Kathy Korte is the Vice President of the Albuquerque Public School Board. She was involved with organizing the recent Stand4KidsNM teacher and parent rally at Del Norte High School which voiced grievances about the Public Education Department’s proposed teacher evaluation system. Hundreds of supporters showed up to the rally including teachers, parents, school administrators and elected officials.
The rally and the recent set of teacher and parent grievances are the latest in an ongoing saga in the push for more standardized testing and efforts to privatize public education in New Mexico. PED Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera as well as Governor Susana Martinez point to low rankings and achievement scores in New Mexico as a need for these reforms. Critics of the reforms say the evaluations and ever-increasing testing create a burden on teaching, do not take into consideration New Mexico’s socio-economic status, and transfer public dollars to out of state corporate interests.
We’re grateful for Korte’s time in adding context to this important issue for our readers.
New Mexico Mercury: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up on the APS board?
Kathy Korte: I have four children in APS schools. When my oldest daughter began middle school, I was very nervous about that. So a lady on the PTA at the time asked me if I would consider being president. I thought it might be a good way to learn about the middle school and get to know the staff, so I accepted. I hadn't ever been a PTA leader before, just a member. So for three years, I led the group and it grew under my leadership from a core of 5 parents to a group of 45 active volunteers. An APS board position opened up in 2011, and my parent and teacher friends asked me to run for it. We did a completely grass-roots campaign, raising around $3,000 and painting posters we bought from the Dollar Store. We walked many neighborhoods, we made our own fliers. I beat four other candidates for the job in February 2011. My biggest opponent -- Peter Sanchez -- is now a good friend. He raised $17,000! So grass-roots movements led by passionate parents can win! (My oldest is now a junior in high school. I have a son who is a freshman, a second son who is in 8th grade, and my youngest daughter is a 4th-grader.)
NMM: For a reader who may have only scant interaction with the teaching controversies of late, could you give a background of some of the grievances over the implementation of standardized testing and the new teacher evaluation system?
KK: The gist of it all is this: The state sought a waiver from No Child Left Behind mandates (instituted first under President Bush) under President Obama's Race to the Top education initiative. In order to get the waiver from having to follow NCLB mandates, the state had to submit its own plan for accountability. It's three pieces of accountability: teacher evaluations, higher academic expectations (Common Core Standards) and grading schools A-F.
Our beef with the New Mexico Race to the Top waiver is the evaluation piece. Under this plan, teachers are evaluated 25% on observations in a classroom; 50% on test scores from a variety of tests; and 25% on other "multiple measures."
No one argues that the observation piece is not a good thing for teachers. It's the testing that's the clincher. Our kids take a myriad of tests as it is: interim assessments are given three times a year so a teacher can see progress among students and differentiate instruction based on the interim assessments (teachers have no problem with that). Standards-Based Assessments have been given yearly to kids in 3-8 and 10th grades since NCLB. The SBAs determine school grades. The SBA was added for 10th graders when A to F grades came into existence here in New Mexico. The SBA will become the PARCC exam next year because Common Core Standards are being implemented statewide this year.
This year, the Public Education Department added an End of Course exam on top of the SBAs. The PED also dictated cutoff scores for the SBA exams (science, math and English) and writing and social studies EOCs. So even if a student is a great student with a great GPA but barely misses the cutoff score, then he/she is in jeopardy of not earning a diploma. (The PED has changed EOC rules four times since August, the latest one this week so I may be off because the rules keep changing!)
The EOCs were added this year for one other purpose besides a barometer to measure whether a high schooler gets a diploma: To evaluate teachers. A teacher's "effectiveness" is based 50% on the scores his/her students achieve on SBAs and EOCs. So in essence, the only purpose of an EOC is to grade a teacher and use some EOCs as another graduation requirement.
The EOCs were written in three days by teachers this past summer. The EOCs are administered like the SBAs - with strict secrecy so even the teachers don't know what's on them. The EOCs are criticized by the teachers who actually took part in creating them! And the EOCs are given in April -- a full month before school lets out.
The 25% "multiple measures" can be teacher attendance, other assessments and/or student surveys.
NMM: Can you tell us how the rally at Del Norte High School came about, and what you witnessed and heard at the rally?
KK: The rally was actually an off-shoot of three parents, myself and one teacher. We attended an APS town hall meeting on Oct. 1 about all the new requirements and testing being mandated by the PED. Parents were crying. Teachers were upset. So after that town hall, we asked ourselves, "What can we do?!" So we came up with our name, decided to have a rally on Oct. 22 and started advertising on Facebook.
Since Oct. 6, our new Facebook page has 2,955 Likes, and what was my original District 2 facebook page for constituents has grown from 113 members to 598 members. And our petition has gained ground, with 4,530 signatures from all over the state.
Word spread via Social Media and we consider our movement a statewide movement, as people from all over are participating in the Facebook discussions and signing the petition.
The underlying message from everyone is this: All this testing of students and basing 50% of a teacher's evaluation on test scores, is ridiculous.
NMM: When the Martinez administration talks about New Mexico's rankings, test scores and teacher evaluations as being inadequate, the one glaring omission is how many New Mexican young people are trying to learn while living in poverty. Can standardized testing, as it is being pushed now, ever accurately assess students who are dealing with these situations?
KK: Absolutely not. We have teachers going above and beyond every day to try to help students who come from poverty, abuse and neglect. A standardized test is not going to help a student improve academically! In fact, I would argue that addressing truancy would go a long way toward improving academic achievement among students.
Besides the obvious truancy problems we have at APS, there are other innovative ways to help students. A great example is the work being done at Emerson Elementary, in which a whole community came together to put in place pieces of a very large puzzle aimed at helping our very poor students: pre-school, community supports, business assistance, neighborhood assistance, etc.
We have other programs at APS like AVID (Advanced Placement Via Determination) that helps students in our middle and high schools with high poverty rates learn how to be organized and make them aware that college is an opportunity and how they can achieve college.
We've added high school classes at night for those kids who need to work during the day. We have numerous magnet and alternative schools.
Innovation helps kids from poor, neglected and abused situations improve their chances of success. Test scores do not.
NMM: Can you describe Secretary-Designate Skandera’s approach when interacting with the education professionals at APS?
KK: It has been my experience as a Board of Education member that she has shut out the largest district in the state because she didn't want to hear our concerns about her reforms. So I took my grievances to my constituents. I am very pleased at the very fast growth Stand4KidsNM has achieved in a short amount of time. It hints at the dissatisfaction felt among many district parents and teachers that their voices were not heard in this whole reform process. It also shows a widespread belief across the state that this isn't what we want for our children.
NMM: How compromising is Skanera’s relationship with the Jeb Bush led, pro-privatization organization Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE)?
KK: I can't answer this question with great accuracy as I am not fully educated about FEE. I do know Skandera is a Chief for Change -- one of those corporate reformers who has no education experience in the classroom but who pushes the corporate agenda on our districts.
NMM: Many teachers have said they feel disrespected and are ready to quit because this is no longer the profession they signed up for. What do you tell those teachers?
KK: I tell them to fight with us parents. At the end of the day, we are voters. And we can and must demand that our lawmakers and governor listen to our concerns. If they don't, there is always the voting booth! There are amazing, inspiring teachers! And I tell them to keep their chin up because they have many parents in their corner!
NMM: For a supporter looking to spread the word on what you’re doing, how do you boil down your overall message?
KK: Our message is this: Standardized testing and rating teachers 50% on scores from those high-stakes tests are not helping children and are not good for New Mexico public schools. This sentiment is being felt nationwide as more parents rally against testing (New York) and more states opt out of the Race to the Top (which replaced NCLB).
NMM: Can you describe the importance of getting parents to participate in the upcoming town halls and rallies and your advice for parents concerned about the current standardized testing and teacher evaluation situation?
Parents need to know what is happening in our classrooms. Money is being diverted from classrooms to testing companies, computer programs and an ever-growing bureaucracy at the Public Education Department. Kids are being tested constantly -- and for what? How does the testing help them? What about our high achieving kids who take the AP exams, SATs, PSATs, ACTs? Don't those count for something? Why EOCs on top of all that?
What about our younger kids: Why are we stressing them with more testing -- and again, for what? So their teachers can be evaluated. The tests don't determine anything until high school, when now those tests also determine whether a student gets a diploma.
We want parents to ASK THEIR TEACHERS what is going on and understand what we are fighting for! We are asking parents to learn and educate themselves about why these reforms are happening now? Follow the money trail and where does it lead? (It leads to big-money companies that contribute big money to campaign coffers!)
Essentially, we are hoping to spread the message. Stand4KidsNM is also working with a group of teachers called CURE NM, who have an alternate idea for evaluations. And we are looking at the nationwide Opt-Out Movement as an option for next spring -- if the Legislature and the governor continue on this path.
NMM: The teacher evaluation situation has attracted "dark money" in the form of the 501(c)(4) group New Mexico Competes which recently sent out fliers that bashed APS Superintendent Winston Brooks as well as the former teacher evaluation system. At this point, it is not about two differing viewpoints from locally invested entities, but big money and big agendas from out of state. Do you think that's getting missed in the local media coverage? What is your strategy in making the issue palpable for parents and a concerned local public?
It is definitely being missed by our largest newspaper in the state and the TV stations. Some of the better bloggers are onto it! It's discouraging that politics -- and that is what this is all about -- is wreaking havoc on children's lives. My children are among the thousands affected by these ill-conceived and money-driven policies being pushed on districts by a Public Education Department secretary that is 1. not approved by the Senate yet; and 2. imposing these rules by a faulty statute that allows the secretary to mandate by "administrative rule" instead of legislative statute.
Dirty politics and hard-to-trace money are being used as bully tactics to try and silence those of us who dare speak out. The underlying message is this: Don't think about disagreeing or we'll send flyers to your constituents' homes bashing you. I hope superintendents, parents, school board members and others invested in education will not be scared into submission but will educate themselves about the details of the reforms that we object to.
It's OK to disagree. It's OK to ask tough questions. It's NOT OK to hide behind the curtains, spend thousands to bash your opponents and smear people who are doing their jobs on behalf of the public they serve. It's NOT OK to gloss over the details and try to spin these reforms as "helping education in New Mexico" and getting away from the "status quo." That's bogus talk. That's politics talking.
We want parents to know what is happening in our schools. They must ask their teachers, attend the APS town halls (two more in November) and take a stand against this ridiculous testing.
We want parents to know that teachers are upset and stressed out. As a result, we could lose our best teachers because of this new reform system.