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The Independent of Edgewood, New Mexico

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Education in New Mexico

This is the first part of a four-part series on education.

When I was editor of The Independent, readers would often ask me when and where was the best viewing of the fall colors. Editors, of course, are supposed to know everything, but what could I say? It depends on the kind of foliage, altitude, precipitation, temperature, even whether a slope faces north or south.

Walking in the Sandias this fall, I recalled these conversations. Some of the trees had lost their leaves entirely, some were in the process of changing, and others had not yet begun to color.

The reason I was walking was to try to think my way through a two-hour discussion with an old friend, an intelligent and experienced man who is seriously involved in education at a very high level. The reforms we hammered our way through and talked our way around were much like the oaks and aspens in the Sandias—some were barren, a few were brilliant and a lot were indeterminate. Like the changing of the leaves, triumph, disappointment and uncertainty were all united in shifting combinations that varied with time and place and the political weather.

Education has emerged as a top political and policy issue in New Mexico. It is just about the only substantive subject to have been debated in the drab gubernatorial campaign between Republican Susana Martinez and Democrat Gary King. It was what state House candidates talked about most. Its financing occupies two-thirds of the state budget, and its reform has been the main topic of debate in most recent legislative sessions.

Of late, education has become even more central and controversial than ever. The seemingly never-ending economic recession in New Mexico (the number of jobs in 2014 is lower than any year since 2004, an entire lost decade) has provoked policy makers and citizens alike to cast around for how to end or at least mitigate it. Most choose better education as their reform of choice, although exactly what kind of reform, for whose benefit and done by whom with what resources are continuing topics of often bitter dispute.

That education is important almost everyone agrees. A recent report by Paul J. Gessing for the conservative Rio Grande Foundation declares unequivocally, "New Mexico's K-12 system is a failure on nearly all counts."

That New Mexico's economy is in trouble is also a matter of consensus. And that a better educated workforce can be the antidote to recession is a nearly universal prescription. Those generalities make education worth examining, but beyond them there is virtually no agreement on causes and effects, on ailments and remedies, on what kind of education we need, for whom and for what purposes.

For 50 years, ever since education became a major concern of the federal government, we have treated it as a single national disease with a single national cure, much as cancer was once envisioned. But we have discovered that cancer is in reality hundreds of diseases, and each requires its own cure. Similarly, all our education reforms, from Head Start in the 1960s to No Child Left Behind under George W. Bush to Race to the Top under Barack Obama, have stumbled on the barrier of one size fits all. Education, we have learned to our pain, is many ailments, and each requires its own medication.

I had coffee a few days ago with a middle school teacher in Albuquerque who apologized for being late. She had just returned from the Santa Fe funeral of a student in her school, a young girl, who, she said, was bright, charming and had enormous potential.

Students in today's schools, particularly in disadvantaged neighborhoods, face enormous problems, problems that teachers do not have the means to resolve. Violence, sex, drugs and even death face many students and teachers.

A poll last year of students in Bernalillo County found that 15 percent had planned to commit suicide and 10 percent had actually tried. One-third use marijuana; 6.5 percent, cocaine; and 3.7 percent, heroin. Commenting on the poll, a charter school teacher said it was a reminder that students and their teachers face more than academic challenges. "You get only one chance to help them," Lou Duran told KOAT-TV, "and if you don't, you're going to regret not saying something or not being there to help them."

I am having a beer on the outdoor patio of Kelly's in Nob Hill with a young couple. They are both public middle school teachers, but in different school districts. He is in his first year and she in her second.

"I was lost," she tells me about her first year in the classroom.

They tell me they have no teaching mentors although they are supposed to, because their schools can't afford them. Her principal, she feels, is incompetent and indifferent to the needs of teachers and students. He has almost no contact with his principal. Most experienced teachers do not have the time or patience to listen to their problems.

When a student seriously misbehaved and he wanted to write up the student, no one at the school could or would tell him how to do it. He has had to lower his expectations of student behavior drastically. "I have to pick my fights," he says sadly.

Fifty percent of their evaluation as teachers is based on how their students perform on objective tests. The tests are intended to measure teachers' skills by showing how much progress students make during the year. But progress is judged not by comparing student scores at the beginning and end of the same year, or how the same student did last year versus this year, but by comparing how a teacher's class did the previous spring with how the next year's class does the following spring. Thus two different— sometimes very different-groups of students are being compared. As a result, the tests are not measuring either student learning or teacher performance.

These two teachers don't object to the tests on principal. "Good tests would be useful," one says. "These aren't useful,", the other says.

Their students take the tests on computers. During classroom work their students do not have computers. Nor do most of their students have computers at home. They don't really know how to use computers. They don't even have email addresses because most young people have abandoned email for texting. Phones have replaced computers. They do their homework with pencil and paper.

When a student missed a class and asked for a copy of his homework assignment, the teacher said she would have to get it to him after school. The reason was the school's copier was broken and she would have to go off campus to find a machine. The student got upset; the student's parent got upset. They blamed the teacher.

Many of the students are smart, smart enough to do the assignments and pass the tests, but they can't because they know little or no English.

English is not spoken in their homes, and the school isn't remedying the problem.

Both young teachers have problems with students who lack motivation to work, who see little point to education, who hold no hope for their lives.

Simply managing the classroom can be such an onus that education itself has to take a back seat. He has 38 students in one of his classes. He has no assistant.

The young woman is committed to teaching. Both her parents are teachers. She studied education in college. She says that despite all the problems, this year is better than last.

He, however, was thrown into class two weeks after school began before finishing teacher training and without ever having taught. "When I wake up in the morning, I try to find a reason to go to work," he says. "If I can just get to Christmas, then I'll see. I would like to finish out my contract and last until the end of the year." He is looking into enrolling in a university in Colorado to get a master's degree in a different field.

This young, highly intelligent, newly married, ambitious and idealistic couple is not alone. Many feel lost in today's education maze. From preschool to university, students, teachers and administrators are trying to feel their way as if blindfolded through the tortuous twists of local, state and federal policies, financial crunches and conflicting demands of myriad stakeholders.

This series of columns looks at the plight of education in New Mexico, how we got where we are, what we can do about it, and how and why we need to change. In researching these articles I have talked to a wide variety of people who will be identified by their role but not by name, just as schools and school districts will be cited for their experience but not named. The purpose of these articles is not to embarrass failures or laud successes but to examine how the system works and to look at policies that produce success or failure.

Copyright 2014 The Independent, Edgewood, New Mexico. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: December 3, 2014

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