Mississippi education reforms should be tried in NM - Albuquerque Journal

Mississippi education reforms should be tried in NM

Dick Minzner

By many measures, the educational results produced by New Mexico’s public schools are among the worst in the country and are not improving. Nearly every year, the Legislature appropriates more money for public schools, frequently attaching a label implying “education reform” or “education improvement” to the incremental spending, but achieving no measurable improved results. Now, New Mexico’s spending per student exceeds that of most states, which is notable for a state with per capita income in the bottom two or three in the nation.

There is, however, a possible solution to this longstanding problem that has succeeded elsewhere, and which has not been tried here and does not require additional funding. Until a decade ago, Mississippi was consistently near the bottom of almost any list of achievement in the public schools. In 2013, it adopted what it called the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, which has been a remarkable success. Instead of holding its traditional rank of 48th or 50th in lists of educational achievement, Mississippi now ranks about 40th or better by many measures, and appears to be climbing.

Mississippi is an interesting role model for New Mexico. It has some challenges similar to those of New Mexico. Both states have low per-capita income and many children in poverty. Both states have many children whose parents are unable to devote much time at home to assisting with their children’s education.

The essence of the Mississippi reform is a heavy emphasis on developing reading skills in early grades, with an emphasis on phonics. In addition, students cannot be promoted to fourth grade without acceptable reading skills. The program changes are not expensive. Mississippi spends much less per student than New Mexico. A readable description of the Mississippi program and its success is set out in The New York Times, Oct. 6, 2022. (“In Mississippi, A Broad Effort to Improve Literacy is Yielding Results”)

Legislators and the governor should not be dissuaded from pursuing this program merely because similar changes were proposed by Gov. Susana Martinez about 10 years ago. If the Mississippi program is adopted and is successful, the current governor and legislators will deserve credit for making progress on one of New Mexico’s most important and most persistent problems. If it fails, they still will deserve credit for pursuing a promising and evidence-based solution.

While it may seem undesirable to hold back students in the third grade, it may be more undesirable to pass them if they cannot read. Absent reading skills, they will get a much less substantial education than their classmates. Their ability to access information in all subjects will be hindered. Also, their classmates’ education necessarily will be impaired if the class must be slowed to accommodate non-readers.

It is significant that, in Mississippi, students’ performance in mathematics has improved after adoption of the reading intensive curriculum. It seems that mathematics should be one of the subjects least responsive to reading proficiency.

Most current legislators and the current governor are not responsible for 20 years of deterioration in our public school system. However, no one should claim credit for future “reforms” that primarily increase funding with no improvement in educational results.

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