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Civil discourse needed in education debate

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Like many people I know, I have strong opinions about education but know very little about it.

Therefore, I would love to witness a reasoned, evidence-based, honest, civil and open discussion of education issues affecting our state. What I am witnessing is Wrestlemania: lots of growling, posturing, chest-beating and showboating.

Public Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera recently gave a presentation to Albuquerque educators, some of whom behaved like unruly, ill-mannered seniors at a school assembly. Letters to the editor suggest she is the embodiment of evil.

Teachers and school board members who object to the state’s approach to student and teacher evaluation have been dismissed as not caring about children. Their objections are characterized as so much teachers-union rhetoric.

Common sense suggests Skandera is not a tool of Satan. Common sense suggests schoolteachers and members of boards of education most likely care very much about children.

Common decency requires that Skandera, teachers, administrators, parents and students should be treated with respect.

Even APS Superintendent Winston Brooks – who must now meet a “performance improvement plan” after he made a tweet that said “moo, moo-oink, oink” in reference to Skandera and got suspended for it – concedes we must get past that kind of rhetoric and “get back to educating kids.”

I do not believe I am alone in finding this behavior distasteful, embarrassing to the state, a terrible example for our children, and not in the least bit helpful.

The businesspeople I talk to pretty much every working day are satisfied our state’s education system is in real trouble, but many of them are chagrined at the ugly, uninformative and simplistic tone this debate has taken.

They want a real solution. They see the stories about high school dropout rates and the way our universities have to provide remedial training to high school graduates who are enrolled in college but aren’t nearly ready to be there. They interview graduates who lack even the most basic job skills, such as the ability to understand what they read, the ability to follow instructions, the ability to show up on time, the ability to communicate.

Political leaders get it, too. New Mexico is becoming a national low-cost tax and labor option, through corporate income tax changes and financial incentives, to recruit new businesses to locate here. That isn’t enough.

Some of the elected officials who go on the recruiting trips tell me that a major objection we face is that our schools don’t compare well with those of other states. Not only do some expanding businesses worry they won’t find the workforce they need in New Mexico, but they worry that their current staff won’t move here because they don’t want to put their sons and daughters into our schools.

Those who truly want to understand the debate as it is playing out in New Mexico certainly can do so if they want to do the work. You can find white papers, legislative testimony, think-tank musings, education policy experts at the University of New Mexico and some good Albuquerque Journal articles.

The stupid version is easier to find, at political events and in the he-said/she-said coverage we in the news media are often stuck with writing when the only quotes available are simplistic and disdainful.

On those occasions, we hear, on the one hand, that the administration’s entire program is to fail third-graders and demonize teachers; on the other hand, we are told, teachers are interested only in protecting the jobs of the most incompetent of their peers.

Even the most casual observer must know that nothing is ever that simple. Indeed, if education policy were simple, we would have solved the problem of underperforming schools and underachieving graduates long before now. New Mexico has lots of problems that keep simple solutions from working.

There is the problem of poverty. Our kids are some of the most impoverished in the nation. They go to school with home problems, health problems, hunger problems. Six hours with a teacher five days a week, nine months a year won’t solve those problems.

There is the rural problem. We city folk tend to forget that some of our state’s schoolchildren live in places like Roy, which will graduate one senior next year. How do towns like Roy, Mosquero, Mora, Wagon Mound, Prewitt, Magdalena, Tierra Amarilla, Corona, Dora, Elida, Vaughn or House – to name a few of the very small places that support school systems – come up with the teachers and infrastructure students need if they are to be ready for college or a technical school?

From what I read, we’re not even sure why one teacher succeeds in reaching children and another does not. The conservative pundit David Brooks has written that all we know for sure is that children learn from people they love. How do we test for lovability?

Such a complicated subject deserves something better than Wrestlemania.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Winthrop Quigley at 823-3896 or wquigley@abqjournal.com. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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