A 50% increase in K-12 English language arts and math achievement by the 2025-26 school year might seem aspirational, until you realize where New Mexico is starting from. At last count, prepandemic, just one in five N.M. students was proficient in math and one in three proficient in reading. If those numbers were still accurate — doubtful with the learning loss remote education inflicted — reaching these goals would mean just one in three students will be able to do math and only half will be able to read at grade level.
But especially given the landmark Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit that said New Mexico is not providing sufficient education to students, particularly minority and at-risk, our Public Education Department has to start somewhere. Unfortunately, the draft action plan released in May starts, and ends, with aspirations. Nowhere in the 55-page report are there details of how districts, schools, teachers or students are going to reach them.
And so we are left with broad-stroke goals, including:
• A 15% increase by 2025 in graduation rates for Indigenous, English-language learner and low-income students. Laudable, but diplomas must be worth the paper they’re printed on and prepare grads for college, vocational training, the workforce, military or adult life.
• A 20% increase in Hispanic, 7% increase in Native American and 3% increase in African American teacher representation, all by 2025-26. First, around 34% of educators in New Mexico identified as Hispanic in 2016–17, more than four times the national average, and 3% identified as American Indian/Alaska native, according to NewMexicoKidsCan. With roughly 22,000 teachers in the state, that goal is around 1,500 more Hispanic and 46 more Native American teachers. It takes four years to get a degree. Are these teachers-in-training in the pipeline? If not, how will PED hit those goals? Meanwhile much more goes into being an exemplary teacher beyond identity politics, and in our minority-majority state role models of the same race, ethnicity and gender identity can make schools a relatable and safe space for students, especially those at risk of dropping out.
• Lowering the state’s average counselor-to-student ratio from 426-to-1 to 250-to-1 by 2026-27 and ensuring every high school has at least one fully-certified counselor. Increasing instructional support staff is also laudable, but budgeting for hundreds of new counselors, social workers and occupational therapists is a lot easier than hiring them, just ask Bernalillo County and the city of Albuquerque, which have been trying to beef up civilian response teams with similar hires for years.
Perhaps most concerning, the plan concedes there’s no way to compare student achievement over time because “baselines are unavailable.” That’s because Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s very first act as governor was to jettison the method of standardized testing, PED removed student achievement from teacher evaluations, and the Legislature killed A-F school grades that easily explained how a school was meeting different student populations’ academic needs. Lujan Grisham’s administration has yet to release partial results from new standardized testing in the spring of 2021.
So instead of detailing what’s in the K-12 toolbox to ensure student success, we get 55 pages of goals and self-congratulatory mentions of how this governor’s administration has delivered major salary raises for teachers and new social studies standards for the first time in two decades — progress yes, but not really the point of the lawsuit or this exercise, which is to ensure every N.M. student gets an adequate K-12 education.
State Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus lauds the Martinez/Yazzie Discussion Draft Action Plan as “not just a plan for the future; it also reflects all the work that’s taken place since the beginning of this administration, and it challenges all of us with strong performance targets to move the needle on key student outcomes.” OK, but how?
Lujan Grisham’s administration has had three and a half years since a state judge found the state violated the constitutional right of a sufficient education for socioeconomically disadvantaged, English-language learner, Native American and students with disabilities. The court said students had unequal access to qualified teachers, quality school buildings and lessons tailored to their cultural background and needs.
“It’s been four years now since the ruling, and I think that’s been enough time for our state to really start making these changes,” Wilhelmina Yazzie, a mother of three who’s lived most of her life on the Navajo Nation and the original Yazzie plaintiff, told the Journal.
Laurel Nesbitt, senior attorney with Disability Rights New Mexico, has a point when she says the draft action plan is a “disconnected, scattershot approach,” lacking cohesive threads and a “real vision for change.”
Melissa Candelaria, on the legal team for the Yazzie group and education director for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, says education advocates were hoping for “a comprehensive plan, with timelines, with staffing needs, measurable goals, short- and long-term action plans” and “multi-year financial investments.”
Instead, they got amorphous goals for Indigenous children, English-language learners, children with disabilities and those that come from low-income families, who collectively comprise 70% of New Mexico public school students. And no detailed or action-oriented way to reach them.
Albuquerque Public Schools, the state’s largest school district with more than 70,000 students, also appears underwhelmed. Officials wrote in a response “the draft plan is currently a collection of initiatives created by the New Mexico Legislature and NMPED. In its current form it reads like a prescriptive list, rather than a visionary roadmap for districts.”
And without a roadmap, it’s easy to get lost. Especially when your starting point is at the back of the pack.
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.