New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera ended her tumultuous six-year tenure on Tuesday and passed the reins to a deputy – Christopher Ruszkowski – who vowed to continue her reforms.
Ruszkowski arrived in New Mexico in April 2016 to oversee the Public Education Department’s research agenda, policies and academic priorities, including PARCC testing, school grades and pre-kindergarten.
Gov. Susana Martinez named him acting secretary of education earlier this month when Skandera made the surprise announcement that she would step down.
“Acting Secretary Ruszkowski will continue pushing forward with Gov. Martinez’s reforms that are lifting up struggling students and schools,” said Joseph Cueto, the governor’s spokesman. “Based on Ruszkowski’s skills and experience, there’s no question he’ll continue to put students first and move our reforms forward – to keep improving student achievement.”
Born in Chicago, Ruszkowski spent three years teaching in Miami and Boston schools through Teach for America, then received a master’s degree in education policy from Stanford University. He most recently worked for the Delaware Department of Education, earning accolades from the state’s Democratic governor.
Ruszkowski told the Journal on Wednesday that he is excited to lead New Mexico’s PED and maintain its “strong foundation.”
“(Teachers) are saying, ‘Let’s have some stability for once. Let’s have some continuity for once. Let’s not have another pendulum swing,’ ” Ruszkowski said. “It’s very rare for a state to have the opportunity to have some degree of stability and continuity in its core systems over the course of a decade. New Mexico is getting there.”
Martinez appointed Skandera in 2010 as a reformer and has often stressed that “every child can learn.” The governor has a year and a half left in office.
Asked whether he would like to make any changes, Ruszkowski said he does see areas for “refinement and improvement.”
Ruszkowski plans to modify a parent and student survey that is part of the school grading process and expand teacher professional development programs.
The PED will also try to learn from successful districts and charter schools – a “paradigm shift” that will mix “innovation coming up and innovation coming down,” Ruszkowski said.
In the fall, he will visit high-performing schools across the state to collect ideas that could be replicated.
Recently, the PED has sought more input from teachers, parents and administrators. Ruszkowski helped organize 25 public events to collect feedback on the state’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
During stops in six communities, he heard “a sense of optimism” about New Mexico’s schools, which are typically near the bottom of the nation on every measure of educational success.
“It is not a deficit mindset,” he said.
Ruszkowski also recently worked with the Teach Plus New Mexico Policy Fellows, a group of 15 educators from around the state that suggested changes to the PED’s teacher evaluation system, as well as other policies. The PED adopted eight of the group’s 11 recommendations.
Hope Morales, an incoming vice principal at Roswell’s Mesa Middle School and a Teach Plus Fellow, said Ruszkowski made a good impression.
“I am excited to continue working with him,” she said. “He seems really positive. He seems student-focused. He seems open to working with teachers, so I am hoping we can continue what we’ve started.”
But the National Education Association-New Mexico – a longtime opponent of Skandera’s policies – said the PED has historically not listened to different points of view.
“PED keeps too much focus on standardized testing, which takes up valuable time better spent on learning,” said NEA-NM spokesman Charles Goodmacher. “Good education inspires students’ natural curiosity, imagination and desire to learn. Too much continued focus on teacher evaluations and on standardized tests warps school priorities.”
NEA and another teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, have sued to stop the PED’s teacher evaluation system, which weighs students’ progress on test scores as a significant factor.
To Ruszkowski, the unions are “long on problems and short on solutions.”
“There is a unique opportunity, I think, for unions, not just here but around the country, to embrace reform and sort of bring themselves back into relevance in the conversation around what’s best for children, and not stay so married and wedded to the 20th century way of doing business,” he said.
He suggested they be active in promoting teacher development and offer specific solutions rather than repeating the same broad criticism.
Comments on APS
Ruszkowski said he has yet to meet with Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Raquel Reedy, who oversees the state’s largest district, with more than 80,000 students, and who often disagreed with Skandera’s reform efforts.
Ruszkowski said districts in cities including San Antonio, Denver and Phoenix are making strides, while APS continues to struggle. Districts must adopt innovative approaches to education if they want to improve outcomes, Ruszkowski said.
“I think APS has a long way to go as a learning organization, and I think there are a lot of best practices out there they could be drawing on,” he said. “There does seem to be an opportunity to learn and to share what’s happening in these other places nearby that I have not yet seen them embrace.”
Ruszkowski said he has seen more APS employees applying for state education programs like Principals Pursuing Excellence, which provides mentorship. He is hopeful the trend will continue.
“We’ll reach out, we’ll continue to make all those opportunities available, but they have to come to the table wanting to do things differently,” he said.
APS’ Reedy said she looks forward to working with the acting secretary of education.
“We would like to share with him our plans for reshaping teaching, learning and classroom experiences in Albuquerque Public Schools,” she said in an emailed statement. “Our emphasis will be on personalized education, innovation and family and community engagement.”