Digging Deep: Poverty In New Mexico's Districts

This is the third 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 and second parts here and here.


Poverty. It's as New Mexican as green and red chile. We can't have a conversation about education here without looking at poverty. Thus, my next area of inquiry centers on equity, particularly around socioeconomics. In education, free and reduced lunch eligibility rates serve as a proxy for socioeconomic status (SES), which is the lens I've adopted. The number of students eligible for these means tested programs tell us roughly how rich or poor a given student population is.

As you'd expect, unfortunately, the top line FRL eligibility rate of 69% in New Mexico is one of the highest in the U.S. Only Mississippi and D.C. are in range. Yes, we are a state with pervasive and staggering poverty. Should we throw our hands up as it seems so many have, including our elected leaders?

We cannot submit to this fatalistic paradigm. As a child of food stamps and public housing, I find this mindset incomprehensible. Every student we discount or leave behind is a tragedy. Every one of the 30% of our students who doesn't graduate has a name. We need to make this much more personal on behalf of students. I know we can and must do better for our poorest students if we are to improve our 49th ranking for students' chance for success. Even some of our most affluent schools - with an "A" - have less than half their kids on grade-level for math. This should be a wakeup call for us all.

With this in mind, I approached the data with fresh eyes for beacons of light. Which districts and schools are disproving the "soft bigotry of low expectations" for students? What's behind their success and setting them apart? Are there schools with high concentrations of low-income students getting great results? My assumption is "yes, of course" and that we as a state can learn from those leaders. You know the drill, let's start with an interactive graph.

Orient yourself first. District and state charter grades move horizontally from left to right ("A" to "F"). The final column in yellow is a summary for all 149 LEAs (two state charters do not have FRL data I could find). Going up the left side is the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch (FRL) at each LEA. Up around the 70 percent mark is our statewide FRL average of 67.92 percent. Find the district near you, or that you attended as a student.

The breakdown of grades is as follows: 18 "A"s, 36 "B"s, 54 "C"s, 26 "D"s, and 15 "F"s. This we already knew. The twist here is we can see how grades intersect with socioeconomic status.

No "A"s Here - Delving into Districts

Looking at districts, we find five with above average FRL and a "B", since there are no "A"s: Truth or Consequences, Reserve, Portales, Loving, and Clayton. T or C and its 1,314 students and Portales with 2,803 are the only two of the five with more than 600 students. Both catch my eye as well for having more than half their student populations identify as Hispanic. I'm excited they seem to be disproving the tired trope that poor and Brown children simply can't reach high expectations.

Districts Above State Median FRL

These are all the districts in new mexico above the median frl rate of 67.92 percent.

What's going on in T or C? The city of 6,000 with six schools down south seems to have figured something out. With 95 percent of their students FRL eligible, T or C exceeds the state FRL average by more than 20 points. (This is also 30 points higher than Albuquerque Public Schools and puts them in the top ten of low-income LEAs.) According to NMPED's recent "Straight A Express", there are three key factors to their success:

  1. A Community United: Schools are at the heart of the community and the town is united in pursuit of educational excellence;

  2. School Board Involvement: The five-person board understands the importance of the work happening in T or C schools and recognizes progress made and yet to go; and

  3. Clear Behavior Expectations. All students and parents are aware of behavior expectations and school procedures.

These strike me as sensible things any motivated board can enact and, importantly, any superintendent can execute on. Though these strategies also require the courage to speak truth to power and challenge entrenched interests. We need elected officials who hold up mirrors while also leading us to new promised lands.

On the other end, we find House Municipal Schools near Clovis defying stereotypes in the opposite direction. Despite a below average FRL rate (39 percent), a majority White student population (~80 percent), and small classes (73 students across three schools), they receive a "C". House is surrounded by districts which are poorer, more diverse, and receiving the same or higher grade. What's not going well in House Municipal Schools? It certainly isn't because the students are too poor, too numerous or too Brown as I hear so often. Dare we say it's likely the adults in leadership who own responsibility?

Beyond individual districts, the sad reality is that these statistics leave more than 20,000 of our students in "D/F" districts, and more than 100,000 in "D/F" schools when looking at individual school grades. This means we have 20,000 students who, through no fault of their own, have entrusted their futures to districts underserving them. They are at a starting line a mile back from where they should be. How many community organizers, teachers, or entrepreneurs would these children otherwise grow up to become? Through this pernicious opportunity gap, we squander our most precious resource: our students.

All is not lost as I see great potential in the 34 above-average FRL districts that have "C"s. This encompasses about 1/3 of all New Mexico students. What are the right levers for these district leaders to pull to change the game? Perhaps like T or C they might benefit from a renewed clarity of purpose, a unifying vision? Are there culture issues to tackle? Where can the capacity of school leaders, teachers, and other staff be bolstered? With the right leadership, strategies, and tactics these 34 districts and 292 schools could fundamentally change the lives of their 108,662 children across New Mexico. Now that's powerful thinking.

I'll meet you here tomorrow as I take a similar look at our state charter schools.

[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."