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.

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

Friends & Colleagues -

Perhaps providing us a preview of things to come in 2018's legislative session, these past few weeks have been jam packed with local and national education news relevant to New Mexico. I ramble enough below so let's jump right in:

[LOCAL: NEWS] Three APS Schools Designated for Rigorous Intervention. All three elementary schools (see table below) have received F grades for at least the past five years. I had a lot to say about this happening in the same week as APS Superintendent receiving a $250,000/year extension, so I wrote a post over at Retort.

https://retort.online/2017/12/08/excuses-quarter-million-dollars-can-buy/

https://retort.online/2017/12/08/excuses-quarter-million-dollars-can-buy/

APS Elementary Schools Designated for Intervention

APS Elementary Schools Designated for Intervention

[LOCAL: NEWS] Mission Achievement Success Approved for Expansion. In great news for students and families of Albuquerque, the Public Education Commission (PEC) has approved MAS for a second school site. I've gotten to know MAS's founder and principal, JoAnn Mitchell, over the past year and continue to be amazed by her vision and commitment. This groundbreaking decision by the PEC provides more students the opportunity to have the skills and experiences to be our future leaders. Here's more information on MAS:

MAS charter currently serves 785 students near the Sunport. The school primarily has students that qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and the campus has a higher proportion of Hispanic and African-American students than the state and Albuquerque Public Schools. While a student population like this often leads to excuses and lowered expectations across the city and across our state, students at MAS are getting amazing results because the school’s educators accept nothing less. Students at MAS grow academically at rates far beyond that of other schools in the state, and read and do math on par with schools in more affluent communities like the Northeast Heights.
— Matthew Pahl - Executive Director, New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools (NMCCS)

     I'll also mention that at a conference for NMCCS this past weekend, Secretary-Designate Christopher Ruszkowski made an ill-informed remark about "Manifest Destiny" while also calling for more high-quality school options for all students. Yes, given our long history of oppression and colonization, it is a hurtful and misguided metaphor. Though let us not allow this misstep to detract away from his broader point about the need for us to do better by our students. I hope his comments about the need to have extended school days, honoring our best teachers (more on that below), and holding all schools accountable for teaching all students who walk through their doors are given equal consideration.

[LOCAL: NEWS] New Mexico Teachers Bring Home Awards. Teachers across the state are being recognized for their tireless and impressive work. Melanie Alfaro, math department head at Deming Intermediate School, took home the prestigious Milken Educator Award for "incorporating assessments, collaborative projects, and parental involvement in her teaching strategies." Seven other teachers statewide, including four APS middle school teachers, garnered 2018 Golden Apple Awards for Excellence in Teaching as recognition of remarkable work. Teaching is a tough, often thankless job that, when done well, truly changes lives. The more we honor and reward those who've mastered their craft the better.

[LOCAL: NEWS] Legislative Finance Committee Tackles Education Budget. Last Thursday I made the trek up to Santa Fe as the LFC took its first look at NMPED's proposed 2018-19 budget. The webcast recording is online here. A few highlights:
     - NMPED proposed a "flat" budget of $2,695,524,500 including the following increases:
          - $4 million for additional pre-k programs;
          - $2.5 million for instructional materials;
          - $1 million for STEM initiatives; and
          - $300k for K-3 Plus
     - There was a near-capacity audience of 100+ folks from across NM
     - NMPED attempted to include testimony from school/district leaders, teachers and parents but that was nixed by LFC Chairwoman Patty Lundstrom who said there wouldn't be time for everyone to speak
     - Testimony permitted included: Arsenio Romero (Deming Superintendent), Melanie Alfaro (Milken Educator of the Year mentioned above), Tommy Turner (Mosquero Superintendent), and Mike Hyatt (Gallup Superintendent)

[NATIONAL: RESEARCH] New Measure of School District Performance Yields Promising Insights. New analysis from The Upshot takes data (based on roughly 300 million elementary-school test scores across more than 11,000 school districts) from Stanford's esteemed Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) for a fresh look how we think about school districts. By analyzing how scores grow or not as student cohorts move through school, Stanford researcher Sean Reardon argues that "it’s possible to separate some of the advantages of socioeconomics from what’s actually happening in schools."

I was surprised to see that places like Hatch and Gadsden, with nearly half the median household income of Albuquerque, achieve higher learning rates than NM's largest city. I've included some graphs for APS below, but please explore for yourself.