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Editorial: A teacher is at head of the Public Education Dept. class

Christopher Ruszkowski

For 6½ years, one of the core criticisms of the New Mexico Public Education Department’s reforms has been that it was run by someone who had never taught in a classroom. Whether the battle was over school funding, school grades, teacher evaluations or standardized testing, detractors of Hanna Skandera’s data-driven approach often came back to the fact she had never been a teacher and thus could never understand how her policies played out in real life.

Last week, that criticism dried up as fast as a puddle on a New Mexico sidewalk in June.

Acting PED Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski, a product of Chicago’s public schools, taught social studies for two years at a public middle school in Miami, where his students were primarily Haitian immigrants. He taught English for a year to seventh-graders at a charter school in Boston. Granted, three years of teaching is not a career – but it does mean he has clearly been in a classroom setting. And in each setting he led his students to significant gains and ensured at least 80 percent of his students had mastered the subject he was entrusted with teaching.

He says he moved into the policy side because he was frustrated that teachers who wanted to grow were not given the encouragement or tools to do so – and he wanted to help make that happen.

He earned a master’s in education and spent nearly six years with the Delaware education department, earning accolades from former bosses including the Democratic governor.

Now, he plans to continue Skandera’s reforms, while making adjustments as needed. He has been with NMPED for a year as deputy secretary of policy and program, overseeing everything from Pre-K expansion to truancy and dropout coaches to PARCC testing to school grades. He helped craft the state’s plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind and its subsequent waiver.

And because Ruszkowski has been on both sides of the equation – and in fact has helped mentor teachers since 2004 – it is important those naysayers in the “Skandera never taught” camp take him up on his open invitation to have a dialogue about specific solutions for improving New Mexico’s perennial 49th-place ranking when it comes to education. And, in particular, be open to replicating successes elsewhere.

Let’s hope Albuquerque Public Schools takes him up on that invitation. New Mexico’s largest district, which is responsible for educating a third of the state’s students, has been reluctant to take advantage of many of the programs PED rolls out and has seen its student gains pale in comparison to districts that have.

Ruszkowski has certainly proved he is approachable – he’s the guy who helped organize 25 public events last year where PED gathered comments from parents, teachers, administrators and interested citizens on the state’s plan to comply with the federal ESSA. And he worked with the Teach Plus New Mexico Policy Fellows, a group of 15 educators from around the state that suggested changes to some PED policies, including its teacher evaluation system. Ultimately, the PED adopted eight of the group’s 11 recommendations.

Under Skandera, PED implemented accountability at the teacher and school level with evaluations and school grades linked to student improvement, more students are on grade level, and the graduation rate is higher than ever. Ruszkowski rightly wants to let educators and students continue to settle in to those reforms while providing “refinement and improvement” of specifics such as the parent/student survey in school grades. He understands that change takes a toll and says he is seeking a period of “consistency and stability” that allows reforms to continue to bear fruit.

Yet critics, including the National Education Association-New Mexico teachers union, have already weighed in, claiming PED never listens and tests too much. The numerous public meetings with stakeholders, the many adjustments, as well as the data on the number of testing hours required by the state disprove that. As Ruszkowski told Journal reporters and editors just three hours into his new job, you can stay “wedded to the 20th century way of doing business” or you can focus on using current century ideas to focus on “what’s best for children.”

The new head of the PED understands first-hand the challenges of leading a classroom; has delivered impressive academic results with poor, minority students whose first language is not English; and embraces accountability and the fact every child can learn.

While many of New Mexico’s 89 districts have already done the same, it is time the rest take advantage of the fact there is now a classroom-knowlegeable, teacher-empathetic educator at the helm of PED and join the efforts to improve the academic standing of the state’s students, and thus its economic future.

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.