Will New Mexico's Next Governor Champion Schools for All Families?

Amidst the battle lines drawn between the education establishment and reformers, we often lose sight that every child attending a charter school does so out of the will of their family. These are conscious decisions made by every family seeking to find the best opportunity for their child. No one should take that away.

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New Mexico NAEP: Stalled Out, With Some Progress

by Seth Saavedra │Thursday, April 11th, 2018


NAEPery Circus

This past Tuesday at midnight 2017 NAEP scores went public. Amidst the hullabaloo that accompanies this ritual is a predictable chain of events:

  1. Four hundred "What to Expect" pieces
  2. Accidental releases of embargoed information
  3. Late night Twitter stalking of #NAEPDay
  4. RELEASE
  5. All too many all too hot takes
  6. Ambitious overreaches and alarmist shrieks
  7. Even more ambitious counter "think" pieces
  8. RESULTS ACTUALLY READ
  9. Level-headed commentary
  10. "Welp, what does NAEP actually tell us?"
  11. Next shiny edu-thing

Before I jump into the fray at stage nine, let's cover the NAEP basics.


NAEP?

Often called "The Nation's Report Card", NAEP is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the U.S.'s most comprehensive view of what students know in a wide range of topics. It is a low stakes, demographically representative, and minimally changing assessment that tracks academic progress over time. The National Center for Education Statistics, in the U.S. Department of Education, administers the project. For many, NAEP is our best barometer of how much students have learned, particularly in fourth and eighth grades.


Across the U.S.

The NAEP story of the past decade has been disappointing, particularly the past four years. Some have labeled this period "Education's Lost Decade". Beyond the dramatic rhetoric, the lack of movement in student learning is troubling.

 

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

 

The speculation and analysis about why, after fifteen years of upward progress, we have stalled runs the gamut. Experts point to everything from diminishing returns on education investment to hangover effects of The Great Recession to Federal Department of Education overreach.

 
 

As researchers dig further into restricted-use data over the coming weeks we'll gain additional insights about this great NAEP flattening. Meanwhile, us advocates, practitioners, parents, policy wonks, and business leaders must remain focused on bending the trend line upward again, especially for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds.


NAEP in New Mexico

While our sunsets in The Land of Enchantment are dazzling, our NAEP results aren't, often coming in last or next to last in the nation. This time around, only Louisiana and Puerto Rico consistently come in behind us.

 

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

 

It's important to note NAEP's very real limitations. There is a natural temptation to compare scores over time. However, because completely different cohorts of students get tested every two years, this is tricky. Rather, as Matthew Chingos and Kristin Blagg advise:

A better way to compare and talk about NAEP performance is to use adjusted NAEP scores that account for demographic differences across students in each state. These adjusted scores allow for students to be compared with their demographically similar peers using factors such as race, receipt of special education services, and status as an English language learner. These are factors we know can affect test results, yet they are not shown in NAEP scores. The interactive tool below brings those adjusted NAEP scores to life.
— Urban Institute

So, let's do that. When controls are applied for age, race/ethnicity, frequency of English spoken at home, special education status, free or reduced-price lunch eligibility, and English language learner status, New Mexico moves up slightly. Below, the yellow lines are raw, unadjusted scores while the blue lines take into account the factors above. 

 

New Mexico 4th Grade Math

 

New Mexico 4th Grade Reading

 
 

New Mexico 8th Grade Math

 

New Mexico 8th Grade Reading

 

As you can see, New Mexico bumps up a bit with controls applied - on average 12 places upward. In 8th grade reading, we move from dead last to 26th. And, in three out of four areas, New Mexico has moved upward since 2009, marking tangible progress.

As the New Mexico Public Education Department shared via email, "About 2,500 4th and 8th grade students from 150 elementary and 120 middle schools in New Mexico took the NAEP exam online, for the first time ever, in reading and math." That's one of the values of NAEP, that it takes representative samplings from each state.

Next, let's look at demographic differences in NAEP scores across the state:

 
 
 

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

 

As with the national results from the last decade, the results haven't changed much here. Though there are a few notable exceptions:

  • Since 2009, Hispanic students have grown in all areas;
  • African American students did not reach a statistically significant sample in 2015 or 2017, leaving out an important student population;
  • American Indian students remained flat in two areas, lost ground in another, and made growth in the fourth; and
  • White students saw growth in reading and backslid slightly in math in 2017.

What Does It All Mean?

My main takeaway for our 2017 NAEP results is two-fold: our Hispanic students are on the rise and we have a lot of work ahead. For all the ill conceived critiques of PARCC, NAEP is the antidote. It's low stakes. It takes a representative sample. It's every other year. It covers every state - and can control for demographic factors. And yet, New Mexico still falls far behind the pack.

Yet, we've made progress over the past decade, particularly for Hispanic students, even though it's stalled out recently. We have hard questions to ask ourselves. Where should our future investments in education be made? It's clear that "business as usual" only works for adults in the system, not our students. Where are our current bright spots and how do we scale them up? In districts such as Gadsden and Farmington, we see meaningful progress. How do we encourage more smart innovation in a sector that badly needs it?

And lastly, as Morgan Polikoff writes, "We need more rigorous investigation of these results to understand whether they can really tell us anything about policy effects." In other words, what impact do “college- and career-readiness standards” have on student achievement? What about the effects from so-called "community schools"? Much more research is needed here to better understand the early gains we made as a state and to get us moving upward again.



What Will the Janus Ruling Bring to The Land Of Enchantment?

by Seth Saavedra │Thursday, March 29th, 2018


Waiting to Exhale

With oral arguments for Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in the rearview, sideline speculation is in full swing.

 

Find oral arguments for Janus online via transcript and audio recording.

 

As the legal frameworks allowing public-sector unions to collectively bargain differ from state to state, the full implications of - a seemingly imminent favorable - ruling for Mark Janus aren't clear.

New Mexico, as with many things, is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to our teachers unions. With high perceptions of influence, yet low levels of membership, our local chapters of the NEA and AFT remain important players on uneasy footing.

Thankfully, the wiz kids at The 74, along with the National Center for Teacher Quality, provide impressive state-by-state analysis and find:

  • 33 states require districts to engage in collective bargaining if teachers request to do so, generally through a majority vote for union representation;
  • 11 states allow collective bargaining, but districts are not required to bargain even if teachers request it; and
  • In the remaining seven states, collective bargaining is explicitly illegal. Teachers can still join professional associations, which are active in lobbying at the state level and interact with districts as a voice for teachers, albeit in less formal ways than collective bargaining.
 
 

Friendly to Unions but Not Many Members

The Land of Enchantment has quite favorable statute for public-sector unions. In fact, collective bargaining is not only allowed but required by law:

The purpose of the Public Employee Bargaining Act is to guarantee public employees the right to organize and bargain collectively with their employers, to promote harmonious and cooperative relationships between public employers and public employees and to protect the public interest by ensuring, at all times, the orderly operation and functioning of the state and its political subdivisions.
— NM Stat § 10-7E-2 (2016)

There is great value in collective bargaining, which provides a streamlined negotiation between labor and management. Unions fight for adequate compensation and safe workplaces, vital aspects to a healthy workforce.

There are also drawbacks. This streamlined negotiating diminishes the diversity of teacher voice, narrowing it to one or two technocratic issues. The resulting agreements use a jackhammer where a chisel works best. This constrains schools, stifles innovation, and directs energy to the lowest common denominator.

For example, why should all high schools schools in a district have the same start times or length of school day? And why, despite a mountain of evidence telling us of the negative impacts, do high schoolers still start so early?

Undoubtedly there is benefit in having some shared scheduling, but shouldn't our schools better represent the needs and diversity of students? The driving forces for these decisions should be the needs of students then staff. In that order.

For all the pushback I hear against standardized testing, I rarely hear critiques against what is largely a standardized school experience. I'll take standardized tests over standardized schools any day.

 
 

Implications for New Mexico

Despite the favorable statutory environment, at 41 percent, we have the lowest level of teacher unionization among all states that mandate collective bargaining. In this way, our teachers have already voted with their money and feet. With mounting evidence that collective bargaining does not improve teacher pay, this shouldn't be a surprise.

At the heart of Janus are agency fees, also known as "fair-share fees, paid by nonunion members to the union to cover the cost of collective bargaining on their behalf."

The loss of agency fees will most likely go unnoticed in The Land of Enchantment. As EIA reports:

State law makes agency fees a “permissive subject of bargaining” but does not require them. At last check, NEA had no agency fee-payers in New Mexico. I don’t know about AFT.

Even so, with growing disenchantment with local union leadership, there remains fomenting pressure for a modern union platform.

New, Better Unions

The perceived power of our local teachers unions weighs heavy. In APS, six out of seven board members - overseeing a $1.34 billion budget - are union-backed. That’s control of $1.15 billion, for an average campaign contribution of $5,000 per member. Not a bad ROI.

In Santa Fe, Senate Majority Whip and Chair of the Legislative Education Study Committee (LESC), Mimi Stewart (D) carries water for NEA/AFT/ATF. She is also considered by many to be our most powerful legislator. And, as I reported, the testimony of a union leader is, more often than not, enough to frighten timid legislators back into line.

My hope is local teachers unions take this moment in time to reinvent themselves anew. Facing increased pressure to retain members and recruit Millennial/Generation Z membership, unions have the chance to completely redefine the status quo in education and address the current gulfs between collective bargaining agreements and student needs.

Lasting change isn't possible without a substantial shift in the beliefs and actions of our union leadership.


ATF Leadership Encouraging Members NOT to Chime In On $1.34 Billion APS Budget

by Seth Saavedra │Friday, March 16th, 2018


What's going on with Albuquerque Teacher's Federation (ATF) leadership?

On Thursday afternoon, Ellen Bernstein, president of ATF, sent an email to members titled "APS Budget Survey - Ellen Asks That You Do Not Fill It Out!"

 

Take APS's survey: http://www.aps.edu/news/budget-survey

 

This should be surprising on two fronts. First, that Ellen includes "asks" instead of "commands from on high" stands out. I suppose maintaining some semblance of members having an option is helpful.

And, second, Ellen is already on the record discussing "the importance of teacher input." Plus, in what world is it helpful for staffers to not provide input into their employer's programs, finances, and priorities?

Rather than being "inappropriate—and perhaps destructive to our collective bargaining relationship—for the District to ask employees represented by a Union to identify their budget priorities" (her capitalization not mine), this is a best practice and common sense.

 
 

In fact, as the Gallup Employee Engagement Center (one of the world's foremost thought leaders on organizational well-being, tells us, "Employee engagement and its impact on outcomes [are what] matter most."

In other words, if one cares about outcomes (such as student learning, effective budgeting, strong school leadership, etc.) gathering employee feedback is perhaps the most crucial measure to consider. IF one does.

 

Ellen Bernstein - 22-year president of ATF

 

Ellen goes on: "It is clear the survey lacks anything that is actually inefficient. Providing educational programs with the blood, sweat and tears of underpaid employees in underfunded programs should never appear on a list of possible inefficiencies unless the goal is to further demoralize employees."

We know that's not quite true. These are programs paid for with our blood, sweat, and taxes. And figuring out which programs are most effective, which aren't, and reallocating resources and people to get the most out of all 1.34 BILLION dollars is what smart, modern organizations do. To stay relevant requires agility and self reflection.

Why is there more allegiance to specific programs than our students who are the supposed beneficiaries? I acknowledge this is a somewhat "inappropriate" assessment as it's not Ellen's highly compensated job ($90,000+ a year per 2015 documents) to advocate for students.

Even I, the eternal APS critic, applaud the district's effort to better understand their spending, from the very people running programs. Imagine the backlash against APS for reorganizing programs and funding without the input of teachers.

 
 

Let's be clear here, Ellen's goal is twofold: One, discredit the survey results before they've even come in. What better way to undermine the survey from the start than ensuring teachers aren't represented in the results?

And, two, making sure APS doesn't speak to teachers without her intervention. There is a reason she connects the survey back to collective bargaining. Her position only matters in so much as it remains a wall between teachers and the district. However, as we already know, teachers are no monolith, even within the same school district. In fact, I received this text after the email went out:

It’s as though she [Ellen] doesn’t believe we should advocate for ourselves and that we have to go through her. We are constantly teaching our students to stand up for what they believe.
— APS Veteran Teacher

We get it. Being head of the ATF is a powerful position, and one Ellen has held for going on 22 years. This is, in part, the explanation behind the mystifying actions of union leadership at the expense of its members. With union membership nationwide on the decline and the anticipated ruling in Janus, you'd think ATF would be more forward thinking.

However, that's hard with leadership that hasn't changed perspectives in over two decades. I frequently talk to teachers in Albuquerque and across the state. What I hear is increasing frustration with union leadership hellbent on the status quo - determined to keep things as they've been for the past 50 years, mostly at membership's expense.

Well, the world is rapidly changing around us and, unless leadership turns over, my fear is unions (and collective bargaining) will go the way of taxis, who also willfully refused to see Uber and Lyft coming.


Disagreement Should Be Our Starting Point

by Seth Saavedra │Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

Conversations around politics and education - though the distance between the two is negligible in New Mexico - tend to boil down to false dichotomies.

The usual "Us vs. Them" entrenched positions are as predictable as they are tired. When faced with any idea that rubs against our own comfortable worldviews, the tendency is to dig our heels in and prepare for battle.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone else, though I try to transcend the typical battle lines we find in education:

  • Local vs. National investments
  • Charter vs. District schools
  • Democrat vs. Republican
  • Traditionalists vs. Reformers
  • Union vs. Student interests
  • Practitioners vs. Policymakers
 

Too often our conversations on how to improve education result in less understanding and more animosity.

 

This sort of reductionist thinking and speaking leaves us little room to collaborate. Worse yet, these binaries barely acknowledge the rich spectrum of views we hold.

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic offers a new framework for our most fraught conversations. In "A Better Way to Look at Most Every Political Issue", he suggests we frame our differences in perspectives along "equilibriums" and "limits".

Equilibriums, as Conor defines them, describe an overarching orientation towards an often disputed issue, such as abortion or drug policy. What are the status quo conditions of a particular environment?

In education the analogy could be when advocates pursue more "choice" as an equilibrium. Are a district's or state's policies, on the whole, oriented towards providing families school choice? When faced with a decision to either increase or decrease school options, what tends to be the outcome?

Meanwhile, there are those who view controversial topics in terms of limits. What are the boundaries, if any, that should be in place? Rather than focusing on the ambient tenor, they look to the edges.

Returning to school choice, someone focused on limits wants to know what are the limits on how big or small a school can be? At what point does investing in new “choices” subtract from the capacity of neighborhood public schools? How much freedom in hiring and firing should school leaders have? They might also push against any limits on school choice, portraying the role of arch-Libertarian.

 
HB177: An earnest effort supported by a majority of NM teachers to increase their pay and provide an easier pathway to leadership.
 

The power in this reframing comes when examining the coalitions that form on these issues:

"One [coalition] forms around the position that a majority holds on the best equilibrium; the other forms around the position a majority holds on the appropriate limit. The winning coalition turns in part on what frame is more prominent at any particular moment."

In local education, faulty binaries abound. Imagine a local charter school founder who is a vocal proponent of "choice". And over there is an educator who thinks of himself as opposed to "choice" and charters. Despite the facade of opposition, when you ask both about what they want for students, there is massive agreement.

Both want individualized educations for all students and equitable access for every child, regardless of background. They both want schools centered on community wellness and high expectations. Each uses the phrase "community school" to describe their ideal school.

The charter school leader focuses on equilibriums. She wants the de facto policies of her city to encourage more school options for families. Two decades ago she found the status quo altogether too slow. So she created her school to provide another option for students in her city. To her, limits on choice are a slippery slope to a district monopoly over students.

Conversely, the educator thinks about limits. He's concerned too many options might drain a school district of funding. He worries that, without sensible limits, education will become a free-for-all that only serves the most motivated, privileged families. He’s not against a variety of school options but believes only so many schools can be sustained.

Their default perspectives center on different aspects of the same issue. They aren't, or at least shouldn’t be, mortal enemies. In fact, they agree on much more than they don't. This is instructive for us all.

 
 

To enact lasting change here, deep trust and collaboration are vital. Especially in New Mexico where resources are scant and personal relationships so valued.

Those of us in education might feel less contentious if we acknowledge “the other side” holds values and beliefs that are nearly indistinguishable from our own. An "equilibrium/limit" reframing provides a new way for us to find common ground. In turn smoothing over some of those razor sharp edges of policy disagreement that call us to battle.


[9/19] For Our Future: This Week's Education News & More

Friends & Colleagues -

This week is a special update that brings two guest writers sharing their experiences in New Mexico's education system, from quite different perspectives. We also find broad support for school choice from Millennials, smart cities using data in innovative ways to improve public education, and continued challenges in recruiting and retaining a diverse teaching force. The work is never ending but together we move forward.

As always, your feedback is welcomed, as are social media and other sharing. Here's this week's roundup:

  • [LOCAL: NEWS] Perspective on School Grades Once Again Ignores Equity. Albuquerque native and founder of the recently approved charter school Albuquerque Collegiate, Jade Rivera, shares a poignant reminder of the pernicious inequity that persists across public education and in our own backyards:

    "In a recent op-ed in the Santa Fe New Mexican, entitled “Ignore the state’s grading system for schools”, David Soherr-Hadwiger, professor at UNM, writes about the great opportunities his daughters received at three campuses within Albuquerque Public Schools and his frustration about the grades received by these schools under the Public Education Department’s school grading system.

    Reading the op-ed, I experienced a flurry of intense emotion, both personally and professionally. Personally, I am a product of APS, a proud alumnus of Montezuma Elementary School, Jefferson Middle School, and Albuquerque High School. Numerous experiences highlighted in the article reflect my own experience at these schools. Sixteen years ago, my single mother was among the “dozens of families” that Mr. Soherr-Hadwiger writes about that transfer their children into Jefferson to gain access to its academic offerings. I took AP courses at Albuquerque High, including AP calculus from Mr. Jimmy Phillips, who was instrumental in my decision to become a mathematics teacher myself.

    I benefitted tremendously from the educators and academic programs at these schools. However, I know that those same opportunities were not afforded to every one of my classmates, particularly those who came from low-income households, and who identified as ethnic minorities. If you read beyond the single letter grades of these schools, dissecting the school grade reports, you can see that this inequity remains true today.

    The school grading system is an assessment of how a school is performing. Is it a perfect encapsulation of 100% of the things happening at a school? Of course not, but it gives us a high-level picture about the statistical performance of a school and its students. This year Albuquerque High received a “D” letter grade. Looking more closely at the school grade report, we know that the school did not perform well in “current standing”, which assesses if students are on grade level. The report shows that currently 29% of all students are proficient in reading and 14% are proficient in math. The vast majority of students are not meeting grade level targets, and while that is an issue in and of itself, the greater issue I see is that of inequity among subgroups. 60% of white students are proficient in reading, while only 22% of Hispanic students are proficient. Again, white students surpass the all student math proficiency with 42% deemed proficient, while a mere 9% of Hispanic students are identified as proficient. Hispanic students, who account for nearly 80% of the student population, are being outperformed by their white peers by nearly 3 times in reading, and over 4.5 times in math. As a member of the Hispanic community, that is something I cannot ignore, particularly as I think about what this means for my community.

    Does this mean there aren’t Hispanic students in AP courses at Albuquerque High, gaining scholarships to prestigious colleges and universities? Absolutely not. But it does mean that those AP courses and college admissions are likely not representative of the larger school population. When I attended Albuquerque High 10 or so years ago, I was often one of few Hispanic students in the AP classes, and when I opted to take regular government, instead of AP government, I was asked how my “gen pop” class was, because that’s what students called it. To be frank, my “gen pop” class was not remotely rigorous or challenging, but it was the first time I had a class where I was in the ethnic majority.

    In response to Mr. Soherr-Hadwiger’s suggestion to parents to ignore school grades based on the positive experiences of his daughters, I would urge him to reflect on the privilege and hubris of such a suggestion. Certainly, inquiring families should talk to other parents about the doors that have opened for their children, but understand that the experiences of one child cannot reflect the broader experience of all children at any given school.

    For parents and families, I would advise getting all the facts and information possible. Get qualitative information from other parents, and look at the quantitative data in a school grade report. Get to know everything you can when making a determination about what doors can be opened for your child at any given school. Remember that knowledge is power, and if we hope to flourish as a community, it is critical that we understand the inequities that exist and then fight for equitable power and knowledge, for all students and families in our community."
     
  • [LOCAL: NEWS] New Mexico Needs Fresh Ideas, Not Tired Politics, To Move Forward. Offering a perspective straight from the classroom (and a stark contrast to the stale perspective of Sen. Stewart of Albuquerque, who we'll recall is adamant that "we don't know how to teach poor kids") longtime educator Rachael Stewards is kind enough to share a counter and constructive narrative: 

    "My participation in the New Mexico Teacher Leader Network invigorated my energy and helped me find my voice as a teacher in New Mexico. The relationships I built with other teachers from around the state, as well as the conversations I was able to have with PED officials, increased my capacity as a teacher leader in the state. My year in the NMTLN allowed me to better understand policy and protocol coming out of the PED and how it impacted me as a teacher and my students. The openness and transparency with which our PED works is unique and an opportunity for teachers to have a voice in public education."

  • [NATIONAL: SURVEY] Across All Millennials, Support for School Choice High. In two recent national surveys, researchers found broad support for various forms of school choice, with support highest among Millennials of color. Specifically, charter schools garnered "support from 65% of African Americans, 61% of Asian Americans, 58% of Latinos, and 55% of whites." This comes as no surprise from the generation accustomed to on-demand options in all facets of their lives and who grew up with a distrust of large institutions following the 2008 Great Recession. The question remains whether we as adults have the courage and fortitude to enact the fundamental changes our students are asking for - and desperately need.
     
  • [NATIONAL: RESEARCH] Smart City Data Helping to Solve Education Challenges. A recent article highlights examples from Chicago to Nashville to Fresno and also finds that, for cash-strapped school districts, partnering with the community is sometimes the only way they can leverage data to improve student experiences. One such data-sharing agreement in Nashville, TN "has helped Metro Nashville Public Schools improve students’ reading skills. By looking at data on which types of after-school initiatives are effective, educators were able to alter the programs’ curricula to support better outcomes."
     
  • [NATIONAL: CERTIFICATION] Teaching Licensure Remains Barrier for Diverse Teachers. In fantastic reporting from Matt Barnum over at Chalkbeat, he finds systemic and financial hurdles continue to keep teachers of color out of the classroom, where our students need them most. With a teacher workforce that hovers around 80% white nationwide, many of the requirements intended to ensure teacher quality instead becomes burdens "of tough certification rules borne by teachers of color". The five primary issues he uncovers are:

         1. Undergraduate GPAs requirements "which excludes half of Black and over one-third of Hispanic college graduates";
         2. When they take traditional teaching exams, Black and Hispanic candidates fail more often;
         3. A new kind of test has shrunk the gaps, but Black candidates continue to fail at higher rates (see graphic below);
         4. All of those teaching exams cost a lot, especially if you have to retake them; and
         5. Alternative pathways attract more teachers of color, but some states limit them.
Teacher Certification Exam