In recent years, no issue has ignited more debate and generated more discord than education reform. Of course, the invective and hyperbole divert attention from the real dilemmas facing America—and New Mexico in particular—today.
In New Mexico, opposition to reform is heavily driven by the politics of personalities. Because the governor has made education a central component of her legislative agenda, those likely to be receptive to reform in other states are less inclined to support a similar effort here. Efforts to pass common-sense measures like the retention of third-graders who lack even basic proficiency in reading have been stymied, with critics charging that self-esteem takes precedence over achievement.
Of course, this gamesmanship cannot obscure the real tragedy unfolding in our classrooms today. While per-pupil spending adjusted for inflation has nearly doubled since the mid-1970s, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, colloquially known as the nation’s scorecard, have remained stagnant. So too has educational attainment, with the percentage of 25 to 29-year-olds holding a bachelor’s degree constant at nearly 20 percent since the 1980s.
According to the 2013 NAEP report, New Mexico fared worse than 49 other jurisdictions in grade 4 reading proficiency, a dubious distinction that makes the state statistically similar to Mississippi and the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, racial inequities persist, with Hispanic students performing 24 points lower than their white counterparts.
The Senate Is Failing
Two issues merit considerable attention in New Mexico: the failure of the state senate’s leadership to pass a bill ending the destructive practice of social promotion, and a fanatical insistence by the teachers unions on weakening even a modest level of accountability under the veil of “overtesting.”
Last session, despite approval by the state’s House of Representatives, the senate killed a measure to give third-graders who lack even basic proficiency in reading a chance by retaining them for an additional year of remediation. According to multiple media accounts, Democratic senators were concerned about the effects of retention on the “self-esteem” of those retained—this despite expert observations that nearly half of the fourth-grade curriculum is entirely incomprehensible to students reading below grade level; and the strong correlation that exists between high school completion and robust reading skills at the elementary school level.
There’s Something Wrong Here
Most significant, however, is the icy indifference of the establishment when it comes to performance and accountability. Despite the fact that the National Education Association was behind the movement to make objective assessment more dominant than subjective observation a decade ago, it now opposes the accountability measures it previously championed, and in the process is using parents as tools of political persuasion.
The current evaluation system hardly seems onerous. According to district results released this year, for instance, Gadsden Independent School District reported that fewer than 1 percent of its teachers were rated as ineffective. This number strains credulity. Popular estimates, based on the pioneering research of Eric A. Hanushek, a professor of economics at Stanford, fix the number at anywhere between 5 percent and 10 percent on average.
In sum, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that far from being rigorous, the system is too often rigged.
Democrats Have Been Complicit
All of this underscores the point that far from being champions of the disadvantaged, my party, the Democratic Party, has been too complicit in placing the needs of adults above those of students. And while that tide is turning—popular progressives like George Miller, Antonio Villaraigosa and Andrew Cuomo are among the most vocal critics of a static system—the pace of change is too gradual and non-existent in New Mexico.
This apathy not only imperils the lives of students who can least afford it but makes any discussion about economic growth a pipe dream at best.
It also conflicts greatly with the growing chorus of civil rights groups—among them the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), NAACP, National Council of La Raza and the National Urban League—who in a May 5 statement called the “opt-out” movement what it is: an effort to “sabotage important data and rob [minorities] of the right to know how our students are faring” under the “false mantle of civil rights activism.”
When parents ‘opt out’ of tests, they’re not only making a choice for their own child, they’re inadvertently making a choice to undermine efforts to improve schools for every child.
Recently, I disaffiliated from the state Democratic Party to become an independent. While my views are aligned more closely with the Democratic Party as a whole, the state party’s hand-wringing on education reform simply cannot be squared with our moral imperative to improve the system for our kids, mine included.
It also denies the reality that New Mexico, to paraphrase President Kennedy, is in danger of foundering in the backwash of history while our sister states are moving to implement more aggressive reforms that recognize both right and reality.