[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."

[11/21] For Our Future: This Week's Education News & More

Friends & Colleagues -

In this relatively light news period I have updates on APS's budget, the state of early childhood in New Mexico, and two national stories related to teacher equity and emerging insights into Millennials' views on education. As always, your feedback and shares are greatly appreciated. Here's this week's roundup:

  • [LOCAL: NEWS] APS Budget Gets Boost. After some belt tightening this spring and summer, in anticipation of an overall reduction in state revenue, APS is putting nearly $7 million back into the 2017-18 budget. Buoyed by an anticipated bounce in oil and gas revenue, the extra money will be included in what's nearly a $1.4 billion annual budget. I'd like to see ALL that extra dough go straight to instructional support where teachers and students will benefit most.
  • [LOCAL: NEWS] More New Mexican Students Need Pre-K. Coinciding with nearly sixty years of research indicating that high quality early-childhood education has long lasting effects on children, the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee issued a report finding that many of our kindergartners come to school already below grade level. The report also found that "New Mexico students – especially from low-income families – tend to change schools often, which contributes to low test scores." This echoes a recent ECE report from the AERA which finds "access to early-childhood education significantly reduces students’ chances of being placed in special education or held back in school and increases their prospects of graduating high school."
  • [NATIONAL: RESEARCH] States' Receive Equity Grades For ESSA Plans. The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ)'s issued analysis of states' plans for ensuring that low-income and minority students are not disproportionately taught by ineffective, out-of-field, or inexperienced teachers under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Each state-specific analysis recognizes notable "strengths," or areas where a state's work is laudable, as well as "opportunities," or areas where improvement is necessary to meet the spirit and letter of the ESSA's educator equity requirements. New Mexico receives high marks for overall equity with a suggestion for us to redefine "inexperienced teacher" as a teacher who has taught two years or less, instead of the current definition of three years.
  • [NATIONAL: RESEARCH] Millennials Bring New Beliefs Into Public Education. Research firm Echelon Insights published a fascinating report on the views of Millennials regarding education. Long maligned for perceived narcissism and their rejection of traditional structures, at 75 million strong Millennials are now the biggest generation in the U.S. (and world), and beginning to reach positions of authority and power - with the oldest members about to turn 40.

    So whether you love us or hate us, Millennials are on the cusp of leading many more schools, districts, state departments, and elected offices. Thus, this report is a sneak preview of things to come over the next 30 years or so. I highly suggest you read the 20-page report. Here are some quick tidbits:

         - 68% of Millennials identify “having access to a quality education” as one of the most important factors to ensure someone has the opportunity to succeed
         - The most important factors to a "quality public school" are: (1) teacher creativity, (2) teacher flexibility, and (3) a positive and safe school culture
         - 74% of millennials think “schools today need big changes in order to create opportunity for students"
         - 65% of millennials think that being a public school teacher is more difficult “than it was twenty or thirty years ago"
         - 67% of millennials in rural areas support alternative pathways to teaching, saying it should be possible to teach without an education degree

[10/19] For Our Future: This Week's Education News & More

Friends & Colleagues -

This week's roundup is heavy with local news and research, including the recent release of a school financing report from Think New Mexico. As always, your feedback is welcomed, as are social media and other sharing. Here's this week's roundup:

  • [LOCAL: RESEARCH] Think New Mexico Issues Report On Education Finance. As they do so well, the wonks at Think New Mexico have aimed their research acumen at the Gordian Knot that is education spending in New Mexico. While I anxiously await the arrival of my copy, here are some highlights from TNM's website: "Statewide, only about 57.2% of New Mexico’s education budget is currently dedicated to instruction.  [And] since about 90% of New Mexico’s operational education budget consists of state taxpayer dollars, the legislature and governor have the responsibility to ensure that the money is spent as effectively as possible." Here's additional coverage from the Albuquerque Journal and Santa Fe New Mexican.
  • [LOCAL: NEWS] New Mexico's Plan Highlighted in Congressional Testimony. Two weeks ago, three chief state school officers provided testimony to the HELP Committee in D.C. during their "The Every Student Succeeds Act: Unleashing State Innovation" committee hearing. New Mexico's Secretary-Designate Christopher Ruszkowski spoke on behalf of NMPED. As you've read on this blog, New Mexico's ESSA plan continues to be lauded as one of the best in the country. In fact, when ranking member Patty Murray asked Dr. Steiner, "... based on your understanding of other states plans, would you say other state's have put forward plans that are as strong as these three?" Dr. Steiner's response was "The chairman was correct in highlighting these three states. They are here, rightly because they are exemplary." FYI: New Mexico's portion starts at the 40 minute mark.
  • [LOCAL: NEWS] NMPED To Rewrite Proposed Science Standards. In what should have been the approach from the start, NMPED will revise its original proposal for updated science standards that had omitted key statements related to evolution, climate change, and Earth's age. Thanks to the advocacy of educators, religious leaders, scientists, parents and many others - including a protest and "teach in" - enough public pressure was drummed up to correct what had become a painful misstep for the state. For me this has been a tangible reminder of the power of advocacy on behalf of our students, and also of the necessity and possibility for broad, citizen-led coalitions to demand student-centered education policies. Ultimately, what's most important here is that New Mexico adopts modern science standards which prepare our kids for science careers, particularly as the home to two large national laboratories.
  • [NATIONAL: OPINION] 10 Disruptions That Will Revolutionize Education. Nobody has a crystal ball, but everyone can see that the world is changing at warp speed. Through his research of blended learning and equity in education, Peter Cookson has heard many educators say that it's time to seize the future. Among his suggestions is one that would be powerful here in New Mexico: Students and families will become co-learners and co-creators wherein "participatory education means little if students and families are pushed to the side. Families will no longer be shut out of the learning process. They will be seen as full partners in their children's education."
Latinos Lag Behind For College

As a state with preponderance of Hispanics/Latinos (discussion of the distinction is for another day), the continued college gaps depicted to the left have important implications for our students and the future of our state. What are our policy makers doing to ensure we, as a majority minority state, are reversing these trends?

[8/15] For Our Future: This Week's Education News & More

Friends & Colleagues -

August is back-to-school time and a reminder of the trust parents place in schools to provide safety and learning to their most valuable possessions, their children. I can't help but smile at the excitement (and nervousness) of students and teachers alike as they engage in the sacred ritual between educator and pupil. This week's news brings several stories from here at home as well as the latest results from one of the country's largest education polls. As always, your feedback is welcomed, as are social media and other sharing. Here's this week's roundup:

  • [LOCAL: NEWS] New Mexico's ESSA Plan Approved by Department of Education. Coming on the heels of receiving high marks for our focus on ambitious and attainable goals, New Mexico becomes the second state to have our plan approved. We should be proud of this achievement and the hard work that went into this roadmap for modernizing our education system. We've set a high bar for all our children with a special emphasis on our most vulnerable and marginalized students.

    We as advocates must work to build belief in our plan and hold policy makers accountable to those goals, which were set in partnership with thousands of people via the New Mexico Rising Tour. We must also counter the negativity and disbelief of those like Sen. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque who incorrectly stated that "there is “widespread hatred and dislike of both the teacher evaluations and the school grades” [a claim debunked below] and who last month told an audience in New Orleans that “We don’t know how to teach kids from poverty. They come with no skills – well, they have street-fighting skills. They’ve got a lot of skills; they’re just not academic skills.” There is simply no room in our state for policy makers who don't believe in ALL of our students and the responsibility of public education to reach every one of them, regardless of income or home situation.
  • [LOCAL: NEWS] Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) Releases New Academic Master Plan. In a long overdue move, APS has updated and shared their overarching vision for the path to improvement for our state's largest school district. The plan outlines three overarching goals (early learning, college and career readiness, and developing the whole child) alongside a concept titled "Learning Zones" which divides the district into four geographically bound zones:

         - LZ-1 consists of Albuquerque, Highland and Manzano high schools and their feeder schools;
         - LZ-2 is made up of Atrisco Heritage, Rio Grande and West Mesa high schools and their feeder schools;
         - LZ-3 includes Cibola, Valley and Volcano Vista high schools and their feeder schools; and
         - LZ-4 consists of Del Norte (the high school I dropped out of), Eldorado, La Cueva and Sandia high schools and their feeder schools.

    While the ideas in the new master plan are sound and worth exploring, this (as with any policy/strategic initiative) will boil down to implementation and commitment to goals. And speaking of goals, you won't find many in the plan yet. None of the three goal areas provide any quantitative goals to speak of, which is troubling. I'm a believer in setting visionary, feasible quantitative and qualitative goals to drive actions, with benchmarks to measure progress along the way. Perhaps APS and Superintendent Reedy will revisit our top-rated ESSA plan, which garnered bipartisan praise for its ambitious, equity-minded goals, and incorporate the smart work already done there.
  • [LOCAL: NEWS] Fort Sumner Student All Set for College. An inspiring story from NBC News shares the remarkable determination of 17-year-old Jazmin Regalado, who will be the first in her family to go to college. By accessing online study tools and zeroing in on improving her SAT score, Jazmin affirms that high standardized test scores are crucial not only for college admittance, but also to qualify for many scholarships available for low-income students. Of course, test scores can never tell the whole story of a student, but let's not lose sight of the reality that test scores matter in providing access and opportunity for all New Mexican children.
  • [LOCAL: LEADERS] Albuquerque Leaders Speak About Education. Improving education in New Mexico is necessarily a community and collective effort requiring strong local leadership dedicated to the cause. So it's with optimism I share statements from Albuquerque mayoral candidate Brian Colón and, the recently named Chamber of Commerce board chair, Meg Meister. Meister describes K-12 education as an “economic driver” as it relates to both educating the state’s future workforce and attracting residents of other states to the Albuquerque area.

    Meanwhile Colón states that, "As the new mayor, policies will be undertaken to improve the education that is provided within the City of Albuquerque. We can no longer accept incremental change and ineffective APS policies of the past. We can no longer accept mediocrity. I will work directly with APS by immediately appointing a CEO, a Chief Education Officer, who report to me on a regular basis. That person will be the conduit between the City of Albuquerque, APS, CNM and our flagship research institution, The University of New Mexico. It is imperative that the mayor’s office work directly with the APS Superintendent in reforming policies within the district. We must change the players at the table, demand innovation, and strive for excellence to create a first-class educational system, Albuquerque families deserve no less."
  • [NATIONAL: POLL] Education Next Releases Results of 2017 Poll. With its 11th annual poll, EdNext has become one of our most consistent and reliable sources for the collective thoughts of parents, teachers, and parents nationwide. This year's survey consists of "a nationally representative sample of 4,214 respondents, including representative oversamples of 2,170 parents, 669 teachers, and 805 Hispanics." Some quick highlights:

         - Accountability: As shown in the graphic below, there is overwhelming support (61%) for the use of state standards "to hold public schools accountable for their performance"
         - School Choice: "Public support for charter schools has fallen by 12%, with similar drops evident among both self-described Republicans and self-described Democrats. Meanwhile, opposition to school vouchers and tax credits to fund private-school scholarships has declined."
         - Teacher Policies: "The public is showing an increased resistance to change when it comes to policies affecting teachers. The percentages favoring merit pay, an end to teacher tenure, and increases in teacher salaries are all down about 5%. In each case, however, a plurality continue to support reform."
         - Parents’ Aspiration for Higher Education: "Two thirds of the public would have their child pursue a four-year university degree, while only 22% would choose a two-year associate’s degree at a community college, and 11% would choose neither.
         - Early Childhood Education: 51% of the public supports "publicly funded pre-school programs" as long as these "programs accountable for their performance", with 61% of Hispanic parents supporting this same question.
Accountability and State Standards

[7/12] For Our Future: This Week's Education News & More

Friends & Colleagues -

As summer reaches a blazing crescendo here in New Mexico, we are also hot on the national education news scene. The Land of Enchantment recently garnered notice for our best-in-class state education plan and for our decisive teacher evaluation program. While these topics have been hotly debated at home for many years, it's nice to see us get national education press on something besides being last for high school graduation or college remediation rates. As always, your feedback is welcomed, as are social media and other sharing. Here's this week's roundup:

  • [LOCAL: NEWS] New Mexico has won high marks for its plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Over at CheckStatePlans.org, a nonpartisan collection of expert reviewers from across the country provide their analysis of all state ESSA plans submitted so far. The good news? New Mexico ranks highly in nearly every category with specific praise for school ratings which are clear to parents and other stakeholders and an "aggressive, concrete list of interventions in low-performing schools, which suggests that New Mexico is taking seriously the challenges faced by those schools." The not so good? We have room to improve in defining the criteria schools must meet to be exited from intensive support and in setting the vision for a new school rating system "so that educators, parents, and other stakeholders know what is coming and can engage and respond effectively." In separate but similar analysis, All4Ed provides nearly identical praise and feedback for what should work and what might not.
  • [LOCAL: NEWS] New Mexico also made news as having perhaps the strictest teacher evaluations in the nation. With nearly 30% of teachers rated "ineffective" or "minimally effective", we outpace the the next closest state, Oregon, which comes in at just below 12%. We also buck the national trend where many states still rate nearly all their teachers as effective and above. As with any evaluation system, the devil is in the details of how that system supports struggling teachers to improve their practice and also encourages meaningful paths for the bulk of teachers to move from good to great. Whether an evaluation is punitive or growth-minded depends in large part on how it is presented and whether professional development and supports align well with the evaluated criteria. There need to be paths for all teachers to continually grow in their practice as well as direct off-ramps for teachers who do not successfully educate our children.
  • [NATIONAL: NEWS] As I've written about previously, the next twenty years will see tectonic shifts in our economy as artificial intelligence and automation capably replace humans more and more. In fact, researchers at the University of Oxford estimate "that nearly half of all U.S. jobs may be at risk in the coming decades, with lower-paid occupations among the most vulnerable." Human truck drivers and food servers will soon be relics of time past. Despair not however as all is not lost: research tells us that a college degree provides career insulation against automation and the more education one gets, the less vulnerable one becomes. Curious to know which occupations are best paid and least vulnerable, or the opposite? Bloomberg has an interactive infographic you should check out. Take note of the orange and red in the bottom right...
  • [HISTORY: ADVICE] We are all aware of Albert Einstein's genius and hard work, though rarely do we get insights into the most intimate details of the lives of history's thought leaders, particularly when it comes to education. In a recently unearthed message to a his 11-year-old son, Hans Albert, we find Einstein was well aware of the import roles passion, joy and diligence play in learning:
I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don't notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal. . . .
  • [NATIONAL: WATCH] In a segment titled “Schools of Thought: The War Over Public Education and Charter Schools” NBC News’ Craig Melvin examines the tension over charter schools by visiting Boys’ Latin in Philadelphia. Despite charters serving largely low-income and minority students, much of the pushback against charter school expansion in Philly is from the NAACP. Melvin also interviews U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for her first network news interview: “Great public schools are going to continue to do a great job for the students that they’re serving, and I think that instead of talking about schools and school buildings we should be talking about funding students and investing in individual students.”
  • [NATIONAL: RESEARCH] Education Spending Return on Investment - While businesses have long understood the importance of an educated workforce for a strong economy, “our nation’s K-12 system is falling short in preparing new generations for the ever-changing demands of the 21st century workplace,” according to a new report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. At the root of this: “we’ve underestimated the importance of the earliest years of life.”

    The report lays out how critical early childhood education is, and how in terms of return on human capital investment, early education gives you the most bang for your buck, relative to K-12 and beyond: “Careful academic research demonstrates that tax dollars spent on early childhood development provide extraordinary returns compared with investments in the public, and even private, sector. Some of these benefits are private gains for the children involved in the form of higher wages later in life. But the broader economy also benefits because individuals who participate in high-quality early childhood development programs have greater skills than they otherwise would, and they’re able to contribute productively to their local economies.” And yet, as we see in the graph below, a very small percentage of total U.S. education spending (~3%) is directed to children’s critical first years.

10 Things You Need To Know About New Mexico's Acting Secretary of Education Christopher Ruszkowski

As many of us read in the op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal on Monday, New Mexico has a new acting Secretary of Education, Christopher Ruszkowski. Any glance at the comments section reveals that education continues to be a divisive and all-too-often mindless conversation in New Mexico. We are long on rhetoric and short on optimism and new ideas. Any attempt to try something new is met with fierce resistance and misplaced nostalgia for "the way things used to be." The reality is that the world is changing at a pace much faster than we're prepared for and we can either work hard to catch up or remain lagging far behind.

I know Christopher to be a no-nonsense champion for students (even if that means some adults are put off) and as someone unwaveringly focused on educational equity. He's also human, takes his fair share of missteps and is eager to learn from those mistakes. My hope is that we'll continue to focus on the future of education in New Mexico and not, as Christopher shared, stay “wedded to the 20th century way of doing business”, instead focusing on “what’s best for children.” I also know Christopher wants to and has experience working across lines of difference to help redefine a new possible for New Mexico - and that he wants to be held accountable to outcomes for our kids. Let's do that and be critical friends supportive of our students.

My hope is we'll approach Christopher's tenure as we should all education policymakers in New Mexico, with optimism and a "trust, but verify" mindset. I'm a big fan of healthy skepticism though in New Mexico that frequently shows up as cynicism instead. We're lucky to have Christopher here but we also owe it to our kids to continue to push him and NMPED, prod them, question their decisions and develop solutions in the field. The best ideas on behalf of kids don't live in Santa Fe, but rather in the field with educators. We are a beautiful, culturally rich state in desperate need of news ways to bring forth our heritage and history in the 21st century. Our kids need it, our communities need it, our economy needs it and, frankly, the future of our state depends on as much.

So, while I've had the opportunity to better know Christopher over the past year, I think all New Mexicans should better understand the person now at the helm of public education in the Land of Enchantment. Below I share some key things to know about our new acting Secretary. Number ten, the Delaware piece, in particular is a must-read. I've included the entire blog post as it's from someone who worked side-by-side with Christopher for years, and I know that Delaware is missing his leadership right now. In unabashed Buzzfeed fashion, I present The Top 10 Things You Need To Know About Christopher Ruszkowski:

  1. His is the son of immigrants, including a Polish immigrant who grew up in a German work camp and his family fled war-torn Europe, arriving in Chicago in 1950;
  2. As the son of an Eastern European immigrant, his favorite pierogi is potato slathered in sour cream;
  3. His began his career in education teaching middle school social studies in Miami through Teach For America;
  4. He has never had a full cup of coffee, despite thousands of hours spent in coffee shops;
  5. He was part of the inaugural cohort of the Future Chiefs fellowship at Chiefs for Change
  6. He holds a Bachelor’s in political science from the University of Minnesota and represented the state of Minnesota as a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship;
  7. While in Delaware, he led the creation of their "Plan to Ensure Equitable Access to Excellent Educators for All Students";
  8. He attended public schools in Chicago and Minnesota and has worked in public schools in Miami, Boston, San Francisco and Louisiana
  9. Since coming to New Mexico, he's helped form a "Secretary’s Teacher Advisory", a newly-formed New Mexico Teacher Leader Network intended to amplify teacher voice and create statewide communities of practice around teacher craft; and
  10. Delaware's loss is New Mexico's gain. From "Why Delaware Education Will Miss Christopher Ruszkowski" on the excellent Fiercely Urgent blog, which is maintained by a fierce local education advocate, Atnre Alleyne:

Christopher Ruszkowski’s six-year tenure at the Department of Education (most recently as the Associate Secretary of Teacher & Leader Effectiveness) came to an end in April [2016]. Rumor has it he rode off into the sunset en route to a position as Deputy Secretary in the New Mexico Department of Education. His detractors likely collectively exclaimed “it’s about time.” His longevity at the Department (serving on the leadership team in the Lowery, Murphy, and Godowsky administrations) belied his so-called aggressive brand of education reform and the numerous calls to have him ousted. His no-holds-barred style, Chicago-bred candor, kids-before-adults policy-making, and unmatched commitment to President Obama’s Race To The Top (RTTT) agenda (originally signed on for  by all Delaware stakeholders) made some view him as part of the problem with education reform. 

But his departure is a huge loss for Delaware.

Full disclosure is in order before I proceed. Christopher was my manager at the Department for four years and became a friend. So perhaps I am completely biased on this topic. Or perhaps, my front row seat during his tenure means I really know what I am talking about. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

But in today’s edu-blogosphere and dominant discourse you can only be either/or. False choices prevail and caricatures are commonplace.

So some will say Christopher is a corporate education reformer, teacher hater, over-testing proponent who is systematically dismantling our education system. But others could say he is the product of a first-generation immigrant, working class family who made his way through college on a golf caddie scholarship and eventually became a social studies teacher in Little Haiti, Miami. Some could say he is an overpaid edu-bureaucrat who seeks to enrich himself and advance his career at the expense of overworked educators and under-resourced students. But others would say he is a teacher-turned-teacher coach-turned-education policymaker whose passion for students fueled his 70-hour work weeks.

These days, you’re either a Delawarean who cares about kids or an outsider who cares about the next position a pit stop in The First State will afford you.  False dichotomies. Instead of delving into details, nuance is neglected, straw men arguments are erected, and facts are rejected.

But here is the reality: Christopher is like almost everyone in the education sector–his motives are pure, he subscribes and commits to a particular philosophy about how to improve the education system, he has made personal and policy mistakes, and he has done a ton of good at the same time. There’s no shortage of commentary about perceived policy mistakes and/or personal attacks, so I’ll be heavier on the good here.

Christopher’s URGENCY will be missed.
Every day there are large numbers of students being taught in classrooms that are shortchanging their potential and attending schools where many more well-to-do folks would never send their kids. There are teacher candidates accumulating “Easy A’s” in teacher preparation programs that are not preparing them for success in the classroom. And there are teachers who never receive the quality feedback, leadership support, and resources to thrive in their work. Almost everyone would agree that these are things that need to be fixed. But few have demonstrated the urgency Christopher did to make progress on such issues. 

Christopher had no shortage of opposition and ample opportunity to spend his summer at Rehoboth and do nothing on many of these issues. Yet, during his six-year tenure,standards were raised for teacher preparation programs, scorecards were shared publicly to assess Delaware educator preparation programs, teacher evaluation changes were made that educators believe have enhanced the system, and an incentive program was established to retain talented teachers in high poverty schools.

Yet, one of the fair criticisms of RTTT and the work Christopher led is that major reforms (new standards, new assessments, new educator evaluation systems, etc.) were implemented concurrently and with haste. Sustainable and impactful initiatives take time and the folks implementing on the ground often felt like they were in a pressure cooker. But to be honest, many of the changes Delaware stakeholders committed to in their RTTT plan would never have been accomplished if operating on the normal pace of change in education.  At the normal pace of the establishment, my 14-month old daughter wouldn’t see any change until she started her freshman year in high school.

Common sense improvements move at a snail’s pace in the education system. While few think our state’s school funding formula is adequate, for example, it hasn’t changed in around 70 years. Delaware’s starting salaries for teachers are the lowest in the region and there’s consensus that we need to reform our compensation system. Yet, the Committee to Advance Educator Compensation & Careers (CAECC) has been meeting since 2014 (and conversations on the topic were ongoing for many years prior) with no result. Inertia is the modus operandi in education and there are too many decisionmakers in the system who lose sight of the students impacted while they do their decades-long political dance.

Christopher’s focus on EQUITY will be missed.
When the US Department of Education (USED) required all states to analyze data, engage stakeholders, and develop a plan to ensure low-income and minority students have equitable access to great educators, many states responded as one would expect: they asked “what’s in it for me?” There were no federal funds tied to this mandate and there was little USED could do to ensure compliance. But instead of phoning it in like many states, and despite internal pressure to make the plan a lower priority, Christopher seized the moral imperative and led his team (and the state) in the creation of Delaware’sExcellent Educators for All Students plan. The document was based on newly-released data on educator equity gaps and over a hundred conversations with parents, teachers, policymakers, etc. across the state.

But policymakers are known for making elaborate plans and paying lip service to issues of equity in education. They would rather pay homage to the complex, intractable, and structural nature of problems of equity than create solutions within their sphere of influence. Now, Christopher can definitely be criticized for implementing solutions too small to address the structural roots of inequity.  He was not reforming housing, policing, or poverty per se. But he was not one to let such criticisms paralyze him in prioritizing educator equity in his work, and in doing his part to make the system better.

So Christopher launched an “Equity Fellowship” in partnership with the Delaware Academy of School Leadership’s Principal Preparation Program that incentivizes becoming a principal in a high-need school. He also launched a program that provides financial incentives for highly-effective teachers to continue teaching in high-poverty schools. In the latter program, 92% of highly-effective Math & English teachers were retained in schools participating in the program over the last two years as compared to 85% in all other high-need schools.

Christopher’s focus on TALENT and DIVERSITY will be missed.
Christopher practiced what he preached about the importance of high-quality talent in the education system. As a result of Christopher’s leadership, thousands of educators can apply for a job in Delaware districts through a centralized portal–Join Delaware Schools. He also supported Delaware school leaders’ talent development through programs like the Relay National Principals Academy Fellowship (over 25 Delaware school leaders have attended this prestigious year-long fellowship to-date). Within the Department, he was the driving force behind the state’s summer fellowships, new internship programs, and new partnerships with leading national organizations. Last summer, he launched a new summer program, “Educators at Catalysts”, that brought several classroom teachers onto his team at the Department.  This year, the program is being implemented Department-wide.

And then there’s how he attracted and selected talent into key positions. The standard operating procedure in the education sector is to post a position on your website for two weeks and hope and pray that someone good applies. Christopher was notorious for aggressive recruitment and for reposting positions until he found the right candidate. Using the “corporate” playbook, Christopher managed to assemble a team with a Delaware Principal of the Year, a former Delaware district HR director from one of the state’s largest districts, a former NASA education programs leader, a district administrator from Seaford who had policy experience at UD, a PhD from Emory, and more. Somehow he managed to convince people to take substantial pay cuts to leave Delaware districts to work for the DDOE, and in some cases, to relocate to Delaware from around the country (Texas, Atlanta, D.C., etc.). At the same time, he managed to assemble one of the most racially diverse teams at the DDOE in an education system that struggles in this area. It’s no surprise then that Christopher was Delaware’s representative at the US Department of Education’s “Our Students, Our Leaders” convening of 50 leaders seeking to close the demographic gap between students and leaders in the education sector.

Christopher’s willingness to SAY WHAT OTHERS WON’T will be missed.
Christopher generated a lot of controversy during his tenure because he said “crazy” stuff. For example, he brought the wrath of the Delaware Association of School Administrators upon himself when he claimed that “there seems to be a problem of either will or skill” among Delaware administrators that leads to an evaluation system where 99 percent of teachers are effective or better.

Christopher definitely knows better than painting any group with a broad brush. He just had a penchant for  using hyperbole to provoke important conversations about teacher and leader quality, equity, standards, and expectations. But his comments were not necessarily “crazy” because they weren’t true.

National research would suggest that some teacher evaluation ratings are inflated because administrators would rather avoid the paperwork needed to help a struggling teacher improve (will). Other studies have found that some administrators are less skilled in conducting observations and teacher evaluations (skill).

The things he said were “crazy” mostly because he said things that others know to be true but rarely say out loud. Insiders know the politics, the power brokers, the ineffective people, the stall tactics, and the system flaws that lead to mediocre results and certain kids getting a raw deal. The prevailing culture of nice just requires that such topics are only mentioned in off-the-record conversations.

So his absence means we’re all less likely to see “crazy” quotes in the paper that upset people. It also means we’re more likely to see closed door conversations emerge in the public sphere as sanitized soundbites. Except in the rare instances when decisionmakers are brazen enough to tell the truth…

Just a few months ago during a public meeting, Representative Jacques admonished the DPAS-II Advisory Committee to align with the policy he had already “shaken hands” on in a backroom deal with others in the “good old boys” network. But that did not register as a “crazy” comment among the teachers’ union, administrators’ association, district leaders, and PTA representatives on the committee. Maybe because it is the crazy they have come to know and love.

Christopher Ruszkowski: "What brings me to and keeps me in the work"

[4/25] For Our Future: This Week's Education News & More

Friends & Colleagues -

This week I bring both saddening and maddening news from Albuquerque as well as instructive new research on what it actually means when we hear of recent "teacher shortages." I also share the latest U.S. public high school rankings and a helpful podcast about the forthcoming clarity coming to school finances.

I've taken the liberty of adding every email list recipient directly to the MailChimp listserv so you'll automatically receive an email anytime a new post is created. If you'd like to be removed simply click "Unsubscribe" near the bottom of the email or send an email to seth.saavedra@50can.org. Please continue to share the blog and these biweekly updates. Here's this week's round up:

  • [LOCAL: NEWS] With APS cutting both middle school sports and the much needed K-3 Plus program from 10 schools, we have to wonder how the district's $1.3 billion budget is being spent? Times are tough across the state and we're all figuring out how to tighten our belts. After rolling over nearly $8 million in Title I dollars and with $81 million in cash reserves, why is APS eliminating crucial services provided to the very kids we need to be our future community and business leaders?
  • [NATIONAL: RESEARCH] While national news reports of teacher shortages have surged as of late, Stanford's Tom Dee and the University of Washington's Dan Goldhaber have issued a recent report with a more nuanced view: “... these challenges appear to be concentrated in specific high-need subjects such as special education and STEM ... and in hard-to-staff schools.” As with most of our hardest to solve problems, we benefit from getting into the weeds on the issue and as specific as possible in developing solutions.
  • [NATIONAL: NEWS] The 2017 national public high school rankings from U.S. News and World Report are out. Here's what I found notable:
    • For the first time ever, a majority of the top ten high schools are public charter schools;
    • There's something special happening in Arizona with half of the top ten (and seven of the top 25) schools based next-door to New Mexico;
    • BASIS.ed, a public charter school network, runs the top three high schools in the nation and five of the top seven;
    • New Mexico doesn't have a school in the top 100, 200 or 300. The Albuquerque Institute of Math and Science (AIMS) is our top-rated public high school and ranks as #314 nationally; and
    • Of the 37 New Mexico schools ranked in 2017, two earned gold medals, five earned silver and 30 received bronze medals.
  • [NATIONAL: PODCAST] For all the undue focus we put on the inputs of education (training,, finances, facilities, etc.) we rarely get a clear picture of how dollars are spent at the school-level. Well, that's about to change thanks to a sleeper provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which requires state education agencies to report exactly what districts spend on each of their schools. Marguerite Roza, a research professor at Georgetown University and director of its Edunomics Lab, talks about this change which she wrote about in a recent post on the EdNext blog entitled “With New Data, School Finance is Coming out of the Dark Ages.”

[4/12] For Our Future: This Week's Education News & More

Friends & Colleagues -

Spring has sprung, as has education news from across New Mexico and the country. This week I'm providing independent analysis and a summary table of U.S. News' recently released New Mexico school rankings. While there are certainly some highlights, the report is another reminder of the tough and necessary work ahead. Here's the latest round up:

  • [LOCAL] The governor and NMPED have made tough compromises on our statewide teacher evaluation system, NM Teach, including:
    • Doubling the number of sick / personal days teachers can take before it affects their evaluation from three to six;
    • Student test results now reflect 35% of a teacher's evaluation, down from 50%; and
    • Classroom observations are now 35% of a teacher's evaluation, up from 25%.

While the changes in and of themselves are common-sense and reflect the latest research on incorporating student data into evaluations, that our evaluation system remains unwritten into law is worrisome. We are well past the need to codify our approach into law and move the discussion forward to how we evolve the system over time, not whether we should have one at all.

  • [LOCAL] Leadership New Mexico member Scott Turner issues a call to action for New Mexico to expect and do better for our students.
  • [LOCAL] U.S. News has released their 2017 rankings of best high schools in New Mexico. While side-by-side comparisons must always be contextualized, the fact that 4 out of the top 10 schools are public charters is noteworthy. Especially in a state where there are roughly the same number of APS elementary schools as there are charter schools across the entire state. See below for a summary table I've created and some quick analysis:
    • There is large alignment between the rankings and our school grades with 8 of 10 being "A" schools;
    • The top three high schools are relatively small with enrollments of 614, 340 and 69 total students, respectively;
    • There are alarming gaps between low-income students and their peers; see the "LIC Proficient" and "Gap" columns; and
    • We still have far to go; only the top three schools have "College Readiness" scores of 50 or higher and only Cottonwood Classical is above 80.
  • [NATIONAL] Here's a nifty and brief reminder from The 74 Million, including a 2-minute video, explaining what exactly charters schools (publicly funded but independently operated schools that are open to all children and tuition-free) are and are not.
  • [NATIONAL] While we don’t all agree on the future of education and the best ways to get there, we must still interact with one another respectfully. That’s my view which is shared by a bipartisan coalition of two dozen education leaders who have published a white paper providing guidelines on how to forge a “productive dialogue” on race, social justice and education reform.
2017 New Mexico U.S. News High School Rankings

[3/28] For Our Future: This Week's News & More

Friends & Colleagues -

As you may’ve noticed, I’ve adjusted the frequency of these updates to every other week to ensure I’m including only meaningful information and news. The readership of www.nmeducation.org continues to grow. Please continue to share the blog and these now biweekly updates. Here's this week's round up:

  • [LOCAL: NEWS] Now that the 60-day legislative session has concluded we find ourselves with time to catch our collective breath as we await word on the potential of a special session. With some conversation about shortening the school day to save money we see the continued need for our elected leaders to make decisions in the best interests of our students while also keeping in mind the long-term health of our state.
  • [LOCAL: ACTION] As shared previously, New Mexico’s state plan for ESSA (here's the eight-page executive summary), is open for public comment. Take 10-15 minutes to complete the survey and to speak up on behalf of our students. Now is not the time to look backwards. We must maintain a high bar of expectations for not only our students, but our schools, districts and teachers as well. Let’s improve policy where needed but with a constant eye towards what will best prepare our students for 21st century careers.
  • [NATIONAL: NEWS] Across the U.S. more there are more than 40 cities where charter schools serve more than 20% of local students. As we consider what the future growth of charter schools looks like in New Mexico, Neerav Kingsland lays out five roles cities can play: Implode, Compete Coordinate & Collaborate, Blur the Lines or Govern.
  • [NATIONAL: NEWS] High school graduation rates are on the rise across the U.S. and here in New Mexico as well. While on the surface this seems to be a positive development, a deeper look reveals that high school graduation increasingly does not equate to workforce or college readiness. In an increasingly knowledge-driven economy, the research is clear that most people (~80%) need a post-secondary education to land a decent job. While many states have lowered the criteria for high school graduation, New Mexico is seeing all-time highs in graduation rates, while still raising requirements. Though we continue to lag behind much of the nation, our growth is promising.

[3/14] For Our Future: This Week's Education News & More

Friends & Colleagues - 

In the spirit of iterating and innovating, I've renamed the weekly update to "For Our Future: This Week's Education News & More". The weekly post/newsletter will also come out on Tuesday's instead of Friday's as I had several readers provide helpful feedback. Please keep that input coming, both positive and critical.

The focus remains the same: a short list of education news and what I'm working on, reading, listening to, debating or wondering, with an emphasis on applying non-education field ideas and paradigms onto education, particularly here in New Mexico. And here's this week's round up:

  • [LOCAL] Two keys pieces of education legislation have moved forward in the Capitol:
    • SJM01 which calls for a working group to study alternative student assessment models aligned with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has cleared the Senate and passed House Education. Now to the House floor. My call on this is we'll need to keep tabs on the study, with an eye towards equity and maintaining high academic standards for all our students.
    • HJR01, which I wrote about here, has cleared the House and sits in the Senate. As I wrote before, more money in and of itself won't have lasting, positive impact on Early Childhood Education in New Mexico. We must ensure we spend current and additional funds in impactful and research-backed ways. I don't see that yet with HJR01.
  • [LOCAL] With NMPED recently announcing our state plan for ESSA (here's the eight-page executive summary), the corresponding survey for public comment has gone live. I'll be writing more about our ESSA plan in the coming week. In the meantime check out these two stakeholder reports on what New Mexican's want from our plan from New Mexico First and Learning Alliance New Mexico. What's clear from both reports is New Mexican's want to better prepare our students for the modern economy and support the teachers and schools already doing this hard, necessary work.
  • [NATIONAL] Last week, by a one vote margin, the U.S. Senate struck down the strongest accountability rules in ESSA. One of the ironies here is that of the 40 removed ESSA rules, about half of those provided states more flexibility around things such as student achievement goals, data collection/reporting and interventions for struggling schools. Ensuring our state ESSA plan remains focused on students and best practices now falls to us as local advocates and citizens.
  • [NATIONAL] The NYTimes reports on the crucial though often neglected role of school principals in discussions about public education: "Tom Boasberg, Denver’s superintendent, puts it this way: 'Your ability to attract and keep good teachers and your ability to develop good teachers, in an unbelievably challenging and complex profession, is so dependent on your principals.' Most other knowledge-based professions, he added, pay more attention to grooming leaders than education does."