[12/19] For Our Future: This Week's Education News & More

Friends & Colleagues -

This week I have a follow-up to APS's consideration of four charter schools, an updated rating for New Mexico's ESSA Plan, recognition for NMPED's teacher leadership programs, and emerging research about what makes some districts great and others not so much. As always, your feedback is appreciated. Here's this week's roundup:

[LOCAL: NEWS] APS Votes on Charter Schools. Last Wednesday, the APS Policy and Instruction Committee heard pleas from four charter schools. As I wrote about previously, this decision had become increasingly contentious. Counter to my suggestion for one-year, contingent approvals, the committee approved three schools for three year approvals. The three approved are all part of the Leadership High Schools Network. A fourth, The Academy of Trades & Technology, did not receive approval and is likely slated for closure.

While I'm not surprised by the decision, many questions remain. I am told 97 percent of ACE Leadership students are currently employed or pursuing higher education. And 40 percent are in college. So, 60 percent are not in college and 57 percent have a job of some sort. What are these jobs? How many are in architecture? Construction? Engineering? Are they making a living wage? These and other questions loom large. While the work of reengaging students is noble, so is providing measurable improvements to their lives.

What I've found most troubling is the eschewment of achievement data and graduation rates, by both the board and schools. By calling into question the validity of these measures, I have deep concerns about the commitment to improvement. No academic measure is complete or perfect, but some are better than others. The point of high school is to graduate ready for career and college. Thus, the rates at which students graduate matters a great deal. As do the rates at which those students read, write, and do math. To exclude any group of students from performance along these measures is dangerous.

As a high school dropout, I'm dumbfounded by the notion that somehow students like me can't learn. We too deserve a full education. Our backgrounds are not scapegoats for low performance. That's why it's essential these schools improve and become successful for more students. I'll be watching with cautious optimism and hope you do too.

[LOCAL: NEWS] New Mexico Remains Highest Rated ESSA Plan. Independent reviewers once again give New Mexico high marks for our education plan. We received the highest rating of "5" in five of nine categories. Despite positive feedback, two areas for improvement emerge. First, ensuring all students receive a high-quality education - our so-called "subgroups". And second, identifying the exit threshold for schools identified for comprehensive support. New Mexico needs to track the performance of all kids, low- and high-performing. NMPED also needs clear exit criteria for schools identified for comprehensive and targeted support. Despite these areas for improvement, we should be proud of a plan garnering positive national attention. Thousands of stakeholders from around the state provided input on the plan. This shows again how vital community feedback is in transforming education, especially here in New Mexico.

[LOCAL: NEWS] New Mexico Gets National Praise for Teacher Leadership Programs. After years of top-down changes, New Mexico teachers grew tired of change after change. In response, NMPED launched several programs to bring teachers to the table. In a recently released report, Chiefs for Change lauds these initiatives. While the programs are modest in scope, demand is high with more than 700 teachers applying for 50 ambassador positions.

The report concludes with NMPED's takeaways on establishing a meaningful teacher leadership system:

- "Teachers must lead from within." High-quality teachers should serve as a bridge between educators in the state and the state agency. They should both represent their peers and ask state education leaders tough questions.

- "Teachers must have opportunities to voice their feedback." When teachers have an opportunity to weigh in on initial plans, the rollout process needs to be smooth. That way teachers feel the education department is taking their concerns seriously.

- "Start somewhere—even if it feels small." New Mexico started with 18 teacher-leaders involved at the state level, and now about 650 teachers are doing work for the department.

[NATIONAL: RESEARCH] School District Performance Continues to Baffle. Mother Jones' Kevin Drum highlights the seeming randomness of school district performance. Using research out of Stanford I wrote about last week, he unearths wide variances in districts with similar levels of poverty:

"Obviously not all of this is the fault of the school districts. But surely some of it is, and it’s a national disgrace that the differences are so stark. However, what’s really striking about this chart is how random it is: third-grade performance is almost completely unconnected to growth between third and eighth grades. And it’s only weakly correlated with the income level of a school district."

District Achievement & Growth

As you can see in the map below, there is a lot of purple (bad) in the South. Except for Tennessee, which has tackled education reform the past decade. Tennessee is the green island in an ocean of purple. New Mexico might learn a lesson or two from a state that at one time was near the bottom of national rankings. Stanford researcher Sean Reardon concludes with this:

"The findings also suggest that we could learn a great deal about reducing educational inequality from the low-SES communities with high growth rates. They provide, at a minimum, an existence proof of the possibility that even schools in high-poverty communities can be effective. Now the challenge is to learn what conditions make that possible and how we can foster the same conditions everywhere."