Look in the right place

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Fixing the real problem, whatever it is

By Merilee Dannemann

My friend and I are discussing the legacy of Gov. Bill Richardson.
Aside from all the controversies, what did he really do for New Mexico?
“He finally got education reformed,” my friend says. “Replaced the old state school board with a cabinet secretary so there would be accountability.  Freed up money from the permanent fund so there would be money to improve pay for teachers. Got full-day kindergarten and pre-K. These ideas had been around for years and there was a huge coalition in support. Richardson got it done.”
True enough. Richardson spearheaded the drive for an amendment to the state Constitution, which changed the formula for the amount of money that could be withdrawn from the permanent fund and the structure of the education bureaucracy at the state level.
“But education still isn’t fixed,” I said. “You know the numbers. We’re still 49th. Whatever was done didn’t fix the problem.”
Readers, you know the numbers, too.
Well, she says, that’s because of other things. Teachers are not allowed to discipline students, so classrooms are chaotic and the teachers can’t teach.   Truancy and absenteeism are still rampant. There still isn’t an incentive for good teachers to teach in problem schools, so the worst schools have the least experienced teachers.
So the changes that have been made weren’t enough. In order to make all those improvements produce actual results, something else had to be done and they didn’t do it.
And then there is the problem that people with knowledge and experience – such as all the retired scientists and engineers in this state – can’t go teach in a public school without taking education courses that they refuse to take, so we have an enormous resource being wasted.  This happens to be a pet peeve of mine.
Most of those retired scientists and engineers worked for the national labs, the military, or something else sponsored by government; in other words, American taxpayers paid for their careers and all that priceless professional experience, which is now lounging on a beach somewhere sipping drinks with little umbrellas in them.
Another friend is a retired military officer who came back to New Mexico.  As a young man, he had been an elementary school teacher for a few years. He told me: “Any man is crazy to teach in public schools now. You put your hand on a little girl’s shoulder because she’s crying and the next thing you know someone’s called you a sexual predator and your life is ruined.”
And then there’s all that testing. A teacher friend says that between the testing and the paperwork, he doesn’t have much time left to teach. This is a teacher’s-eye view of the new mania for accountability.
So the administrative reform solved the problem, but the problem isn’t solved. In other words, it wasn’t the whole problem. The state government restructuring task force is invited to read this observation.
Government sometimes addresses an issue on the basis of what government knows how to do rather than going for the tough thing that is knotty and convoluted, cannot be explained in sound bites and might be opposed by some interest group.
According to an old story, a fellow was wandering around and around under a street lamp. Someone asked him if anything was the matter.  “I lost my keys,” he said.
“Where do you think you lost them?”
“Somewhere in that parking lot over there.”
“Then why are you looking here instead of there?”
“Because this is where the light’s better.”

Merilee Dannemann
NM News Service