How New Mexico Is Becoming a Quiet Leader in the Education Reform Movement

Jun 21, 2018 12:00:00 AM


While much of the education reform world was convening in Austin for the annual charter schools conference this week, I snuck off to Albuquerque for the New Mexico Teacher Summit at the invitation of state Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski. I’m glad I did. I met lots of New Mexico teachers and talked about everything from pay to guns. Unlike their colleagues in neighboring Arizona, New Mexico teachers have not walked out for higher pay or for more school funding despite ranking 44th in the country for teacher salaries, according to the National Education Association. Several veteran teachers told me they take on extra work like coaching sports and mentoring new teachers for additional pay. As for the gun issue, a few I spoke with said they are getting used to lockdowns and active shooter drills. One teacher proudly showed me a picture of her 7-year-old daughter with a .22 rifle. Another, a military veteran who grew up in Tennessee, said he never leaves home without a handgun. A third, who lives in a rural community near the Mexican border, said she keeps her guns loaded and ready. None believe gun control is the solution, though they don’t support arming teachers either. Instead, they favor increased security. The 2018 National Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning, came in from her home state of Washington and shared her story of helping refugee children. As residents of a border state where immigration issues are an everyday reality, the 1,300 teachers listened closely and clapped respectfully. Outgoing New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez spoke to the gathering and talked about high educational expectations at home but low expectations in the broader community. Martinez credited her teachers with challenging her.

New Mexico has stayed with it

With 850 schools, including 97 charters, spread across 89 school districts in the fifth-biggest state in America, New Mexico has become a quiet leader in the education reform movement. Under Ruszkowski’s predecessor Hanna Skandera, the state adopted the Common Core standards, the PARCC test, an A-F grading system and a bold teacher evaluation system, NMTEACH. Today, NMTEACH remains the state’s biggest policy play. Unlike most other states that watered down evaluation or abandoned it altogether, New Mexico has stayed with it. The system gives the heaviest weight to classroom observation (40 percent), with growth in test scores slightly behind (35 percent), followed by planning, preparation and professionalism (15 percent), parent and student surveys (5 percent) and teacher attendance (5 percent). In his first full year as secretary, Ruszkowski visited 122 schools in 75 districts across the state on a bus tour dubbed the “Straight-A Express.” [pullquote]He can cite by memory every school and teacher he visited and drops data points as fluidly as a stand-up comic drops one-liners.[/pullquote] Appointed by the governor and approved by the legislature, Ruszkowski faces a challenging political environment where Democratic legislators are closely aligned with reform-resistant teachers unions, especially in Albuquerque, the biggest district in the state.

Can Reform Survive New Mexico’s Political Climate Changes?

The upcoming election features a conservative Republican and a progressive Democrat and it’s not clear if either will keep Ruszkowski around, so he maintains a palpable sense of urgency about the work. He urged pro-reform teachers at the conference to organize themselves into a collective voice for preserving the current system. “The politicians need to hear from you, otherwise the only people they will hear from are the school boards, the administrators and the unions. You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” he said. In a breakfast strategy session with Secretary Ruszkowski, teacher leaders from across the state said they were grateful for the evaluation system because it gave them feedback and tools to improve. “It’s concrete and it encourages us to grow,” said one teacher, adding, “It’s a work in progress but for the first time, I feel like I have some control.” Others suggested that the best argument for reforms may be that going backwards would be disruptive. “We’ve been through a lot of change,” said one teacher. [pullquote]“We want stability. The last thing we want is someone new coming in and changing things again.”[/pullquote] In addition to local media, New Mexico now has a pro-reform education blogger, Seth Saavedra, who is both Latino and Native American. Several reform organizations, including Teach Plus and New Mexico Kids CAN, also work in the state. Time will tell if reform will survive New Mexico’s shifting political climate but, from the energy at the conference it is clear that many New Mexico teachers are excited to be a part of it and eager to be leaders in their field.

Peter Cunningham

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 Whiteboard Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

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