Reforming Education in New Mexico
By nearly every standard and metric the state of New Mexico is one of the lowest performing states in education. If a student fails to obtain at least a high school diploma the probability of living a life above the poverty level is greatly reduced.
- In 2015, NM had the lowest graduation rate in the nation at 69%
- Only 26.9% of 4th graders and 20.6% of 8th graders are proficient in math
- Only 22.9% of 4th graders and 20.1% of 8th graders are proficient in reading
- Education Week ranked NM last in the nation for chance of success, 50th of 51 for K-12 achievement, and 49th overall across all its education standards.
- Of the 100 largest school districts in the country APS ranks 99th in their 2015 average cohort graduation rate at 62%.
New Mexico has several challenges to overcome:
- We have a very high poverty rate
- Overall, 20% of our population lives below the poverty line
- 30% of children live in poverty. This is the highest rate in the nation
- 27% of students are English language learners
- A large rural population
- Only about 25% of the population has a bachelor’s degree or higher
All of these are challenges that the State must confront. We can’t continue to do the same things over and over again and expect a different outcome. We need to reinvent public education or we will continue to have multi-generational poverty, high unemployment, large welfare needs, and budget crises every time there is a small dip in energy markets.
Unfortunately, some of the challenges we face can’t be corrected quickly or are even something legislation can change. There is no legislation that can change our poverty rate, and there is no amount of wealth redistribution that will change it either. Additionally, our poverty is caused by several different factors making a single solution impossible. The first is our low high school graduation rate, 14.7% of New Mexicans have less than a high school diploma. An individual with less than a high school diploma earns on average only $504 a week or $26,208 a year and faces an unemployment rate almost twice the national average. Without a H.S. diploma and no other certification the type of jobs which are available are mostly low-paying service industry, sales jobs, or manual labor.
Nearly 15% of our population is resigned to low-paying jobs because they don’t have the skill set or education needed for better paying jobs. These individuals live paycheck to paycheck and are often in need of some form of social welfare. The more social welfare our citizens need to pay their bills and put food on the table means we have to maintain a high taxation level to meet all the need. The reliance on welfare, while necessary in order to get by month-to-month, can be absolutely devastating to the individual’s sense of self and demoralizing when it is needed year after year. Very few people want to be in a position where they need social welfare. If they had the ability to meet all their needs from their own income a great majority would gladly release themselves from the welfare state. The first step in getting to that point is increasing our graduation rate to at least 80% in the next six years. Once we have met this objective we set our sight on 85% and then 90%.
Given all the challenges we face as a state we need to focus on changing our education system so it fits our needs, even if this means radically changing it from what we knew as kids. The following are some of the changes we need to implement to improve our education system.
We need to put the “public” back in public schools.
In the 1930s, a process of consolidation of school districts was started with the objective of reducing costs and providing high schools with enough students to provide an advanced curriculum. The idea was these consolidated districts would lead to economies of scale and save taxpayer money while increasing efficiency. While this was a noble idea and it did have some sound principles behind it, it had the side effect of eliminating much of the public from school decisions. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics the U.S. had 117,108 districts and more than 250,000 schools in 1937-1938. By the 1999-2000 school year that amount had dropped to 14,928 districts and 92,012 schools, this is a near 87% drop in the number of school districts in this country as the student population has increased from 26 million to over 49 million which is an 88% increase. If we assume these school districts had a five member board in 1938, there would have been 585,540 citizens sitting on a school board. With the 14,928 districts we had in 2000, the same five member board would only have 74,640 members nationwide. The consolidation of school districts has removed 570,612 local community members and parents from having direct say in how their children’s school is governed and run.
In the state of New Mexico we have seen a similar removal of the public from the public schools. Between 1950 and 1959, New Mexico had 463 school districts, 10 years later these were consolidated to 157 districts, and by 1979 the number was reduced to 89, where it remains to this day. There are now 1,870 fewer community members sitting on the boards of our school districts. Our schools were meant to be public not for pedagogical reasons, but because of the importance of republican ideals. In Milliken v. Bradley the Supreme Court stated, “substantial local control of public education in this country is a deeply rooted tradition,” they went further to state, “No single tradition in public education is more deeply rooted than local control over the operation of schools; local autonomy has long been thought essential both to the maintenance of community concern and support for public schools and to the quality of the educational process… local control over the educational process affords citizens an opportunity to participate in decision making, permits the structuring of school programs to fit local needs, and encourages experimentation, innovation, and a healthy competition for educational excellence.” I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. Unfortunately, elected officials feel they know better how to educate your children than you do.
How to increase the number of citizens involved in the governance of our schools
One way would be to simply increase the number of people who are elected to the board. In NM most school boards have five members, we could increase the number of school board members to 10, but this is not the best option. The best way to get the public more involved in the education of their children is a deconsolidation of large school districts. The advantages for deconsolidation are numerous and have a great deal of research behind them showing they would likely improve the outcomes for students in New Mexico. Several states have commissioned research regarding the outcomes of schools based on district size. What these studies have shown is that small school districts have the highest graduation rates, higher rates of secondary enrollment, lower truancy rates, and higher parental involvement. Additionally when the cost per graduate is considered they are just as, or more cost efficient than larger districts. But the most important aspect of smaller districts is the effect it has on minority and low socioeconomic status students, they benefit the most in small districts. Given NM’s current demographics deconsolidation would benefit our state tremendously.
Remove barriers to school choice
In nearly every part of our lives we agree that competition creates benefits to the consumer. We want as many companies competing for our business as we can as this reduces costs and increases quality. This was an objective of the Affordable Care Act, yet for some reason most Democrats believe school choice should be avoided at all costs and place legislative roadblocks to competition. The state of Massachusetts consistently ranks as one of the best education systems in the nation and are a prime example of how school choice improves outcomes. The Boston metro area has more school districts than the entire state of New Mexico with significantly more private and charter schools for parents to choose from. A common argument is that the introduction of a charter school or private school will lead to some students getting a better education than other students. This is a terrible justification to block school choice.
There will always be discrepancies in the quality of education between two schools or districts, but that doesn’t mean we require those who get the better education to come down to the level of the lower performing. Students in Colorado and Texas get a significantly better education than those in New Mexico, but we don’t demand Colorado and Texas become more like New Mexico so that everyone gets an equal education. Students in Rio Rancho get a better education than those at APS. Even within my own county, students in Farmington get a better education than those at CCSD. By increasing school choice parents have the ability to enroll in the school they believe will best meet their children’s education. Let me point out the fallacy of the argument that increasing school choice is discriminatory to those in the lower performing school.
Let’s imagine a new district, charter school, or private school is created in an area where currently only one district exists, which is a low performing district. As the new school attracts students from the old school what will the underperforming school’s response be? As they lose students and funding do you believe they will simply do nothing in response? Do you believe the parents in that school will allow their board and administration to do nothing? Of course not. They will have to improve their curriculum to keep students and parents happy and to maintain funding. They will be forced to improve, or all parents will pull their students from the low performing school and enroll them in the high performing school. If that happens all students are now attending the higher performing school and all students have benefited. Even in the absence of a 100% enrollment shift, the older school is most likely to adapt and improve and again all students benefit, some more than others, but the idea of equality of outcome in all things is impossible and unrealistic as demonstrated in the comparison between states and cities above. The lower performing school isn’t going to regress further, the parents in that district wouldn’t allow it and as such, all students get a better education. But if there is no competition, no reasonable expectation that students will leave, no impetus for change it is far likelier the school will do nothing as there is no need to improve when it operates as a monopoly.
If you look internationally South Korea has one of the best education systems in the world and about 60% of their students attend private schools. This competition forced the public schools in South Korea to improve to compete with the private schools, and now South Korea has one of the best school systems in the world.
Increase teacher pay, talent will always go where the money is
According to the NEA’s 2016 rankings the state of NM ranked 44th for teacher pay. If we want to attract and retain the most talented teachers, we need to pay them a wage that is competitive with the rest of the country. Teaching is no different than any other profession when it comes to compensation, if you pay better wages you will attract a greater quantity and quality of candidate. Think of how many great teachers we miss out on because we don’t pay enough to compete with other states or other professions within the state. The teaching profession is one of the lowest paying professions requiring a bachelor’s degree. We ask our teachers to make huge financial sacrifices to teach our children. If we provide teachers with an income they could more easily support themselves and their families on we would see an increase in the number of people pursuing a teaching degree, which increases competition for positions, and leads to a higher quality profession. NM doesn’t have to be one of the highest paying states since we have a low cost of living, but we can’t expect to continue to pay $10,000 a year less than the national average and expect to get above average or even average results in the classroom.
Grouping students by ability rather than age
If we want to increase student performance we need to eliminate the idea that students should be taught a certain subject based on their age, instead we need to focus on ability grouping. This does not mean tracking. Not every 8 year old will read at the same level, or understand math at the same level so why teach every 8 year old the same thing? Why do we say a child can’t start school until they reach X age? If a parent believes their 4 year old is ready for kindergarten why not let them start then? If a parent wants to wait until they are 7 why not let them do that? By reducing the discrepancies between the ability level of the students you make it easier for teachers to create effective lesson plans that engage the entire class. Right now the ability level of students in the classroom is so divergent teachers struggle to produce lesson plans that are advanced enough they do not surpass the skill set of their lowest performing students, which leads to frustration and a desire to tune out, and so simple that their highest performing students are so bored they tune out.
As an example, let’s imagine a typical 7th grade class today. An English teacher wants to assign a book for her students to read and do a report on. Within her class she has students reading anywhere from a 9th grade level to a 4th grade level. What reading level should the book she assigns be? If she assigns a book at a 7th grade level, is it too advanced for her students reading at a 4th grade level to comprehend and write an effective report on? For all of her students who read at grade level it is appropriate, but they aren’t challenged so they aren’t advancing. For her most advanced students the book is likely too simple so they certainly aren’t being challenged, and may regress. However, if all of her students were within 1-2 grade levels now she has the ability to assign books at and above the reading level of all of her students and doesn’t have to make such compromises. This allows for more students to increase their proficiency as she is able to assign material which is slightly more and more challenging.
A school year that is year round makes ability grouping easier
Even though we are no longer an agrarian society we still operate our schools like we are. The school year starts in August/September and is over in May. Classes are determined by the month and year you were born regardless of ability and advance one grade each year. This long gap between May and August often leads to children forgetting a portion of what they learned and we spend time every fall teaching our students subjects they already learned three months earlier but forgot over the summer. Year-round schedules with more breaks throughout the year of a shorter duration are more appropriate for the modern society. With a year-round schedule students would be able to make advancements when they hit objectives rather than a date on the calendar.
I’d like to see schools revert to a four-day school week starting later in the day. If classes start at 8:00 a.m. and the student has to ride the bus, the child may have to get up as early as 6:00 a.m. or earlier to get ready and catch the bus. To get the 8-10 hours of sleep elementary students need, the child would need to be in bed and asleep between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. There are several studies that have shown our students are not getting enough sleep at night. By pushing the starting time for classes back an hour to an hour and a half we would allow our children to get sufficient sleep and would likely see a decrease in truancy and tardiness. If the students are well rested, they will be better able to focus on the tasks at hand, which may lead to increase in performance.
Raise our expectations: raise the bar and watch the students excel beyond what was once thought impossible
There is an unfortunate shift in education theory in states like California that I believe is detrimental to this nation. California is pushing to lower the standards for math and science because their minority students have struggled to meet objectives. This is the wrong move. I believe in consistently increasing expectations. If you set a reasonable goal and provide the resources to meet the goal students will hit the mark, and once the objective has been met you increase it again. You do not get superior results by lowering expectations. I would ultimately like to see 80% or more of students reading at or above grade-level before entering high school. I want 80% to be proficient in math and science with at least 25% excelling. Colleges all over the nation have been raising the concern over how many students entering college are simply not prepared. In a report released in 2017, by the Hechinger Report, “Data from 911 two- and four-year colleges revealed that 96 percent of schools enrolled students who required remediation in the 2014-15 academic year, the most comprehensive recent numbers. At least 209 schools placed more than half of incoming students in at least one remedial course.” This means our high schools are not doing enough to challenge our children academically and prepare them for the future.
Bring trade skills courses back to our schools
Over the last several decades the education system has told our students that the only way to earn a living today is to go to college. If you don’t go to college you can’t survive in today’s world. While college is great for many people and necessary for many professions, it is not the only way to earn a living above minimum wage. About 20% of high school graduates do not go to college. For those who have no plans to attend college, what skills are we providing for them to be successful after graduation? Unfortunately the answer is very little. Our society needs plumbers, electricians, welders, mechanics, carpenters and so many other professions that don’t require a college education. Many of these jobs pay very well after several years of experience, but getting that experience in the first place is difficult since so few companies are willing to train. These professions also are very conducive for self-employment. We need to put additional resources into these our schools. Nearly every high school allows students to get dual enrollment credits with some college. We need to do the same for these trade skills. For the 20% of students who will never go to college, if we taught them a valuable marketable skill while in high school we would be setting them up for financial success after high school graduation. This is an area where I would love to see more private/public cooperation and work with organizations like Mike Rowe’s foundation.
We need to focus on the health of our students
The number of students we have in this country who are overweight and obese is alarming. According to the CDC 20% of 12-19 year olds in 2011-2014 were obese. Think of that, nearly 1 in 5 high school graduates are obese. Obesity is predominantly caused by insufficient physical exertion and excessive calorie intake. The stats don’t get better as we get older either. In the same study the CDC showed that obesity rates for adults ranged from 32.3% to 40.2%. People who are obese, compared to those with a normal or healthy weight, are at increased risk for many serious diseases and health conditions, including the following:
- High blood pressure (Hypertension)
- High LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, or high levels of triglycerides (Dyslipidemia)
- Type 2 diabetes
- Coronary heart disease
- Gallbladder disease
- Osteoarthritis (a breakdown of cartilage and bone within a joint)
- Sleep apnea and breathing problems
- Some cancers(endometrial, breast, colon, kidney, gallbladder, and liver)
- Low quality of life
- Mental illness such as clinical depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders
- Body pain and difficulty with physical functioning
The obesity rate not only produces significant negative health consequences but it also causes quantifiable economic cost.
National Estimated Costs of Obesity
The medical care costs of obesity in the United States are high. In 2008 dollars, these costs were estimated to be $147 billion. The annual nationwide productive costs of obesity obesity-related absenteeism range between $3.38 billion ($79 per obese individual) and $6.38 billion ($132 per obese individual). According to studies carried out in different countries current economic costs of obesity represent 5-8% of all direct health costs. In contrast, effective treatment of obesity results in a substantial decrease in expenditures associated with pharmacotherapy of hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia and osteoarthritis.
In addition to these costs, data shows implications of obesity on recruitment by the armed forces. An assessment was performed of the percentage of the US military-age population that exceeds the US Army’s current active duty enlistment standards for weight-for-height and percent body fat, using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. In 2007-2008, 5.7 million men and 16.5 million women who were eligible for military service exceeded the Army’s enlistment standards for weight and body fat.
We need to fundamentally change both how we feed our children and how we approach physical education. We must start feeding our children a healthier more balanced meal, and we need to increase the intensity of our physical education in junior high and high school.