Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the same can be said about the ongoing efforts to improve the public education system in New Mexico.
But according to a prominent think tank based out of Santa Fe, getting the state on the right path can be broken down into a 10-point plan released last weekend.
“Without a road map, it’s easy to get lost. And frankly, that’s where we are,” Think New Mexico Executive Director Fred Nathan said. “So our approach with this report was to create a road map with concrete strategies.”
Among the 30 legislative proposals contained in the over-50-page plan are recommendations to break up large school districts and keep class sizes small, improve teacher preparation and training, and require that students go to school for more hours every year.
They figure on several funding sources to back their proposals. Those include over $130 million in funds for extended learning time programs expected to go unspent this fiscal year and over $84 million that would come from a constitutional amendment that New Mexicans will vote on in November.
The plan, Nathan said, is something the think tank expects will take several years to get done.
Many of the proposals have been discussed recently by state lawmakers, or have been the topic of debates for years.
One of those recommendations is that New Mexico should require students to spend more time in classrooms, a strategy that state officials have also touted as a way to improve the outcomes of students.
Lawmakers should increase the minimum instructional time for all students to 1,170 total hours, the think tank said in its report, which would amount to elementary, middle and high school students all having the same 6½ hours of school per day.
Currently, first through sixth graders are required to go to school for 5½ hours per day, and seventh through 12th graders go for six.
Legislative committee leaders have also suggested increasing the base instructional time of schools to lawmakers.
Those recommendations have been met with a range of responses – some skeptical, but some seemingly frustrated that extended learning time has not just been pushed through.
“We’ve heard time and time again in this committee how extended learning time is scientifically proven to help catch up kids with education,” Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, said at a recent Legislative Finance Committee meeting. “But the Legislature is unwilling to mandate that, PED evidently is unwilling to mandate that … sometimes I wonder why we talk about things if we’re not willing to take action.”
That said, school districts across the state have had difficulty garnering the buy-in they need from their communities to implement more learning time, and fewer and fewer students have participated in those programs since 2021.
A proposal to have Albuquerque Public Schools students districtwide spend more time in class, for example, was turned down by the district’s board, which opted instead to continue the district’s policy of allowing schools to opt into the programs.
For this year, 29 of 88 elementary schools did so, and no middle or high schools did.
Starting teachers in New Mexico are being paid more and they should also be better prepared, the think tank argues.
Starting teachers who saw their base salaries grow to $50,000 this year, for example, should all be able to go through residency programs before they ever get in front of students. Those programs pair student teachers with experienced ones for a year so they can get in-classroom experience while also receiving compensation.
In years past, residency programs saw about $2 million from grants. This year, their funding grew to $15.5 million, though analysts note that those dollars as of right now are non-recurring.
But even after the preparation they get before they start their careers, teachers should continue receiving at least 10 days of quality professional development to hone their skills in the classroom, Think New Mexico said.
“We want to see evidence-based professional development and an actual minimum requirement for participating in it,” Think New Mexico Associate Director Kristina Fisher said.
Professional development is not mandated by the state, Public Education Department spokeswoman Carly Bowling said in a written statement, aside from professional development for staff in extended learning time programs and literacy training for elementary teachers. Other than that, professional development requirements are decided at a local level, she added.
Under extended learning time programs, teachers must participate in at least 80 hours of professional development per year. A bit under 11,000 of the state’s certified instructional staff reported doing that professional development last school year.
Smaller class sizes – and, at that, smaller districts – should also be implemented, the think tank argued, because both have the potential to benefit students.
“Unfortunately, I think we got off track during the Industrial Revolution, where it became all about economies of scale, and the factory model, and ‘bigger is always better,'” Nathan said. “But when it comes to schools, it turns out that kids have emotions and feelings, and they don’t want to feel like they’re on a conveyor belt.”
Specifically, lawmakers should consider breaking up APS into several smaller districts, Think New Mexico said.
Similar proposals have been brought up at least twice in the last two decades, including in 2017, when a bill that would have limited school district sizes to 40,000 students failed.
The problem with that idea, said Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, is that Albuquerque is very geographically divided and thus difficult to fairly break up APS.
“The problem is, how do you divide the district so that you have an equitable distribution of students? So you haven’t put all the high poverty, minority students in one district, and the more wealthy students, with all of their benefits, into one district? That is the problem,” she said.
And class sizes should also be kept as small as possible, Think New Mexico said.
Currently, kindergarten classes can’t have more than 20 students. For first through third grade classes, teachers can’t have more than an average of 22 students, then 24 students for fourth through sixth grade classes, 27 for seventh through eighth grade classes and 30 for high school classes.
Think New Mexico argues that those limits can be bypassed through class size waivers. Over the most recent full semester, the PED issued 71 such waivers – all to Las Cruces Public Schools, Bowling said.
Stewart argued that New Mexico already tries to accomplish the small learning environment similar to what’s called for in the Think New Mexico report, including in APS. That especially happens in community schools, she said, which strive to build up school communities in areas particularly impacted by poverty.
“We try very hard to have the school feel like and act like a community,” she said.