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Education reform not about kids

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By Kathy Korte

These feel-good phrases sound great to the general public: “We need to raise education standards in New Mexico.” “Our kids deserve better.” “Kids First.”
No one in our state, which has ranked persistently in the bottom of the nation in child poverty and graduation rates, would argue. But dig deep into the world where concerned parents, students and teachers are operating, and Gov. Susana Martinez’s reforms are not about kids. Her reforms — spearheaded by Hanna Skandera, a non-teacher and a non-parent — are really about corporate money and re-election campaign slogans.
The PED won’t acknowledge the huge elephant in the room: Not every child has a supportive adult at home. Many of our state’s children live in poverty and endure abuse and neglect. In Albuquerque Public Schools alone, 6,000 of 87,000 students are homeless and 64 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Despite these challenges, APS has increased its graduation rate from 63.2 percent in 2008 to 70.1 percent in 2012.
As a Board of Education member, I can assure you that nowhere in our game plan to close the poverty learning gap has the district ever looked to standardized tests as the answer! Instead, we’ve been innovative in reaching out to children of poverty and helping them — and their parents — improve academic outcomes.
Skandera, on the other hand, works from a corporate playbook that forces districts to measure student and teacher “progress” with mathematical models that even Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists can’t figure out. The problem with her business approach to education is that kids — and the challenges they face in our economically depressed state — are not robots.
Skandera’s new standardized bubble test, the End of Course exam, is a corporate boondoggle. It is spearheaded with the help of a New Hampshire company called Measured Progress, which has been paid more than $7.3 million since Skandera came on board. It has another $2.4 million coming to it for contract work in 2013. How many more out-of-state companies are profiting from the governor’s “reforms?” Let’s hope New Mexico’s major news providers will devote resources to following the money.
What should informed citizens know about these bubble tests? Well, the required pass scores for a few End of Course exams were recently revealed by the PED: Chemistry, 13 out of 50 (26 percent); Algebra II, 20 out of 50 (40 percent); Biology, 22 out of 50 (44 percent). The PED is spending millions to develop and administer End of Course exams and yet the required pass scores are so low, you have to wonder: “Why bother taking them?” A teacher would call such a score an “F.”
In January, the PED will ask the Legislature for an additional 3.9 percent for its programs. That’s $99 million in additional funds for reforms. That’s outrageous to teachers and parents who know that the $99 million isn’t going directly to our classrooms. So where is it going exactly?
The governor and Skandera are increasing education spending, but they’re doing it on the backs of kids. They’ll spend much of the $99 million on expanding testing for K-3 students and the ridiculous End of Course standardized exams for fourth through 12th grades. They’ll give first-year teachers a 10 percent pay raise when every teacher deserves an increase, and they’ll spend some of the millions on merit pay that benefits just a few teachers as part of a pilot program that is based on a faulty and subjective evaluation system.
If we really value education, we’ll scrutinize the claims Skandera and Martinez make when they defend their corporate reform model — the same model that is failing in Tennessee, Florida, New York, Oregon and Washington, D.C.
If Skandera and Martinez were true collaborators, they wouldn’t ask the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council for insight. If they truly valued collaboration, they would put a hold on their destructive path and consult those of us in the trenches about what we want in our New Mexico schools.
Here is my short wish list: art and music classes for elementary students every year; basic classroom needs like paper towels and copy paper so teachers and parents don’t have to pay for them; adequate materials and professional development for teachers so they can apply the new Common Core State Standards with fidelity; and more money for middle and high school arts programs. Here is what would never be on my wish list: more standardized tests!
In 2014, many of us will “Opt Out” of unnecessary and excessive tests and “Vote Out” the politicians who arrogantly refuse to listen to our concerns and frustrations as we actually do the hands-on work of teaching and parenting our children.