When Matt Montaño returned to New Mexico after a brief stint with the Texas Education Agency, he knew his students in Bernalillo deserved teachers who understood their experiences.
“One of the biggest components of what our teachers need is to understand the cultural context, the linguistic context that our students have, so they can frame their educational experience within those contexts,” says Montaño, who is now the superintendent of the Bernalillo Public Schools system.
Research confirms Montaño’s philosophy: Students who learn from teachers of the same race have better educational outcomes—especially for young people in low-income homes.
To validate this reality, at the beginning of the school year Montaño lobbied his district’s school board, which serves seven nearby pueblos, to equalize pay between Native language and culture teachers and traditionally-licensed educators. Earlier this month Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed House Bill 60 to equalize teacher pay statewide.
State officials have made progress toward recognizing the importance of Indigenous knowledge and representation in schools. Still, many students of color in New Mexico learn in classrooms where most teachers are white.
Misaligned student-teacher demographics are just one complication hampering the state’s educator workforce. Recent increases to salaries have taken aim at a staggering teacher shortage. But there’s a larger gap to close for educators who work with vulnerable student groups, particularly those learning English and receiving special education services. This shortage disproportionately impacts students already facing challenges to an adequate education.
Almost four years ago, the late-District Court Judge Sarah Singleton ruled that the state failed to provide English-language learners, special education students, Native youths and those from low-income families sufficient public schooling—a constitutional right—in part due to inadequate teaching.
Experts say providing quality teaching has long eluded New Mexico’s most vulnerable students.
Teachers historically misunderstood what English learners needed to be successful in schools, according to research conducted by Rebecca Blum Martinez, a professor emeritus of bilingual and English as a second language education at the University of New Mexico.
She found English-language learners in districts around the state were incorrectly assigned to remedial reading programs, which taught students to read short sentences out loud, but did little to support reading comprehension.
“What students who are English learners need is access to very rich, challenging and intellectually stimulating texts and curriculum so that they can learn how to use English in the ways that are required of them by the schools—by the tests and so forth,” Blum Martinez tells SFR.
For students developing a second language, she says, some teachers and administrators don’t have the knowledge to appropriately support both Indigenous and Hispanic children who are learning English.
There’s little debate in the education community that good teachers are the best path to quality learning. Of all the tweaks to curriculum, calendars, administration and other school-related factors, research shows teachers have two to three times the impact on students’ reading and math test scores.
Progress achieved since Singleton’s July 2018 ruling in the Yazzie/Martinez case has included higher salaries and more compensated professional development time through extended learning programs. But some of that progress isn’t translating to New Mexico’s most vulnerable students, despite decades-long efforts.
Under former Gov. Bill Richardson, the state instituted a three-tiered licensure and evaluation system for teachers in 2003, with the goal of recruiting and retaining qualified educators—following the logic that those with more experience and who have achieved a higher licensure level should receive higher salaries.
Despite the large increases in salary between the tiers, which still exist today, a 2009 Legislative Finance Committee report noted, “The differences in teacher effectiveness between licensure levels were not substantial.” The report did acknowledge that teachers with the highest licensure level outperformed their colleagues.
Richardson’s successor also centered education reform around improving teacher quality, though then-Gov. Susana Martinez rankled many educators by leaning heavily on Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests to evaluate teachers.
Martinez’s evaluation system represented an attempt to improve quality of instruction—despite the flawed assumptions of the exam’s authors.
At the beginning of this month, Lujan Grisham made her own mark on New Mexico’s legacy to strengthen the educator workforce by raising salaries for all school employees, including a $10,000 increase to teachers’ yearly pay—positioning New Mexico as the highest-paying state in the region for educators, which she hopes will attract and retain these professionals.
According to the 2021 New Mexico Educator Vacancy Report, produced by New Mexico State University, over 1,000 teacher jobs were vacant in the state in October, almost double the previous year’s number.
About 30% of the open positions are for special education teachers—the largest vacancy area in the state—reflecting the shortcomings identified in the Yazzie/Martinez case.
Another shortage area of note impacts English-language learners, who benefit from teachers who have a bilingual or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) endorsement.
Figures from PED indicate that almost 60% of New Mexico educators have one of these endorsements, yet only 9% teach exclusively in a state-funded bilingual multicultural education program. Furthermore, at the time of the vacancy report’s release, roughly one in 10 of the vacant positions specified a need for a bilingual educator in the job description.
Christine Sims, associate professor of educational linguistics and American Indian education at UNM, explains that one issue within the state’s teaching workforce is the lack of representation in classrooms.
According to student and teacher demographic data PED shared with SFR last month, 57% of New Mexico’s teachers are white, while just 22% of students are white.
Alternatively, Native and Hispanic students make up 11% and 64%, respectively, of the state’s total, while Native educators make up 3% of the state’s workforce, and 34% of teachers identify as Hispanic.
Student and teacher demographics vary drastically in the state; while the majority of educators are white, most students are Hispanic. Experts say young people need role models they identify with and teachers who have the information and skills to meet the needs of New Mexico's students. (Source: New Mexico Public Education Department /)
Sims says the issue is emblematic of a larger need. She says communities need support to build the capacity of Native teachers “that have an investment staying in their own homes and in their communities.”
Another issue, according to Sims, exists at the source of the teacher workforce pipeline. She explains the university system doesn’t have enough faculty to teach bilingual education coursework. “It’s just another way to clog up the whole system,” Sims tells SFR, “in terms of preparing for future teachers.”
UNM and NMSU have two faculty each devoted to teaching bilingual education, which is a specialized field focused on the delivery of instruction in two languages (often Spanish and English). Sims says more is needed.
Mary Earick, dean of the School of Education at New Mexico Highlands University, says that though the majority of her faculty is bilingual or has a TESOL endorsement, there is still a critical need for teachers who can support students’ linguistic development.
In addition to the lack of support for children developing a second language, Blum Martinez notes that schools often don’t acknowledge the culture and background of New Mexico’s diverse student population.
But this also stems from the university experience, says Blum Martinez. “It’s universities that helped to prepare the teachers who are giving this kind of an education, so the fault lies as much with universities as it does with the schools,” she adds.
One “of our objectives is to provide our aspiring educators with coursework and clinical experiences which are culturally and linguistically responsive to the realities experienced by students and communities that our graduates serve in classrooms across the state,” writes Rick Marlatt, NMSU’s interim director of the College of Education.
This month SFR is unpacking the 2018 Martinez and Yazzie v. State of New Mexico lawsuit and examining where challenges to provide a sufficient education still exist. Here’s a look at the series.
March 23 - Students remain disconnected, despite the new, virtual face of education
March 30 - Funding shifts for at-risk children
April 6 - Language education shapes or denies students
This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.