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Reform is worth discomfort

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SKANDERA Hanna 2014Just over a year ago, a gentle grandma from Bernalillo was the first to point out to me that perhaps we’ve reached a tipping point in New Mexico.

To paraphrase her words, “I know a lot is changing in our schools, and I also know that for the first time in my life everyone in New Mexico is talking about education at the dinner table.” This is exciting, but even more so is the recognition that we are moving from awareness to action when it comes to education.

From the father who stopped to talk with me at Target, to the airline associate at the Sunport, to many others, support for reform is the message being delivered. It’s an exciting time in our state – we are moving from education awareness to action, something that one famous author called “the tipping point.”

In 2013, the students, teachers, and parents of New Mexico gave us a lot to talk about. The graduation rate in our state shot up from 63 percent to 70 percent in a single year, with our minority students making double the gains of their Anglo counterparts.

We set a standard for what it takes to graduate in New Mexico, and our high school students responded with the highest scores since we started keeping track and the largest improvements ever achieved. In some cases, students gained as much as 20 percentage points in a single year.

In elementary school, our third-grade students increased their reading scores by nearly three points after years of declining or flat results. Even better, where we have spent targeted dollars and measured results, we see a nearly eight percentage point increase in reading scores in a single year. In fact, one school in Albuquerque earned a 35 percentage point increase in the number of students reading at grade level.

We also made the biggest change yet to support our teachers and improve student achievement in our state. This year was the first we have implemented a statewide teacher and principal evaluation system that recognizes great educators, based, in part, on how well our students are performing. The NMTEACH evaluation system will allow us to recognize and reward effective teachers while offering additional support to others.

The effort continues to implement the NMTEACH system, and no doubt you’ve likely seen more than a few front-page stories about it. Debate and discussion are part of any new policy implementation, and as long as everyone can agree the primary goal is to improve student achievement, there is no reform that should be dismissed. However, for too many of the loudest critics, making sure the situation is comfortable for themselves (politics) or special interest groups has been the default position. What is comfortable for adults has not been the solution for our students in the past, and, it’s not the solution now.

The tipping point first expanded by that sweet grandma continues to inch forward every day in New Mexico, and every inch of ground claimed in this fight continues to be met with stiff resistance on the part of those who want to just go back to making sure all the adults are comfortable.

This is a battle we, and especially our students, can’t afford to lose. The popular saying “Keep Calm and Carry On” is a catchy phrase that may make us feel better in the moment, but it isn’t the answer for the challenge and opportunity of reforming education in our state.

It’s now time to move beyond this first tipping point of awareness to action. I would never argue we should “Keep Calm” about work we have to do to gain more ground in this struggle. Too many national education reports reveal what many already know – New Mexico is at the bottom, and we must do better. To simply “Carry On” would mean that all is well and we can continue on the path that has led us to the current situation.

Our children and their education should not only be the topic of conversation at every dinner table in New Mexico, and instead of keeping calm and carrying on, it’s time we take charge and take action to change the future.

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