Digging Deep: The Story Behind Our State Charters

This is the second in a five-part series as a follow up to my initial research on district and state charter school grades in New Mexico. Find the first part here.

The story of state charter grades in New Mexico is of two extremes. On one end, we have an outsized number of high-performers doing well by their students. On the other end we have a large number of laggards bringing the whole lot down. What paradigms and practices do these high-performing school leaders have in place which can be shared more widely? And how do we turn over those low-performing schools to the impressive leaders of "A" schools so they may right the ship?

State charters have a much flatter distribution than districts. They receive roughly identical proportions of each letter grade and serve a total of 16,188 students. Here, 3,557 students (22 percent) attend "A" schools. State charters also have many more "F"s (13 to 2), with 6,232 (38.5 percent) of their students in "D" or "F" schools.

Of course, it is the role of NMPED and the PEC to ensure all charter schools they approve set forth ambitious goals to begin with, and then hold them accountable to achieving those goals. At any given time, every school leader should know which side of the line they stand on. If school grades are the decision-making point, then schools with the same grades need to receive the same treatment.

The data shows this isn't happening consistently enough yet. When schools with the same grade receive wildly different decisions, the recommendation to open, extend, or close a school feels like we're shaking a Magic Eight Ball. Of course, I think all schools (charter or not) should be on ambitious yet achievable performance contracts they are held accountable to, but that's for another day.

NM State Charter School Grades

We must also grapple with the reality that schools serving our most challenged student populations - often called "reengagement" or "Supplemental Accountability Model Status (SAMS)" schools - are fundamentally disadvantaged by the current grading formula. These unique schools are in need of accountability as well as a differentiated grading model that better accounts for the hardest-to-serve students they explicitly seek out.

The size of state charters schools is notable with an average population of 265 students. In fact, only two schools (Mission Achievement & Success and the soon-to-close NM Connections Academy online school) have more than 700 students. Point is this: even when schools are shattering the mythology about poor students not able to learn, it tends to be at a small scale. (I write much more about MAS and what fuels their success in the fourth part of this series tomorrow). For now it's easy to see the missed opportunities to better understand and replicate successful, local models.

Reasons for Optimism

As I've written about before, this grade distribution will soon change with two "F" state charters joining APS and four other "D" or "F" charters slated to close. I applaud the Public Education Commission (PEC) and NMPED's charter school division for holding charters accountable to providing their students a meaningful education. Students are certainly much more than data points, but what will their future hold if they don't have the skills to interpret data to begin with?

Schools, chartered or otherwise, not doing what they say they will are a disservice to their students and families. Schools are in the business of educating our children and preparing them for real-world outcomes measured by graduation rates, college attendance, employment, etc. When schools aren't doing this why then are they still in business?

Too often sentimentality and personal allegiances rule the day in New Mexico. Imagine if we took the miseducation of students as seriously as the grievances of adults running schools. Schools frequently stay open or unchanged for fear of harming the adults there. What then of the children? Aren't they too deserving of consideration?

I dig into this in parts three and four, but it's worth noting that the average FRL percentage for each grade grouping increases as you move from A to F. For example, the average FRL rate for "A"s is 40.36 percent. Meanwhile, "D" and "F" LEAs hover around 80 percent. Clearly, there is some correlation between SES and LEA grades. This is undeniable and beyond debate, but not worthy of despair.

The Challenge Ahead

Overall, New Mexico needs many more options for parents via state charters as well as better academic accountability for current and future schools. Each school needs goals specific to their students accompanied by consistent and transparent tracking towards these goals by the PEC and NMPED. And we need to shed our fear of closing failing schools. This requires better planning to responsibly transition those schools to more capable hands. Communities often revolve around their local school. This need not be an excuse to leave these schools under demonstrably poor leadership.

New Mexico has high levels of poverty. And poorer kids need extra resources and support (though often receive less) that their more affluent peers receive either inherently at home or explicitly at school. Even when money is available, districts often do a terrible job of delivering those resources in a timely fashion, if at all. The quagmire of district bureaucracy is prohibitive to the extra counselors, instructional time, and health services poor children require. Providing these resources effectively requires new ways of thinking, which is often the central work of charter schools.

The question then becomes, how do we better serve the needs of these students? Money of course matters, but in a state that is 36th in spending and 49th in student achievement, that's not the full story. Tomorrow and Thursday I explore the intersection of socioeconomics on LEA grades, and where we find some beacons of hope.