After New Mexico State University delivered some good news last week – specifically, that the state’s over 1,000 teacher vacancies had been cut by nearly 360 positions – it seemed as though the clouds had begun to part and light was shining through.
But it’s not all sunshine and roses quite yet.
There are still nearly 700 vacant teaching positions that need to be filled, and New Mexico schools are still struggling with hiring critical – but hard to fill – positions.
Chief among those is special education and elementary teachers, which make up the two largest subgroups of teachers the state is still wanting for with a combined 380 vacancies, according to the NMSU report.
But another area New Mexico still has to work on is hiring a more diverse teacher workforce.
“Our data does show that the majority of our educators in New Mexico are Caucasian, and also female,” New Mexico Public Education Department managing director Seana Flanagan said.
That doesn’t match the demographic make-up of New Mexico students, according to a brief presented to the Legislative Education Study Committee on Wednesday.
The diversity gap is readily apparent among Hispanic students and teachers. According to the brief, about 63% of all New Mexico students were identified as Hispanic, but only 34% of teachers also identified as such.
On the flip side, only 22% of students were identified as Caucasian, as compared to 57% of teachers.
Those gaps continue down the line – 10% of students are identified as Indigenous, versus 3% of teachers, and less than 5% of kids identified as Black, compared to 2% of teachers.
Those gaps make a difference.
In her 2018 findings of fact in the landmark Yazzie-Martinez consolidated lawsuit, Judge Sarah Singleton wrote that teachers who represent the same cultural and community backgrounds as their students serve as good role models for them, and are better able to connect with their families.
Analysts also pointed out in another LESC brief that students with teachers who come from the same cultural or racial background as them tend to do better on standardized tests, show up to class more and get suspended from school less frequently.
That’s part of why fostering a more diverse teacher pipeline has become a priority in New Mexico’s recruitment efforts, Flanagan said, including in educator preparation programs like teacher residencies. Those, on their own, help boost educator diversity, analysts argue.
“That’s really the jumping off point … is to think about how do we identify, early, people of color that are interested in positions,” she said.
Developing that diverse pipeline – which Flanagan noted is an issue across the country, not just in New Mexico – is a matter of flipping people’s perspective on teaching as a profession.
Of course, a useful tool in that argument has been the $10,000 minimum salary increases for teachers approved by lawmakers earlier this year.
“The other piece that we’re looking at is the salary increases, to show people that this really, truly, is a profession that you can pursue, that will allow you to support your family for years to come,” Flanagan said.
New Mexico has also made a special effort to recruit Native-language teachers, particularly through the passage of House Bill 60 earlier this year. That bill promised to pay full-time school employees holding Native American language and culture certificates the same as starting teachers.
That has helped boost the number of Native language and culture certificate holders to 275 total, with almost 30 brand-new certificates being issued since the beginning of the year, according to the PED.
That said, it’s not clear yet how many of those certificate-holders are practicing in the classroom.
The increase in new licenses, said Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, who sponsored the bill, stems from teaching Indigenous languages now being a more appealing career choice.
“Now we have these individuals that can appreciate that being a Native-language teacher is no longer a liability that will cost them money,” he said. “Now … for a change, they are respected, their language is respected as a certified second language that can be taught and can sustain a family or an individual to be that teacher.”