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Public schools need to raise accountability

When public schools – traditional or charter – have a long history of low performance, we owe it to their students to aggressively intervene and restructure, reorganize or even close them, if necessary.

Fortunately, under New Mexico’s federally-approved education plan, schools with a track record of struggling to educate their students are identified as chronically underperforming and designated for “more rigorous intervention.” Currently, three schools in Albuquerque and one in Dulce fall into this category. Fewer than 1 in 10 students in these schools is reading on grade level and even fewer are proficient in math. Each school has received five or six years’ worth of failing grades.

We certainly honor and appreciate the service of those who work at these schools each day. But by any objective measure of student performance, things simply aren’t working.

If we wait any longer to intervene, children in these schools will fall further behind. They are likely to become discouraged in later grades, stop showing up to school, more likely to drop out, and face significant barriers to finding a well-paying job. The potential lifetime implications are serious, as is the long-term setback to economic growth and workforce development.

This does not have to be a punitive process or conversation. We have an opportunity to bring new leaders into these schools, shake up their current culture and elevate their expectations, and adopt best practices for raising student achievement. And, we know that improvement is possible because we have seen school districts in New Mexico – like Gadsden, Farmington, and Alamogordo – raise every school out of the failing category within just a few years.

Selecting from a range of intervention options, Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) and Dulce have chosen to restructure their chronically underperforming schools. Restructuring is reasonable if it’s ambitious and relentlessly focused on improving student achievement.

In some cases, the districts’ plans were forward-thinking, identifying new principals, for example, who have a multi-year track record of elevating student performance. That’s an important start and a longstanding best practice. Turning around a school in the absence of effective school leadership would be impossible.

However, on the whole, the plans fell short of the kind of dramatic overhaul and reform we expect to see implemented. For example, they didn’t call for the recruitment, retention and increased compensation of high-performing teachers and school leaders, or for increased instructional time and intensive tutoring between students and these educators.

According to the Public Education Department (PED), the plans lacked the “requisite urgency, clarity, and cohesiveness to dramatically improve student achievement outcomes.” In other words, they’re not likely to work. And, for our students’ sake, we need plans that are aggressive and bold – and will work.

New plans will be submitted by April 11. If the new plans are rigorous, they will be implemented, and if they are not, PED can – and should – close or restart them as charter schools.

As this turnaround process plays out for four traditional public schools, it’s important to remember that four New Mexico charter schools are currently being closed due to poor academic performance. And in recent years, another charter school was closed for the same reason, despite having a “D” grade and higher student achievement results than the traditional schools about to undergo restructuring.

In New Mexico, more charter schools have closed than opened in recent years as charter authorizers evaluate the plans for new schools and performance of existing schools based more intently on student learning.

That’s as it should be, and as charter schools elevate their accountability, it’s healthy and reasonable for traditional schools to as well.

We at the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce understand that aggressive restructuring won’t be easy. But in the long run, for all involved, there will be great reward in seeing more positive results for our kids.

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