B, 150.68

Northern New Mexico College: B, 150.51

Eastern New Mexico University: C, 148.06

New Mexico Highlands University: C, 146.41

Western New Mexico University: C, 145.38

Santa Fe Community College: C, 143.31

OPAL (Online Portfolio for Alternative Licensure): C, 141.59

New Mexico Junior College: C, 139.75

Wayland Baptist University (private): C, 138.85

San Juan College: C, 135.46

University of the Southwest (private): D, 130.06

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.