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PED, Legislature should embrace school innovation

Since 2003, New Mexico has experienced three governors and several education secretaries. Despite multiple education initiatives and increases in spending, student achievement data and outcomes remain among the worst in the nation.

New Mexico’s recent historical reading proficiency rates show these data: 2005 (50%), 2010 (30%), 2015 (33%), and 2019 (33%). Math proficiency is much lower: 2005 (30%), 2010 (42%), 2015 (18%), and 2019 (21%). Note that results are more likely to swing based upon changes in tests, rather than actual effectiveness of initiatives.

Public school employees throughout New Mexico, from teachers to superintendents, can list the countless reform initiatives that have come and gone, and the data clearly indicates that these efforts have not led to improvement.

The situation here in New Mexico reminds me of a quote by Harvard professor Richard Elmore: “American schools know how to change … what schools do not know how to do is improve.” As the founder of ACES Tech Charter School, I am now experiencing firsthand many of the root causes that I feel prevent New Mexico from moving toward education excellence and overall improvement.

In my New Mexico experience, there is no sense of urgency, nor strategy, around improving education processes or outcomes. Having attended many NMPED and APS board meetings, I have never heard student academic performance discussed as a priority.

As in many other low-functioning states and districts, the focus of education professionals in leadership positions is on compliance and survival rather than innovation and improvement. COVID-19 has exacerbated this reality but be clear that the issue was already dire before COVID-19.

One of the key current initiatives the Legislature has added is the Extended Learning Time Program (ELTP). This program adds money to a district’s annual State Equalization Guarantee (SEG) funds and is being touted as the primary effort to help regain the COVID-19 learning losses for secondary students throughout the state.

However, the Legislature passed an ELTP law that stifles innovation by limiting the effort to traditional after-school models.

It is well known that many New Mexico students are required by their parents to watch after siblings or to work and are thus not allowed to stay after school for activities. These students are often low income and in most need of extra supports.

Students need innovative programs which meet them where they are, not where the state wants them to be. Many of these students can only attend programs either before or between school hours, or not attend at all. You cannot claim to care about equity and then write laws that disenfranchise your most vulnerable students. No matter how good the intentions, funding programs that serve few or no students will not lead to improved achievement.

ACES Tech crafted an innovative way to provide in-school tutoring and STEM activities which meet every learning expectation of the ELTP law. However, the state Deputy Secretary of Academic Engagement and Student Success rejected our proposal not on its merits, but because we offer students support during an open, innovative block of time in the middle of the day (12 p.m.) as opposed to the more traditional time after school (3 p.m.). She implied, referencing the ELTP law, that our plan to help students at 12 p.m. is somehow less effective than an equivalent plan to help students after school at 3 p.m.!

New Mexico laws are too often written with language which is restrictive to innovation, and NMPED officials are using that fact to limit schools’ abilities to design programs which meet the needs of their students. Ironically, the NMPED is now highlighting that millions of the dollars intended for the ELTP effort will remain unspent.

This fact, along with the persistent low achievement across the state, clearly demonstrates enough reason to infuse language into our education laws which encourages innovation.

ACES Technical Charter School (ACES Tech) has the goal of producing the STEM science, engineering, and health care leaders of tomorrow.

 

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