The schools of New Mexico have benefitted from strong and stable leadership at the state level for the past seven years. During that time, Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera has focused on student-centered reform that has raised academic standards, strengthened accountability, and transformed the way educators are supported and evaluated. As she prepares
to leave the post, Skandera reflected on the accomplishments and challenges ahead for schools in New Mexico, and across the country.
Do you drink coffee or tea? How do you take it? The coffee-maker is usually one of my first stops in the morning, but sometimes I never get there. The day takes hold and the heart starts racing on its own. Four out of five days I grab one of the mugs that have been accumulated over the past seven years and fill-up with a highly-caffeinated blend—a little bit of cream, no sugar; cardboard-colored is the right shade.
You recently submitted your ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) plan, which includes bold proficiency and growth goals. What is New Mexico going to do differently to meet those goals? Our state’s students are on the rise right now, so much of what we’re doing is building upon the momentum that we’ve seen these last few years. This isn’t a “restart” for New Mexico like it is for some others states. In fact, our classroom teachers and school leaders asked us repeatedly to not have it be another moment in the history of education where we “start all over again.” Our students were up in 19 of 21 academic subjects last year—and many of our districts demonstrated incredible gains for kids. New Mexico’s graduation rate is at an all-time high, after climbing up eight percentage points to 71 percent. As a state, we’re in a powerful moment where we can build upon that momentum—pulling together and engaging with our parents, families, and students in new ways and accelerating academic progress by sharing and scaling best practices.
The Trump administration is making a big push for school choice while de-emphasizing accountability. Is choice the right lever for change given that most kids will still be in traditional public schools and choice isn't really an option in most suburban and rural areas? So much of what drives me is how to put parents and families in the driver’s seat of their child’s educational experience—with honest information on their student’s performance and honest information on their school’s performance. Our families want to secure the best possible education for their child. Period. Our role should be to make that possible. ESSA actually provides states with the opportunity to design systems with parents and families in-mind—we shouldn’t re-design systems of the past. School choice has existed since the beginning of time. But for parents with financial means to have choices and those without to not have choices, to me, cuts against fundamental American beliefs—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Choice shouldn’t be contingent upon zip code. Our students in those rural communities deserve robust options as well—whether it is through virtual learning or via multi-district compacts that increase access to AP courses. “Options for Parents and Families” is one of the five pillars of our strategic plan. It’s grounded in the belief that we’re not going to let zip code or socioeconomic status dictate the options and opportunities that our kids have.
You've weathered some pretty rough politics in New Mexico over the years. Your confirmation was delayed for several years. Lately it seems to have settled down. Why? Have you changed your approach in any way? Change is hard. When I arrived in 2011 and traveled the state I heard folks say, in a variety of ways, that because our children came from tough backgrounds, they wouldn’t be able to succeed. But when I traveled the state this past year I heard a spirit of optimism and belief that our kids can and will achieve at the highest levels. There are now countless examples of schools where students come from low-income backgrounds or are English learners and they’re
outperforming peers in other schools or in other districts. Now we know what’s possible, and we know that our schools can transform lives. Whatever personal or professional arrows were slung my way are inconsequential. It’s about putting kids first.
There's a lot of talk about personalized learning these days. What does that mean to you and is this a promising innovation? There’s a ton of promise here. I can think of many examples, but take our partnership with College Board and Khan Academy. In New Mexico we pay for every student to take the PSAT their sophomore year. They can now use their results to set up a personalized account via Khan Academy with their strengths and areas for growth reflected, that means our students can practice 24/7. Long term—this is going to impact graduation rates, college access and scholarships. That’s just an example of the kind of promise that exists here.
Today, many more kids are graduating and going to college than ever before but achievement gaps are stubbornly wide. What is reform doing right, wrong and what should the reform movement do differently? State-specific or site-specific context matters. Under ESSA, the particular landscape of a given state will become even more important. The reform movement is shifting towards strategies that feel more place-based—and I think that can be a good thing. But it would be a course overcorrection if we stopped learning from the places that are seeing dramatic student achievement results. There are cities and states that—let’s be clear—are actually driving student growth at a faster rate than others. One of our strengths as a reform movement has been learning from those places. We have to build and learn from our past instead of sliding backwards and disregarding the importance of a data-driven foundation. We all need to ask ourselves: To what extent are we truth-telling with our constituents and policymakers? Central to the reform movement has been raising the bar and telling the truth about how our students are actually doing. Now is the moment to do more of that and not less of that. But, to your question, those actions will only matter if teachers, families, and communities feel engaged in the creation and in understanding how to use the tools we provide—and I think we have a long way to go on that front.
New Mexico has adopted an A-F school grading system. What's the advantage of it? What if any are the risks? Does it oversimplify? Transparency about school performance—what we call School Grades—is a core state responsibility. It’s one that leads to greater accountability, better cycles of continuous improvement, more actionable data for parents and families, and more flexibility for high-performing schools that are looking to take their performance to the next level. Simplicity of the summative rating is essential, because parents must understand what it means and be empowered to make good decisions for their kids. Finding the right balance between simplicity and multiple measures is tough but worth fighting for. We need to measure both growth and proficiency and other academic indicators but only if parents and families understand both the what and the why. The next frontier for us is making these tools more family-friendly and more actionable, which is essential to putting parents in the driver’s seat.
Teacher evaluation based in part on student test scores is one of the more controversial policies. Many states have backed away from it but you have stayed with it. How is it working and how do teachers respond to it? We know that teacher quality is the number one in-school factor impacting student achievement yet state after state has moved away from putting their capital and courage into our most meaningful instrument in capturing teacher effectiveness. The real controversy—if not tragedy—is watching states back away for political reasons and not putting students first. New Mexico is certainly a state with deep conviction about this, and that ability to stay the course over time is now paying off for our teachers and students. We are now able to reward some of our strongest teachers with new opportunities and compensation and we’re now able to better support our teachers who have areas of growth that merit further coaching and development. More than 80 percent of our teachers have meaningful student growth data that is incorporated into their summative rating and the number of highly-effective and exemplary teachers has increased by 30 percent over the last three years. This information now helps us improve the administration of Title IIA, the improvement of teacher preparation programs, and more meaningful analyses of teacher recruitment and retention that aren’t based in anecdotes. Anecdotes are being overused these days. We need to know people’s stories, but we also need to know where they fit into how our students are doing overall.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with