How We Reshape New Mexico's Education Landscape

This is the fifth and final piece 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 four parts hereherehere, and here.

A New Wave of Public Education

We've made it my friends. This week I've covered the distribution of LEA grades across New Mexico, implications of poverty, and some highs and lows from districts and state charters. And while my praise for many charters (and some districts) is effusive, the reality is that transformational change must come from school districts. Districts still account for about 94% of our 340,000 public school kids. Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, and Las Cruces alone account for nearly half of all students statewide. If the needle is to move, it must come from districts.

It is also true that districts don't scale up, but charters can. And if districts truly commit to the new governance opportunities charters provide, charters enhance their existing work. Too often districts get so caught up in defending their monopolies and old ways of doing business that they chase away good ideas - and people. There are no reasons, besides bad politics and policies, our best state charters shouldn't all be part of districts. But, for anyone who's worked with a central office, it's painfully clear why working under any other entity might be appealing. 

Therein is the rub: charter schools are no silver bullet nor evil bogeyman. Instead, they are a 21st century vision of what public education needs to look like, when done well. The nature of a charter school, in New Mexico at least, is that a group of invested community members come together to manifest a new vision for their students. Through the charter application, they articulate that vision and sets goals in pursuit of it - academic and otherwise.

Charter schools rely on flexibilities (in compensation, performance evaluation, length of school day, etc.) districts already possess but rarely utilize. This flexibility is necessary as many charters focus on underserved populations. The irony here is that districts use very little of the autonomy they already possess. For example, New Mexico has a minimum teacher salary of $34,000/year. That's the minimum. Why is it that districts tend to only pay the minimums? Not all do. Carlsbad, in attempt to attract teachers, starts them at $40,000/year. Districts have an anemic conception of what's possible.

And why are all teachers paid the same regardless of their position? Should starting science teachers be paid the same as starting PE teachers? There is nothing, except for a minimum salary, written in state statute. These are only two examples of hundreds of the sort of outdated, narrow thinking that plagues districts, and which gets worse as they get larger.

Charters are imperfect of course. They are run by fallible, sometimes ill-intentioned, humans. They are no different than districts in this regard. As long as people lead schools, this comes with the territory and is a key responsibility for authorizers to monitor. The effort is still worth it. Getting different outcomes requires different actions, I'm told. To expect otherwise is madness.

The one-size-fits-all model of American public education (adapted from Prussia by Horace Mann over 150 years ago) is dying a slow death. This industrial model of educating has gone the way of the horse-and-buggy, and education's version of buggy drivers and manufacturers will not go gentle into that good night.

Increasingly, the hangover effects leave teachers frustrated and millions of students behind - disproportionately those who are minority and poor. For a state so reliant on local culture and context, why do we still put our faith in a centuries-old model taken from Europe - and which has been showing its age for 40-plus years? If the country we borrowed our public education system from no longer exists, we probably need to think anew.

Bringing Change Home

This is where I see the disconnect in New Mexico: We have an emerging amount of school choice (~100 schools and 24,000 students), led by many smart, local leaders. We know our students often need extra resources and support, large districts struggle mightily to deliver. We have a diverse student body, predictive of broader demographic changes coming nationwide. We are a stubborn but determined people. We have many assets in hand, ready to build upon.

What we don't have, yet, is the courage to hold ourselves accountable for student learning. We continually let ourselves off the hook to the detriment of our children. We don't close failing schools. We resist accountability. We complain about how learning is measured and try to move the goal lines closer instead of reaching farther. Good ideas and intentions alone don't help our students become carpenters or engineers. So, yes, results matter.

Instead of "Yes, we can and will do better", I too often hear "No, because students/communities are too [poor, Brown, etc.]". We believe in more education options for families, but usually only those circumscribed by self-interest. All schools, and charters in particular, must be transparent and accountable. Truth is we don't need any more schools not serving students well, we have enough already. As David Osborne writes in the recently published Reinventing America's Schools, "There is simply too much at stake to maintain systems that don't prepare students to thrive in today's world."

I realize these are largely the inane debates of adults. Students don't care much about PARCC or proficiency rates - though if properly invested they do. They care about adults, schools, and systems that respect them enough to push them forward. I'm of the camp that high expectations and personal accountability is what love looks like in public education.

Students also care about having the literacy and critical thinking skills to pursue any path they'd like, whether construction, military, or college. And we need them to be fully prepared to lead New Mexico to a new future. To do this we must shine a light onto our harshest truths and muster the courage to tackle challenges head on. For too long we've run from this fight.

The Road from Here

As dire as education can feel in New Mexico, I am filled with optimism. We have a long road ahead and many tough questions to answer: How do we share out the experience and wisdom of our most successful schools and districts? How do we redefine our belief in ourselves so that high achievement becomes our new normal? And how do we hold our elected officials accountable to expanding successful school models instead of perpetuating stale, failing ones?

Thankfully, there are many dedicated school leaders, organizers, teachers, advocates, and policy wonks doing the hard work of reform. Reshaping a centuries-old system with so many interdependencies is brutal, often thankless work. Pushing back on a system that works for thousands of adults but not many kids, can be dangerous. As the late, great Gene Maeroff of the New York Times wrote, "School reform has proved itself more difficult than getting a man on the moon. Failures and mixed results predominate."

Yet we must persist. I find myself in the crosshairs of long time leaders frequently. But that's the work. We must collectively stiffen our spines and take the necessary lumps. That's what being an adult in this work means: taking the hits and stands on behalf of students who typically have no seat at the table. It's a sweat investment in the belief that all our children, many who grew up and look like me, can reach their greatest potential that keeps me going.

As civil rights leader and former Milwaukee schools superintendent Howard Fuller shared, our kids need us to be fiercer and stronger so they may become fierce and strong adults. That's my sole 2018 New Year's resolution: Be fiercer and stronger for New Mexico's students.

Bonus New Year's Present

I love creating these interactive graphs so much that I wanted to leave you with one last one. Here you'll find all district and state charters listed alphabetically. You'll see their grade to the right and when you hover over the grade you'll find more information. Scroll down and find Mission Achievement and Success. How many students does MAS have? What's their zip code? Now, find another "A" or "B" LEA you're unfamiliar with and read on. Then shoot me an email or tweet with what you find.