Give reforms a chance

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By Sherry Robinson

Should we be more concerned that 87 percent of our public schools didn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress or that Democrats are still nitpicking Secretary of Education-designate Hanna Skandera?
I’d say the AYP scores are the least of our worries. It’s apparent by now that this yardstick of the federal No Child Left Behind Act is inherently unfair and unhelpful.
We also know that half our kids can’t read and 60 percent struggle with math. That’s why Gov. Susana Martinez plucked a veteran of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s education team to replicate Florida’s success here.
To anyone who would remind me of the famous axiom that what works elsewhere won’t work in New Mexico, I would remind you that the massive education reform package passed on the previous administration’s watch borrowed heavily from the Tennessee model. That bipartisan reform, led by a Democratic governor, improved accountability and teacher pay but failed to produce the needed turnaround.
Now it’s somebody else’s turn, but instead of pulling together, we have petty carping from the Legislative Education Study Committee about Skandera’s use of consultants while she got her team on board and then more carping about how two (two!) of the new hires are from outside the state. One committee member even accused Skandera of being unprepared to lead.
Business managers routinely call in consultants, valued for their objectivity and expertise, to examine a problem and make recommendations.
That’s why the New Mexico Business Roundtable for Educational Excellence, which firmly supported the previous reforms, defended Skandera’s use of consultants and supported her decision to hire the “best and brightest” from New Mexico and other states to push reforms. The Roundtable’s leaders called on New Mexicans to give Skandera and “bold change” a chance.
I would second that motion and point out, considering how politicized education is here, it was probably helpful to get advice from people who had no horse in the race. Beyond that, it’s always been the prerogative of appointees to surround themselves with a few people of their choosing.
Skandera disagrees with the Annual Yearly Progress measures, which is why she is anxious to introduce the A-to-F grading system approved in this year’s legislative session. And she intends to apply for a waiver from the requirements and penalties of No Child Left Behind; U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has indicated he may offer waivers if states have other systems in place.
The A-to-F system has its own hazards, however. At a June Education Study Committee meeting, superintendents had some reservations. The state doesn’t test students in all grades, and the proposed rating system is based on just reading and math.  
Many superintendents support the law, said Tom Sullivan, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of School Administrators, but see bugs to be worked out. Among other things, they want graduation rates to include students who take five years and not four.
“What we are basically being presented with is a Florida model with the word ‘Florida’ whited out and ‘New Mexico’ typed in,” Sullivan said.
The Coalition for Excellence in Science and Math Education (www.cesame-nm.org/) has concerns about how the grade is calculated. A school’s performance reflects a multitude of variables, the two biggest being student demographics and poverty.
Account for these variables and you get a reasonably fair and accurate measure that can be compared with statistical expectations. If the school is doing better, it’s on the right track and can be an example to others like it. If it’s lagging, it can get help. Without a meaningful adjustment, all you have is another No Child Left Behind.
It would be nice to see the education committee’s Dems give Skandera the tools she wants and hold her accountable. If she doesn’t deliver, she and her boss get a failing grade.      

Sherry Robinson
© New Mexico News Services 2011