New Mexico Leading the Charge on Teacher Support & Evaluation

New Mexico is leading the nation in developing a teacher evaluation system that is fair to both teachers and communities; an inevitable tension in this hard work. We should be proud of what we’ve built and have the fortitude to keep building on that foundation. In doing so we will continue to lead the nation and serve as models of what’s possible.

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Are Schools Meant to Be Gardens or Construction Sites?

by Seth Saavedra │Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

This past holiday weekend I had time to catch up on what had become an intimidating backlog of podcasts.


Being the education nerd I am, "Kinder-Gardening" from Hidden Brain caught my eye. It's a rich thirty minutes that left me questioning my world views on education and child rearing.


In the episode, host Shankar Vedantam interviews author and professor Alison Gopnik of UC Berkeley. In her most recent book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, she seeks to answer a question at the heart of raising children, which we now call "parenting".

What Is Parenting? And How Important Is It?


The term "parenting" didn't enter our lexicon until the late 1960s and early 1970s. From there, its usage has grown exponentially.


The title of her book stems from an extended metaphor about the relationship between parents and children.

For "carpenters", children are raw materials we shape and build into a final form. "The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you're going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult," she says.

"Gardeners", meanwhile, are less concerned with having a direct hand in who or what a child becomes. Rather, they focus on building a nurturing soil bed for them to grow from and explore. Gardeners aim to create "a rich, nurturant but also variable, diverse, dynamic ecosystem."

A world where parents are more obsessed than ever on a results-driven approach to parenting, she argues, is also bad science. Citing studies, experiments, and anecdotes from her own grandchildren, Gopnik makes the case that children learn best by observing a wide variety of people.

“From the point of view of evolution, trying to consciously shape how your children will turn out is both futile and self-defeating.” Though knowing this doesn't make it any easier for parents to avoid doing so.

The Limits of Binary Metaphor

I found the metaphor of the carpenter versus the gardener interesting, even if reductive. Rarely are we "this or that" and the oppositional nature of binaries leads to a lot of finger pointing.

The reality is there are few controlling parents singularly focused on turning their children into only engineers or CEOs. And how many parents are truly “gardeners”, accepting a laissez-faire approach no matter the number of unavoidable hardships their child must endure?

Most parents exist on a spectrum between the two. And whether they are gardening or building depends on the child and the moment. As it should be.

Schools, Race, and Class


Graham Roumieu // New York Times


Gopnik spends some time writing about the impacts of race and class on her findings. She cites early-years interventions: children who have access to early childhood education or provided home-visit support “grow up to be healthier and have higher incomes”.

She expresses concern that schools, like parents, are overly focused on "outcomes" such as test scores and college going. Of course, this is the same straw man argument I most often see from college-educated White intellectuals who've already garnered the benefits of those privileges. And who want the same for their own children.

If we picture schools as only gardens or construction sites, we've hamstrung the conversation from the start. Schools must be both. They need to be places where children play, explore, and discover the multitudes of the world around them.

Schools must also provide scaffolding and tools to shape young minds. Students need to see multiple blueprints for themselves, particularly in a world more reliant than ever on them being professional chameleons with a wide variety of skills.

Yes, too many poor students and students of color in America exist in anemic soil, without all the necessary nutrients to be their best selves. Yet they also suffer from anemic thinking and belief in what they can become. Both are dangerous to their young minds.

A Plurality of Schools

Different students need different mixes of gardening and carpentry. This is why we need more diversity in the types of schools and the approaches offered.

Some students thrive in rigorous, college-prep environments with piles of homework. Others learn best through hands-on projects and apprenticeships. Our current systems offer too little of both.

The point, which Gopnik doesn't quite get to, is that students are widely varied and diverse. Parenting matters but not as much as we might think. And schools have yet to match the spectrum of student needs, reaching for the middle instead of offering better options.

Our students, especially poor ones, need many gardeners and carpenters in their lives. And also unwavering belief in what they are capable of, no matter the garden bed they've grown from.

New Mexico Graduation Rates: Our Future is Hispanic

by Seth Saavedra │Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

This is the fifth in my series exploring graduation rates in New Mexico. Have topic suggestions? Shoot me a message or tweet.

Know Yourself

What does it mean to be "Hispanic" in these United States? In New Mexico? And what exactly is "Hispanic" and how do I know if I'm one?

I don't ask these questions to be rhetorical or cheeky. These have been, and are, the subconscious backdrop of my mind. As soon as I move past providing my name and address I know what's coming:


Source: U.S. Census Survey


Confusing me even further, I lived in California for a decade. Here I first became a Latino, then Latino/a, before being told I'm actually "Latinx". "Multi-racial" it is. I now embrace the ambiguity.

Fine, I'll be whatever you need me to be. Let me be your distorted reflection - the wavy image you recognize mostly for the parts that don't look like you. To my White friends, I'm definitely not White. To my Brown friends, not that Brown.


Now that I've moved back to New Mexico where nearly half of us identify as Hispanic, and even more of us, regardless of skin tone, have an "x" or "z" in our last name. A semantic genealogical party I'm excluded from.


Source: New Mexico's Indicator-Based Information System (NMBIS)


Keep the Family Close

With 61 percent of New Mexico's 337,485 public school students identified as Hispanic, they are our mean. As go our Hispanic students, as goes public education. Same with poor students, as 71 percent of students here qualify for free or reduced lunch.


2017 New Mexico's 4-Year Graduation Rates


The future well-being of The Land of Enchantment is quantitatively and intricately tied to the success of our Hispanic students.

Increasingly, this is the story of America too. With three times as many Hispanic students as teachers, both groups face headwinds. This reality remains: we can't make progress as a state without students that look like me doing better. 


Hispanic American Growth Abounds

Source: Pew Research Center


My Old Flex Is My New Flex Now

We know graduation rates are in imperfect proxy for student achievement. There are schools with 85 percent graduation rates yet have less than 5 percent of students on level for math - and less than 15 percent for reading.

Even so, graduation rates are a helpful measure in understanding how schools are serving their students. Diplomas still mean something as a signal to the employment market. For now. Let's see how our Hispanic students do in graduating high school.

First, Interact

As usual, I ask that you explore the data yourself. Below is a bar chart that includes every public high school with graduation data in New Mexico. Find the high school you went to. Look up the school your student, nephew, grandchild, or sibling goes to. Or the one your future child might attend. Don't be shy.

Chronic Underperformers

We have no fewer than 57 high schools with Hispanic graduation rates 10 points or more below the statewide average of 70.5 percent. In fact, we have 33 high schools that are 20 points or more under that average. This is injustice before our eyes. This is institutional racism in action.


Gadsden, Las Cruces, and Truth or Consequences Stand Out. Again.

With all their Hispanic students beating the statewide graduation average, these districts down south are getting impressive results. This should be no surprise as I've written about all three previously. My observation is that strong leadership plus a commitment to excellence for all students are shared traits.


Look What You've Done

Strictly by the current numbers of Hispanic students - much less their anticipated growth - our future is Brown. We as a state and country cannot improve educational outcomes without better reaching Hispanic students.

This will require more Hispanic teachers, high-quality dual language programs, culturally relevant curriculum, and higher expectations in and of Hispanic communities. We know it's possible and, given Mexican food's triumph over American cuisine, there is latent craving for our culture and people.

New Mexico Graduation Rates: The Duke City

by Seth Saavedra │Wednesday, March 6th, 2018

This is the third in a month long series exploring graduation rates in New Mexico. Have topic suggestions? Shoot me a message or tweet.

Oh, Albuquerque my hometown. For better and worse, you occupy prime real estate in the conversation about New Mexico education. With Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) as our second biggest employer (behind Kirtland Air Force Base) and with a $1.34 billion dollar budget, 142 schools, and 1 in 4 of the state's students, this makes some sense.

What makes less sense is that, instead of being the place where innovation thrives and scales, we are more often known as the place where good ideas come to die, or at least whither away. We are the place many of our best and brightest move away from. Despite all our beauty and diversity, we have a fundamental disbelief in ourselves.

These sentiments ring true in public education too. We lag the state average in nearly every graduation measure. A state average, mind you, which is often worst or second worst in the country. We struggle to get out of our own way. To define new paths and eschew failed ideas. We have four excuses for every problem.


APS vs. New Mexico Statewide Averages


Despite this, some of the best schools in the state and nation are in Albuquerque. Some of these standouts are APS schools. Many are state charters. Sadly, many more chronically underserve their students year after year. Below is graduation data for every public high school in Albuquerque:


Our Best High Schools Are Schools of Choice

Twenty three ABQ high schools outperform the state in graduating all their students. Out of this select group, 16 (!) are charters or other schools of choice. Even more astounding: nine out of the top ten highs schools in Albuquerque are schools of choice.


Top 10 Albuquerque High Schools Vs. The State Average


Charters Still Have A Ways to Go

Albuquerque is currently home to 51 high schools. Of those, 15 are overseen by the state (NMPED/PEC) and 12 by APS. That leaves 24 non-charter high schools in APS, ranging from specialized (College and Career High School) to re-engagement (New Futures) to traditional, comprehensive campuses most students attend.

As you see below, these three groups have quite varied results. Some of our best high schools are charters, as are some of the lowest performing. Variation in performance isn't surprising, as charter models are, by their very nature, diverse. What shouldn't happen is the continued operation of schools that fail to live up to their promise, griping about what's not possible, and proving it.


This dynamic shifts next school year as three of the lowest performing state charters (ACE Leadership, Health Leadership, and Technology Leadership – all part of the Leadership Schools Network) become APS charters. Two other state charters will see change with the high-performing Cottonwood Classical Preparatory moving to APS and Academy of Trades & Technology likely to shut its doors after being rejected by the state and APS.

I wrote about this previously (here and here) and my expectations are the same: ALL schools should prepare EVERY child for life, career, and/or college. We shall see if APS's willingness to take in these schools pays off for their students (as I hope it does) or is simply the placation of adults at the expense of students. We shall see.

Native Students Doing Well In Larger High Schools

The statewide graduation rate for Native students is a heartbreaking 61%. In APS, it's an appalling 54.6%. Despite this, there are eight schools in APS outperforming the state. Of these, five surpass the state average by double digits and beat the overall graduation rate of 71.1%. If you're the parent of a Native student in Albuquerque, you'd do well to check out one of the schools below.


Hispanic Students Learn Most At Schools of Choice

For Hispanic students, the statewide graduation rate is 70.5%, just below the "all student" rate. Again, Albuquerque comes in under the state average at 65.80% for Hispanic students. The good news: there are 22 schools here outperforming the state. Of those, 11 are above 80% for Hispanic students. A whopping nine of those 11 are schools of choice: charter or magnet schools of some type.

The terrible news: Nineteen schools are at least 20 points under the state average for Hispanic students - with 50% or less of them graduating in four years. All 19 are schools of choice. Let that sink in and then ask yourself: Do we really need 19 different schools (in a district that's 67% Hispanic) graduating less than 50% of their Hispanic students? Seems to me these schools create many problems and solve very few.


Similar Story for Economically Disadvantaged Students

Akin to Hispanic students, poor students are both best and worst served by schools of choice. In fact, the lists are nearly identical. How is it we have so many schools doing amazing things for Hispanic and poor students AND so many doing the exact opposite?

Whenever someone intimates we don't know how to educate these populations, pull up this graph and ask them how they interpret it. Are these schools incredibly lucky, or unlucky, year in and year out? Or have some schools risen to the challenge, moved beyond hurtful preconceptions, and tackled the opportunity head on?


There are many exciting high school options for students in Albuquerque. Many schools I wish had been here 20 years ago. Yet not much else has changed in the past two decades, or forty years. Instead of leading the state, we drag our feet.

And what's most painful isn't that, despite an annual budget of $1.3 billion dollars, we continue to trail the entire state. No, it's that we've already figured out some of our hardest problems. We have schools proving what's possible. Here. Already. What's lacking is the courage to fundamentally restructure systems.

We tinker at the edges, maintaining adult comfort as the top priority, instead of student learning. We are complacent. But our students don't have time to waste. Every lost day of learning matters. I'm optimistic, but furious. You should be too.

New Mexico Graduation Rates: What Rural Districts Can Teach Us

by Seth Saavedra │Friday, March 2nd, 2018

This is the second in a month long series exploring graduation rates in New Mexico. Have topic suggestions? Shoot me a message or tweet.

While I consider myself a Burqueño through and through, the full answer is more complex.

By and large I grew up in urban, multi-storied Section 8 apartments, provided by the Albuquerque Housing Authority. I grew up riding the city bus and trading food stamps for cash, the life of a city kid. Some summers, though, I went north to my step-grandpa's place in Aztec, New Mexico.

A sprawling ranch may spring to mind. The reality consisted of a double-wide trailer situated on an indebted (and eventually repossessed) few acres. To my wonderment, there was satellite television. The kind that streamed to an eight-foot dish parked like a Statue of Liberty replica in the front yard. Watching Nickelodeon felt extravagant.

I'd feed animals, shovel the resulting product, and spend countless hours wading through cattails on the ditch bank.


My grandpa was a poor roughneck from Estancia who spent innumerable hours in his pickup traveling between diners, rodeos, and tack shops. He was a no nonsense cowboy who saw the world in black and white - and who'd do anything for his family.

His casket fit snuggly into a horse trailer on its way to the cemetery. Playing at his service, Garth Brooks' Rodeo captured perfectly the joys and pains of his life.

After my parents separated we moved in with my grandparents for a bit and I attended school in Aztec. I remember wearing cowboy boots, wanting to fit in. Ropes and spurs were what the cool kids had in small town life.

This rural sort of scene describes more districts than not in New Mexico: Out of our 89 school districts, 51 have less than 1000 students. Nearly 40 districts have fewer than 500 students, or about 40 students per grade.

Use the interactive graph below to see where these districts are across New Mexico:


About 18,000 students live in these 51 districts. And while larger districts get more attention (and money), there is much to learn from smaller districts. Students in these places are often just as poor and diverse, bringing similar challenges to school as their urban peers. To wit, it is well-documented that America's opioid epidemic is ravaging rural communities.

Smaller districts face unique challenges with technology and transportation, with bumpy bus rides of an hour each way not that uncommon. Yet there remains an undiscovered beauty beyond our biggest cities with small town school boards and superintendents able to innovate in absence of the immovable bureaucracy that plagues Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

As I did with New Mexico's ten largest districts, below is what stood out as I dug into graduation rates for districts with 1000 students and less. These communities are quite diverse and different, but for my purposes I've grouped them together for analysis.

Overall Rural Districts Outperform the State

In the aggregate, and for most subgroups, these 51 districts are doing better than the rest of the state. For example, out of the 36 districts with enough Hispanic students to report (some districts don't reach the reporting threshold), 24 graduate a higher percentage. For poor students, its 31 of 39 doing better. See for yourself:


A Number of Districts Standout

As I touched on previously, there is clustering of "A/B" districts on the east side of the state. Many of these same districts are part of Regional Education Cooperative 6 and stand out for their graduation rates. These include Dora (252 students), Elida (138), Grady (134), Loving (535), and Texico (567). Some are single school districts while others have three and four schools.


Dulce & Magdalena Doing Well For Native Students

Despite having earned unimpressive grades of "F" and "D", respectively, Dulce and Magdalena graduate their American Indian students at 20+ percentage points above the state average. Both perform well across all categories but still struggle with low proficiency rates. Hopefully they can build on their success in graduation rates to improve student learning as well.

Twenty Three Districts Defying Doubt of Poor Students

Just under two dozen districts beat the state average for Economically Disadvantaged students by more than 10%. They disprove the myth that poor kids can't learn - or that "we don't know how to teach them". These districts prove demography mustn't be destiny. In fact, in a state with as many poor students as we have, we can't let this myth live on any longer.


Outliers for Hispanic Students Exist Too

Seventeen districts reach that impressive 10% above median range for their Hispanic students. Ranging from Springer to Hagerman, these districts reach beyond narrow, complacent views and demonstrate what should be obvious: all students are capable of learning, but not all schools are capable of teaching them.


It's time we move beyond outliers and expect that all districts in every part of the state teach every child every day.

Our rural districts span a wide range of diversity and size. We are remiss to ignore them. As I've found through this analysis, many of them get impressive results for ALL their students. And they might teach the behemoth districts along the river a thing or two about what it takes.

New Mexico Graduation Rates: What's Going On In Our Ten Largest Districts?

by Seth Saavedra │Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

This is the first in a month long series exploring graduation rates in New Mexico. Have suggestions for topics or questions? Shoot me a message or tweet.

What does it mean to graduate from high school nowadays? With increasing graduation rates nationwide, alongside declining proficiencies in numerous cases, many of us in education have wondered what earning a high school diploma means for modern high school graduates? What does a diploma signify in New Mexico in 2018?

There is meaningful debate about what it means (or should mean) to graduate high school, touching on everything from performance on standardized tests to practical demonstrations of learning. Less contentious is this unassailable reality: a high school diploma remains the primary gateway into the middle class, and to a life of rich opportunity. For better or worse, a diploma is the final demonstration of value created by K-12 education.

I say this as a person without one of those embossed pieces of paper. I left high school one and a half credits shy of the finish line. I meandered a bit for a few years before finally getting my GED and starting community college. Looking back, I wish I had graduated with my fellow Knights.

The path without a high school diploma is, without question, harder. Many jobs require a diploma. Colleges and universities too, or at least the equivalent. Perhaps more damaging, the sense of shame and discouragement I felt took years to recover from. I ultimately turned those feelings into a positive, but many never bounce back. They wear what is largely systemic failure as a badge of personal dishonor.

New Mexico's 2017 Graduation Rates




Last Friday the New Mexico Public Education Department released statewide graduation rates for 2017. The highlights include:

  • The overall rate remained flat at 71.1% (the U.S. rate is 84%);
  • While Hispanic students have made progress, at 70.5% they remain 6% behind their White peers;
  • American Indian students lost ground since last year, coming in at 61%;
  • Economically Disadvantage students lag behind by 4.5% as well; and
  • The last seven years show significant progress in every student group, including double-digits gains for students with disabilities, English learners, Hispanic and underprivileged students.

SOURCE: Albuquerque Journal


As someone obsessive about equity in education, I find these persistent gaps troubling yet unsurprising. And while the merits of using high school graduation rates as proxies for learning is suspect, what makes them particularly useful at the state level is exploring variances in district and school rates.

Our Largest Districts

My first instinct is to see how our largest districts performed. With about 220,000 students in the ten largest districts, this accounts for about two-thirds of all students in The Land of Enchantment. If you're a student in New Mexico, chances are you're in Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, Gadsden, Gallup, Farmington, Roswell, Hobbs, or Los Lunas. Albuquerque alone is home to 1 out of every 4 students.


I'll spend time looking at our many, many rural districts in later posts but below is what catches my attention for these ten districts.

Gadsden Continues to Impress

Outperforming the state in nearly every measure, the southern bordertown continues to earn its reputation for doing great things for their predominantly poor and Hispanic students. The results are impressive.


Hobbs, Las Cruces & Rio Rancho Lead the Pack

These districts outperform the state on EVERY measure, deserving of high praise. Rio Rancho beats the state average for American Indian Students by nearly 20%. Las Cruces outpaces the state by double digits in every category but one. Hobbs stands out for graduating their Economically Disadvantaged students at a rate higher than the overall statewide average.


Albuquerque, Farmington, Roswell & Santa Fe Lag Behind

All four of these districts trail the state in all measures but one or two. Santa Fe's and Farmington's rates for Students with Disabilities and African American students are appalling. Albuquerque's neglect of American Indian students continues. In Roswell, it's White students trailing by 10%. These four enroll 130,000 students and underserve nearly all of them.

Gallup & Los Lunas Show A Mixed Bag

While Gallup-McKinley beats the state average for American Indian students by 4%, their White and Female students lag behind. In Los Lunas, Native students outperform by 17.5% (surpassing White students statewide), yet African American students and English Learners underperform the state.

Next I'll take a look at our more rural districts, differences we see in district and charter schools, and explore which schools and districts are doing the most for our traditionally underserved populations. And PLEASE send topic ideas my way.

[1/18] For Our Future: This Week's Education News & More

Friends & Colleagues -

And we're off. Our 2018 legislative session kicked off Tuesday with Governor Martinez's eighth and final State of the State address. (Full text of her speech here.) Unsurprisingly, given her long history of tough rhetoric on the topic, she had a lot to say about education. While there is plenty to be both optimistic (statewide graduation rate of 71%) and skeptical (we still trail the U.S. average by 13 points) about, the central question seems to be how, not if, New Mexico will spend the extra money from our current oil and gas boom on education?

There's lots of talk, as there has been for the last eights years, about House Joint Resolution 1 which calls for hundreds of millions to increase early childhood education. I'll also keep my eye on the proposed 2 percent pay raise for teachers, 1 percent raise for all non-teaching school staff (well deserved for both groups), and a potential $5,000 bonus for "exemplary" and STEM teachers, which is backed by a recent report from the Feds. The Gov also called for "a firm cap on the portion of a school district’s budget used for administrative expenses" stemming from Think New Mexico's recent research. As this is a 30-day session, the action will need to be fast and furious.

The growing consensus is that most of our extra dollars must go to education, where the budget is still more than 10 percent less than pre-2008 levels. I'd love to see:

  1. Increased investment in high-quality early childhood education,
  2. Competitive grants for districts (both rural and urban) to innovate, and
  3. Ample dollars for proven school models (like that of Mission Achievement and Success I've written about) to expand and share their work.

[LOCAL: NEWS] AP Classes Reach Historic High in NM. In 2017, 19,526 NM students enrolled in AP classes and sat for about 17,000 exams in all 38 subjects offered. Though I see we still need focused efforts on expanding access and performance for low-income students. The high schools behind this surge tend to be more affluent, including Los Alamos, Rio Rancho, and La Cueva and Eldorado in Albuquerque. This year NMPED asked for a one million dollar increase in fee waivers for eligible students, which about 5,000 students utilized last year.

Screenshot 2018-01-17 13.25.40.png

[LOCAL: RESEARCH] NM Voices for Children Releases "2017 Kids Count Data Book". The Albuquerque-based non-profit released this annual report in conjunction with the national Annie E. Casey Foundation. The education section begins on page 44 and includes district-level enrollment, free-lunch, proficiency, attendance, and graduation stats. Given the makeup of the board and staff for Voices, I was pleasantly surprised to see the report parrot this line nearly verbatim from Gov. Martinez's SOTS address: "this year 4,100 more New Mexico kids will benefit from NM Pre-K than did five years ago". While this report is light on policy recommendations, it is a helpful baseline of the challenges we continue to face in education and beyond.

[LOCAL: RESEARCH] NMSU College of Ed Issues Teacher Vacancy Report. I'm a tad behind on this, but in mid-November Dr. Karen Trujillo at the STEM Outreach Alliance Research (SOAR) lab released this research. While there has been alarm about New Mexico being second in teacher turnover, this report reveals important nuances. Here are some highlights:

  • There are currently 673 educator vacancies in New Mexico. This includes certified teachers, counselors, administrators, and support providers such as speech pathologists and social workers;
Screenshot 2018-01-17 14.00.48.png
  • As expected, the need varies by region in the state. Central New Mexico has a bulk of openings, though there is a 36% increase in the Southeast and a 32% increase in the Northwest compared to 2016;
Screenshot 2018-01-17 14.10.12.png
  • A vast preponderance of openings are in Elementary and Special Education (SPED). "Approximately 4,910 elementary students are being taught by a long-term substitute." Additionally, "SPED teachers account for 223 or 46% of all teacher openings, up from 35% last year, [and] account for 54% of posted vacancies"; and
Screenshot 2018-01-17 14.08.22.png
  • Completion of education programs from 4-year institutions is down, while those of 2-year programs is up. Basically, alternative licensure is on the rise here in New Mexico and nationwide. There is a 27.7% decrease in the number of completers from 4-year universities over the past six years and a 94% increase in 2-year completers.

We have the facts, but what will we do about them? How do we incentivize meaningful, yet streamlined training and licensure for aspiring SPED and elementary teachers? Not having a degree in Education shouldn't be a firewall for aspiring teachers (something Sen. Griggs tried to address in SB 114 last year), but we also can't throw unprepared folks, regardless of their prior professional experience, into the classroom. How do we encourage more high-performing teachers to move into these positions? Education is projected to be our "second fastest growing industry from 2012-2022 with an increase of 23.8%." Let's proactively wrap our heads and arms around the likely challenges now.

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.