Editorial: Making the grade - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Making the grade

“Martinez Picks Reformer as Public Education Head”

– Albuquerque Journal headline, Dec. 21, 2010

The Journal headline writer hit the nail on the head with that one.

“Reform” is a buzzword that’s easily dropped by many in leadership roles. But in her almost seven years at the helm of New Mexico’s Public Education Department, reform is exactly what Secretary Hanna Skandera has done – one painful step at a time.

Public Education Department Secretary Hanna Skandera, left, with Gov. Susana Martinez at an April 2 press conference
Public Education Department Secretary Hanna Skandera, left, with Gov. Susana Martinez at an April 2 press conference. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Real reform is hard, but New Mexico’s K-12 students are the better for it. While we continue to dwell at the bottom of national rankings, we shouldn’t ignore the progress that has been made.

Skandera, who announced her resignation last week, built on accountability measures established under the Gov. Bill Richardson administration (his education secretary, Santa Fe Superintendent Veronica Garcia, established those high Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks) and those mandated by President Barack Obama’s administration (linking student improvement and teacher performance).

Despite that history, the Republican appointee has been vilified from Day One for insisting that every New Mexico student can learn in our schools.

Because that flies in the face of critics, including unions and some politicians, who say that without spending hundreds of millions more dollars we just can’t expect progress because these kids are too poor, don’t speak English at home and/or come from families where parental engagement may be lacking.

And that’s just for starters.

What kind of reception did Skandera and her ambitious agenda get? We need say no more than it took more than four years for the state Senate to confirm her despite strong support from many, including university presidents.

Yet in the interim she focused on the job at hand. She traveled the state gathering information from parents, teachers and superintendents. Now New Mexico issues letter-grade report cards for each school that show how it does in educating specific subgroups. We have put in place the Common Core curriculum, which emphasizes core knowledge and critical thinking, and the companion Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers standardized test that measures readiness for college and careers and shows how our students are doing compared to those in other states.

Teachers are the key and Skandera points out that our universities have dramatically increased the entrance requirement for students who want to become teachers – which she said at one point required only eighth-grade proficiency.

Skandera put in place a system of annual teacher evaluations that are based on student improvement – meaning what New Mexico asks of its dedicated teachers is that our kids leave their classrooms better off academically than when they walked in.

Districts that have embraced Skandera’s no-excuses mentality and improvement programs have delivered for their kids. Farmington, Gallup and Gadsden are among the many that have recorded progress in student proficiencies.

Statewide, our worst-in-the-nation graduation rates under Skandera are up 8 percentage points, hitting a record of 71 percent for 2016. PARCC math and English language arts results are up as well, with 2016 recording 7,300 more kids on grade level in math and 5,000 more on grade level in English. More of our kids are taking AP classes.

This despite higher expectations – again building upon the Richardson and Obama reforms.

That student growth – the fact children are learning, Skandera’s real bottom line – in turn has brought up school grades; there are more “A” and “B” schools and fewer “C,” “D” and “F” schools. Ditto for teacher ratings; there are 30 percent more highly effective and exemplary teachers today compared to 2014.

And it’s not just about testing. Teachers also have meaningful observation/feedback and Skandera has pushed mentoring programs for teachers and principals. It’s not like the old days when 99 percent of New Mexico teachers were for all practical purposes rated “effective.”

Under Skandera, New Mexico jumped to the head of the education reform class nationally, receiving shout-outs from Obama’s U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The state installed objective measures to record students’ academic progress, let parents know how their schools were doing educating with various subgroups of students, and provided the information to teachers and principals – along with mentoring opportunities so our state’s best could help raise the performance of the rest.

Could Skandera have been more conciliatory, less hard-charging and more strategic in the legislative and political arenas? Sure. But it’s impossible to ignore the fundamental values clash about whether our education system should put kids first, or put the adults who work there first. On that debate, she would not yield on her “kids first” approach.

Skandera says she is “proud of our kids and our outcomes” and believes she has helped change the conversation about education in New Mexico from “We’re poor, disadvantaged, what can we expect?” to “We can expect great things.”

For that, New Mexico and its kids are better off.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

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