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.

Poverty & New Mexico's State Charter Schools

This is the fourth 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 three parts here, here, and here.

For this fourth installation, I shift focus to state charters, where we find a different story yet again. Looking at schools above the state FRL average of 67.92 percent, we find eight "A/B"s - three "A"s and five "B"s, serving a total of 1,481 students. Let that sink in. When looking at high FRL populations, state charters, with less than 5 percent of all New Mexico students, have more students in "A/B" seats than districts, which account for the remaining 94 percent. That should stagger you to read.

Again, charters are no panacea, but the data suggests we have many which are drawing new realities for our neediest students. Below are all state charters above the state median FRL.

State Charters Above NM Median FRL

Among these lighthouse schools (as I like to call them as they beckon us to new shores) is Mission Achievement and Success (MAS) in Albuquerque. With over 800 students, MAS is the second largest "A" LEA and also has 93.70 percent FRL. (Los Alamos is the largest LEA to earn an "A", though is far less diverse than NM at large and has an FRL rate of 16 percent.) Not only that, 84 percent of MAS students identify as American Indian, African American, or Hispanic. See that lone blue line at the top left? That's MAS, which has received both national and local attention recently.

As the founder and principal JoAnn Mitchell will tell you, there is no "secret sauce" to their success. Rather, much like T or C, there is a focus on a set of core values and commitment to results:

  1. Provide teachers high-quality, data-driven professional development;

  2. Hire teachers with a desire to teach and to continuously learn;

  3. Set and uphold a positive learning culture with high expectations for students;

  4. Embrace the struggle - not everything comes easy, growth comes from adversity; and

  5. Hard work is the baseline - teachers and students commit to longer school days.

JoAnn and her staff will tell you that MAS isn't for every student or teacher. That's the point. Schools shouldn't be built to regress to the mean or teach to the lowest common denominator. We know many of our students require varied learning experiences and programs many districts can't, don't, or won't provide.

Responding to the specific needs of their students, while also holding high expectations, MAS has longer days and provides three meals a day to all students. All this in an environment where charter schools receive much less per student than districts. Yet, we see the Legislative Finance Committee constantly seek to strip funding and resources from these types of schools in order to score cheap political points. In fact, at the December 7th LFC meeting I heard several members make ill-informed claims about funding for charter schools. And, yes, I have the receipts on who said what.

As a leader, I share with staff and students alike that we always need to take a moment to celebrate our successes but we cannot linger in the moment for too long because we know there is more work to be done, and after all each success simply provides us the confidence and the fuel needed to forge ahead to the next.
— JoAnn Mitchell, Founder & Principal of MAS in Albuquerque

The staff at MAS are also clear about where they want to improve. With reading and math proficiencies below 50 percent, they see ample opportunities to raise the bar. This is what most excites me. While students at MAS have growth rates well beyond other schools in New Mexico, there is still a deep commitment to continuous improvement. Laurels are not rested upon here.

You won't hear, "Well, 94 percent of our kids are poor so they shouldn't be reading or doing math." That sort of prejudiced thinking drives me up the wall. Rather at MAS I hear staff say they are proud of their work, but are even more excited about the progress ahead.

We often say at MAS that this cycle [of learning and improvement] is not sexy or glamorous, instead it tedious and mundane, but the results lie here. They come through the commitment to continuous improvement. There is a difference between interest and commitment and we believe this. When you are interested in something, you do it when it’s convenient; when you are committed, you do it long after the interest is gone. You accept no excuses, only results. At MAS we are committed to our results for students.
— JoAnn Mitchell, Founder & Principal of MAS in Albuquerque

Huge kudos to MAS and their staff for helping prove that demographics aren't destiny and that those who say poor children can't learn are dead wrong. New Mexico needs to replicate more homegrown schools like MAS and focused districts like T or C. The good news? Recently the PEC approved MAS to open a second school site in the fall of 2018. This means hundreds more students will have the opportunity attend a school that believes in their potential and helps them fulfill it.

I commend the PEC for their landmark decision to expand MAS. Thanks to them Albuquerque will have many more residents ready to lead lives of their own choosing, contributing to our rich culture and emerging economy. For me, the best antidote to crime is opportunity. This is precisely what schools like MAS and the Albuquerque Institute of Math & Science (AIMS) provide their students. And we need many more of them.

Obstacles to Growth

State charter school leaders face significant head winds to scaling up. State policy and statute incentivize schools to stay small. First, they are held to enrollment caps. (Even with approval for expansion, MAS faces a cap of 1100 or so students.) Second, schools are provided a "small-size adjustment" meant to help those that start out small, but which also discourages growth for fear of losing the subsidy. Lastly, and most egregiously, districts fight tooth and nail against charters to maintain their unearned monopolies over students.

Take the case of the Albuquerque Institute of Math and Science (AIMS) in Albuquerque, led by Kathy Sandoval-Snider. As told by the Albuquerque Journal, then Mayor Marty Chavez and Sandoval-Snider fought for the very existence of AIMS, first against APS and now against Rio Rancho, from the start.

All this despite AIMS being rated as one of the best high schools not only in New Mexico, but the world. AIMS is currently locked in a years-long battle to open a second campus in Rio Rancho. Why is Rio Rancho, a "B" district, so fearful of AIMS? Is the competition just that scary? Do Rio Rancho parents not deserve more options for their students? These are the farcical battles districts wage that show them to be far more interested in bottom lines than the best interests of students.

Other Stories of Hope

I also want to point out the other "A/B" state charters above the median FRL rate, including: Roots and Wings Community, Taos Academy Charter, Gilbert L Sena High, Dził Ditł'ooí School of Empowerment, Action and Perseverance (DEAP), Taos Integrated School for the Arts, Red River Valley, and Walatowa Charter High. These schools tend to serve high populations of Hispanic and American Indian students, which I commend.

I don't yet know much else about these seven schools, but am eager to learn more. DEAP and Walatowa, for example, are the only LEAs with more than 20 percent American Indian students receiving above a "C". Meanwhile Taos has not one but two schools with above average FRL (and diverse students) getting an "A" or "B". There are pockets of success all across New Mexico we should study from and build upon.

Tomorrow, this New Mexican brings this series to a close with final thoughts on how we might move forward and the battles still on our horizon.

Digging Deep: Poverty In New Mexico's Districts

This is the third in a five-part series as a follow up to my initial research on district and state charter school grades in New Mexico. Find the first and second parts here and here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No "A"s Here - Delving into Districts

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

Districts Above State Median FRL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digging Deep: The Story Behind Our State Charters

This is the second in a five-part series as a follow up to my initial research on district and state charter school grades in New Mexico. Find the first part here.

The story of state charter grades in New Mexico is of two extremes. On one end, we have an outsized number of high-performers doing well by their students. On the other end we have a large number of laggards bringing the whole lot down. What paradigms and practices do these high-performing school leaders have in place which can be shared more widely? And how do we turn over those low-performing schools to the impressive leaders of "A" schools so they may right the ship?

State charters have a much flatter distribution than districts. They receive roughly identical proportions of each letter grade and serve a total of 16,188 students. Here, 3,557 students (22 percent) attend "A" schools. State charters also have many more "F"s (13 to 2), with 6,232 (38.5 percent) of their students in "D" or "F" schools.

Of course, it is the role of NMPED and the PEC to ensure all charter schools they approve set forth ambitious goals to begin with, and then hold them accountable to achieving those goals. At any given time, every school leader should know which side of the line they stand on. If school grades are the decision-making point, then schools with the same grades need to receive the same treatment.

The data shows this isn't happening consistently enough yet. When schools with the same grade receive wildly different decisions, the recommendation to open, extend, or close a school feels like we're shaking a Magic Eight Ball. Of course, I think all schools (charter or not) should be on ambitious yet achievable performance contracts they are held accountable to, but that's for another day.

NM State Charter School Grades

We must also grapple with the reality that schools serving our most challenged student populations - often called "reengagement" or "Supplemental Accountability Model Status (SAMS)" schools - are fundamentally disadvantaged by the current grading formula. These unique schools are in need of accountability as well as a differentiated grading model that better accounts for the hardest-to-serve students they explicitly seek out.

The size of state charters schools is notable with an average population of 265 students. In fact, only two schools (Mission Achievement & Success and the soon-to-close NM Connections Academy online school) have more than 700 students. Point is this: even when schools are shattering the mythology about poor students not able to learn, it tends to be at a small scale. (I write much more about MAS and what fuels their success in the fourth part of this series tomorrow). For now it's easy to see the missed opportunities to better understand and replicate successful, local models.

Reasons for Optimism

As I've written about before, this grade distribution will soon change with two "F" state charters joining APS and four other "D" or "F" charters slated to close. I applaud the Public Education Commission (PEC) and NMPED's charter school division for holding charters accountable to providing their students a meaningful education. Students are certainly much more than data points, but what will their future hold if they don't have the skills to interpret data to begin with?

Schools, chartered or otherwise, not doing what they say they will are a disservice to their students and families. Schools are in the business of educating our children and preparing them for real-world outcomes measured by graduation rates, college attendance, employment, etc. When schools aren't doing this why then are they still in business?

Too often sentimentality and personal allegiances rule the day in New Mexico. Imagine if we took the miseducation of students as seriously as the grievances of adults running schools. Schools frequently stay open or unchanged for fear of harming the adults there. What then of the children? Aren't they too deserving of consideration?

I dig into this in parts three and four, but it's worth noting that the average FRL percentage for each grade grouping increases as you move from A to F. For example, the average FRL rate for "A"s is 40.36 percent. Meanwhile, "D" and "F" LEAs hover around 80 percent. Clearly, there is some correlation between SES and LEA grades. This is undeniable and beyond debate, but not worthy of despair.

The Challenge Ahead

Overall, New Mexico needs many more options for parents via state charters as well as better academic accountability for current and future schools. Each school needs goals specific to their students accompanied by consistent and transparent tracking towards these goals by the PEC and NMPED. And we need to shed our fear of closing failing schools. This requires better planning to responsibly transition those schools to more capable hands. Communities often revolve around their local school. This need not be an excuse to leave these schools under demonstrably poor leadership.

New Mexico has high levels of poverty. And poorer kids need extra resources and support (though often receive less) that their more affluent peers receive either inherently at home or explicitly at school. Even when money is available, districts often do a terrible job of delivering those resources in a timely fashion, if at all. The quagmire of district bureaucracy is prohibitive to the extra counselors, instructional time, and health services poor children require. Providing these resources effectively requires new ways of thinking, which is often the central work of charter schools.

The question then becomes, how do we better serve the needs of these students? Money of course matters, but in a state that is 36th in spending and 49th in student achievement, that's not the full story. Tomorrow and Thursday I explore the intersection of socioeconomics on LEA grades, and where we find some beacons of hope.