Once upon a time, Mississippi competed with New Mexico for a title nobody wants – worst education system in the country.
But Mississippi jumped from 49th in the nation for fourth-grade reading in 2013 to 29th in 2019. In fourth-grade math, Mississippi students rose from 50th to 23rd. Education officials attribute the Mississippi “miracle” to a variety of reforms that should serve as a blueprint for New Mexico’s much-needed turnaround.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” issued results last month that show New Mexico is still mired at the bottom – four long years after the landmark Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit found the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide at-risk children with the programs and services necessary to learn and thrive. In fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math, N.M. students came in just about dead last in proficiency out of the over 50 states and jurisdictions that were sampled by NAEP.
It’s not due to lack of attention – or money. Lawmakers responded to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s call for an “educational moonshot” by increasing spending from $2.75 billion in 2018 to $3.8 billion in 2022 – significantly boosting teacher pay in the process. And voters last week approved a constitutional amendment that would increase the annual distributions from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to 6.25% for educational purposes. Recent projections have the additional 1.25% providing an extra $90 million for public schools.
On top of that, lawmakers next session will have an estimated $2.5 billion in “new” revenues to appropriate – not to mention $130 million earmarked for extended learning in 2021-22 that went unspent and reverted to the state’s general fund.
In other words, there’s no shortage of money to fund changes that need to be made. But there’s a difference between blindly throwing money at a problem and making strategic investments in proven methods to better student performance. New Mexico has yet to invest in, and require participation in, targeted reforms that have measurable outcomes.
Enter Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan Santa Fe-based think tank. Last month it issued a 50-page policy report, “A Roadmap for Rethinking Public Education in New Mexico” that provides concrete steps – 30 legislative proposals – New Mexico policymakers can take to facilitate a miracle of our own, bring the state into compliance on Yazzie/Martinez, and most importantly, finally deliver the education our children deserve.
Among the proposals are recommendations to increase learning time – and to ensure it truly is in-class time. To shift dollars from bloated administrations to classrooms. To provide a relevant and rigorous curriculum that includes financial literacy and civics. To replicate successful charter schools and shutter failing ones. To keep class sizes and schools small and even break up large districts. To set teachers and principals up for success with improved colleges of education, on-the-job training and mentoring, and quality, vetted continuing education. And to honor our great teachers with a master-teacher level that has them training new teachers, and principals by treating them as the CEOs they are and paying them enough to make all the additional responsibilities worth it.
Think New Mexico’s report provides common-sense, evidence-based best practices that should help policymakers find areas of agreement and starting points for reforms.
Tops on Think New Mexico’s list is improving “time on task,” or optimizing time for teaching and learning – something lawmakers and the Public Education Department have been reluctant to mandate. It’s high time they did so.
The think tank recommends increasing the minimum instructional time for all students to 1,170 total hours, which would amount to elementary, middle and high school students all having the same 6 1/2 hours of school per day. Currently, first through sixth graders are required to go to school for 5 1/2 hours per day, and seventh through 12th graders for six.
As advocates of more learning time, we urge lawmakers to exclude home visits, parent-teacher conferences, professional development and early release from instructional time and incentivize school districts to adopt a balanced calendar to reduce summer learning loss.
Some of Think New Mexico’s proposals are a heavier lift than others. Breaking up APS into several smaller districts, for example, would need voter approval and some assurances newly drawn districts would have equitable tax bases and a balanced mix of high- and low-performing schools. But among the 30 proposals are many that merit serious discussion and consideration. In addition to the aforementioned, there’s replacing year-end testing with shorter interim tests that promote student learning and requiring school board members to resign when they run for another elected office and make those who violate anti-nepotism laws forfeit their seats.
New Mexico has the funding for these reforms; the question now is does it have the political will? After years of ranking at the bottom of education lists, and four years after the court ruled our K-12 system is unacceptable, it is time to change the results and change the narrative.
We need to get started. If Mississippi can do it, so can we.
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.