Home » The State of Education and the State of New Mexico

The State of Education and the State of New Mexico

The following paper suggesting a way forward for education in New Mexico was written by Linda Henke, Director of the Santa Fe Center, and Alan Webber, recently elected mayor of Santa Fe.


Education is at least two things at the same time. It is one of the most critical determinants of how each of us does in life. And it has a major impact on the quality of our collective social, economic, and civic experience.  It is also one of the most controversial topics of discussion, one where each of us has a strong opinion.Here in New Mexico those truths are evident every day in all parts of the state. Nothing is more important than education for New Mexico’s future. Nothing evokes more disagreement than what education in New Mexico needs to be.

This working paper on education from One New Mexico seeks to address those truths and to offer a new way forward on education in New Mexico. It starts with some things we can all agree on: Education—learning, really—has been and still is the ladder of opportunity for our kids. It’s the key to better jobs, better pay, better lives, better futures.

Our state’s history, the diverse composition of our population, the serious implications of poverty, the rural and frontier nature of our state—make New Mexico unique.   These challenges and assets suggest that we need to design an approach to education that fits New Mexico and fits our children. Our purpose should be to provide our children and coming generations of New Mexicans with educational approaches and experiences that will equip them to live full, productive and successful lives.

The way forward, we suggest, rests on a better way of thinking about the fundamental purpose of education and a better definition of the basic building blocks of a successful education.We believe that a framework for education in New Mexico needs to be student-centered and teacher-led, with high engagement and high standards, grounded in our state’s assets, and responsive to our challenges.Our approach is based on five lenses that support educators and children in organizing and making sense of schoolwork:

  • Scholarship
  • Leadership
  • Stewardship
  • Citizenship
  • Entrepreneurship

We also believe the arts should be woven throughout a New Mexico student’s education as a key tool for nurturing creativity and innovation, building appreciation for multiple perspectives and expressing who we are and what our aspirations are for our future.

This framework represents a way forward for education, for our kids and for New Mexico. It fits who we are now, where we’ve come from and what we can aspire to in the future. This is the conversation we need to have about the most critical—and conflicted—issue facing New Mexico.

Education and New Mexico: Who Are We? How Are We Doing?

New Mexico faces a unique set of challenges when it comes to educational success.  We are now, and have long been, one of the poorest states in the nation. Whether we like it or not, there is irrefutable evidence that shows powerful connections between poverty and educational failure. That means that many of our children start school from behind. Research has proven that a significant portion of a child’s brain development occurs in the first 36 months of his or her life. What happens in the lives of New Mexico’s children between 0 and 3 years old—and even before that, before birth—is a significant determinant of each child’s chances for educational success.

This means that 98% of the money we spend on education occurs after much of our children’s brain’s development has already occurred.  These are not idle claims; they are supported by hard data. [i]

There’s another factor that is inherent to New Mexico, an intrinsic state attribute: we have 2 million people spread over more than 121,000 square miles—making New Mexico the 36th largest state in population and the 5th largest state in area, a combination that makes us 46th in population density. One consequence of this population distribution is that we have 146 school districts across the state. This approach gives every community its own school district. Whether it gives every child in New Mexico an opportunity for a quality education is an entirely different matter. Both poverty and population density, among other factors, help set the stage for New Mexico’s educational performance.

What We Learn From Our History and Culture?

 It is impossible to reckon with New Mexico’s educational challenge without considering New Mexico’s educational history. A longer treatment of this important factor is at the back of this paper. A short summary of our state’s history and culture would include the following:

  •  New Mexico recognized the importance of public education early, but invested in it late: Virtually no public schools existed in the territory before 1890.
  • New Mexico has a history of school age population not being enrolled in schools; of adult illiteracy; and of very low rates of expenditure in public education.
  • New Mexico is one of the most diverse states in the nation but the state’s educational programming has not made that attribute into an educational asset.
  • New Mexico’s economy was historically based on agriculture and extractive industries; the education that once served that economy does not serve the new needs of a rapidly changing knowledge economy. 

How Are We Doing?

This is a simple question.  There is no simple answer.

Here’s the problem. What we are witnessing with public education in New Mexico is a system failure. (We’ll explore that in more detail later in this paper.) But there are no data about the system as a system.The educational system can’t take a test. We can’t easily measure the performance of the educational system. But we can require the kids to take a test. We can, in some crude ways, measure their performance. So we end up holding the kids and their teachers accountable for a system that is failing them. That said, here’s what we know using conventional metrics, flaws and all.

By most conventional measurements, New Mexico is not doing well in education.  We are near or at the bottom of most rankings when it comes to test scores, graduation rates, dropout rates, higher education participation and graduation and other standard criteria.

The picture these metrics paint is that of a public education system that in most ways is failing as a system: failing to engage and teach children, failing to produce literate and numerate children, failing to get children through high school with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century economy.

Many people link New Mexico’s lagging economy with New Mexico’s lagging education system. They are, in effect, two sides of the same coin, a self-reinforcing system of failure: With so many New Mexico families mired in poverty, we send our kids to school already behind; they under-perform in school or dropout or fail to graduate; and then they are under-prepared to compete in the job market for high-paying 21st century jobs. And then the cycle begins again.

Or at least that’s the way New Mexico’s public education system is widely seen. Later in this paper we’ll ask whether these conventional metrics are accurate and useful—and what they actually mean or don’t mean. But if we stay inside the assumptions guiding the dominant thinking on public education, its purposes and its evaluation system, that is the generally agreed upon picture. (For a more detailed look at what the metrics say, go to the back of this paper.[ii])

What We Are Not Saying

We are not saying that New Mexico’s students are less capable than students elsewhere. We are not saying that educators in New Mexico are less passionate in their professionalism or less committed to their work.

We are saying that the failure we are witnessing is a system failure. It begins with a failure to acknowledge the considerable obstacles that poverty and primary language differences contribute to the equation. But the failure of the system goes well beyond this.

Those at the highest levels of the state government have not offered a compelling and empowering vision of quality education for New Mexico. Instead we are confronted by a vision based on deficits and crippling standardization:

  • In New Mexico we use standardized test scores to judge what children know, rather than assessing actual student work to learn both what children know and what they can do.
  • We institute a burdensome and scientifically flawed teacher evaluation system that is absurdly incapable of identifying “quality” teachers, resulting in deep morale issues throughout faculty in the state.
  • We rate schools with crude letter grades and punish educators who choose to work in poorer communities.
  • We overwhelm school leaders with issues of compliance with state mandates that sap energy for innovation.

Little in today’s educational landscape in New Mexico elicits the kind of collective enthusiasm of educators or community members that could drive the transformation of teaching and learning in our state. Our state deserves—and needs—more than that. We need a new vision and a new plan that fits New Mexico and fits our children. We need a new system that allows them to succeed and thrive in their education and in their lives (A great deal of the failing system that is in place in New Mexico and in the United States actually traces back to factory work and the theory of scientific management advanced by Frederick Winslow Taylor. For more on this history go to the back of this paper.[iii]).

 But Is It Good For Our Kids—Now?

The problem is, Taylorism was a perfect fit for the Industrial Revolution and factory work. It isn’t good for the Knowledge Revolution and knowledge work—or for our children, their education and their chances for success in life.

In fact, this Industrial Age model of educating children has given rise to a set of assumptions that go against what we know about how children learn and thrive. Listed below are only a few of the underlying assumptions that are demonstrably false, yet continue to define the operational and philosophical underpinnings of public education:

  • One size of educational programming fits all.
  • Standardized testing is the best way to measure learning; we can accurately summarize students’ learning with numbers.
  • Pre-packaged materials such as textbooks created by large educational corporations should drive the work in the classrooms.
  • Education begins only after children begin to attend school.
  • The context of a child’s life is not critically relevant to that child’s education.
  • Teachers should deliver uniform teaching; the best way to ensure classroom consistency is to rely on “teacher-proof” materials.
  • Teachers need little time for planning, collaborating with other teachers and reflecting on individual student learning; in fact, this use of time is inefficient.
  • Schools should operate on a nine-month schedule, with long absences for students during the summer to enable them to help with the farm-work or to take vacations.
  • Education takes place in a single room with one teacher at the front of the class; that one teacher should instruct the entire class all at the same time with children sitting quietly at their desks.
  • Once teachers have their teaching degrees, they should require little additional study or professional development. These are only examples; the list could go on much longer. It is a familiar litany of thinking based on outmoded assumptions borrowed from scientific management and the Industrial Revolution.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that schools, districts, cities and even states are challenging these obsolete assumptions and often finding remarkable success with new approaches. Around the country—and in New Mexico—there are innovative schools that are providing rich, engaging learning experiences for their communities’ children—experiences that depart from current unproductive educational trends and support children in their ongoing journeys toward higher education, work and success in life.

We need to ask a number of fundamental questions if we want to improve our schools and move beyond conventional thinking or finger-pointing.

  • What do we want for our children? For their futures?
  • How should we define success for New Mexico schools? What is the fundamental purpose of education in New Mexico?
  • How do we design schools and educational offerings for thisplace—not anyplace? How do we draw on the rich and diverse history, culture, art and natural environment of New Mexico to create an education that is uniquely ours?
  • What should we use for the design of these schools? Where can we find positive examples to draw from?

Asking these questions—and then looking for answers with open minds and fresh eyes—can take us to a new place in the search for real educational improvement for New Mexico. We can untether ourselves from the outmoded assumptions and failed practices of the past and instead celebrate the uniqueness of our state. We can build schools that offer a 21st century education unlike any other in the country—or in the world. We can design an educational experience created by New Mexicans, for New Mexicans—and for New Mexico.

Begin With the End in Mind What is our definition of success, the central purpose that gives shape and meaning to our educational philosophy and offerings?

Without a generally agreed-upon answer to this fundamental question it is difficult, if not impossible, to design an approach to education for New Mexico that makes sense and takes us where we want to go. After all, if we don’t know where we’re trying to get to in education, there can be no map to guide us.

And yet that is where we are today. There is a lack of clarity in defining the core mission of education. When pressed for an answer as to what would constitute success, too often the fallback response emphasizes improved test scores.

Granted, test scores can provide generalized data to help improve curricula and instruction. But a test, in reality, only offers a broad-brush glimpse of what a child can do in the time she or he is given on the day the test is administered. Notwithstanding these profound limitations, major corporations and the “education-industrial complex” have successfully made testing the centerpiece of a working definition of our larger educational mission in the United States—and even more so in New Mexico.

These tests have become far too significant in the individual lives of children and teachers and in the overall experience of schooling. Moreover, they have obscured and prevented the more critical conversation that we need to have to arrive at a deeper, better and more purposeful definition of educational success in New Mexico. We need to begin with the end in mind if we want to embark on a successful learning journey.

A sharper-focused discussion of the real purpose of education should begin with two important points:

  • Schools cannot do everything. If we are not clear about their purpose, they will accomplish little.
  • Schools are part of something bigger: a community, a state, a region and a much larger global system where everything impacts everything else.

It’s Time to Think Differently About Our Schools

Schools can shape communities, offering gathering places where we celebrate and nurture what is most important to us: our children, our sense of possibility, our commitment to our communities both local and global and our future selves.

As the heart of their communities, schools can offer opportunities for adults and children to work together to seek and find solutions to long-standing community problems.

Schools can come alive as centers of investigation and inquiry, places where the environment, local culture and history, interesting local figures, the lives of elders, local artists and their art can all feed our children’s sense of wonder and curiosity about their homes and the world. Access to technology also opens the world to students and their communities; resources from around the world can come into homes and classrooms at the press of a button.

Authentic learning is at the center of these transformed schools; the learning that takes place there invigorates children, families and the entire community.

 It’s Time to Think Differently About Our Students

 Children aren’t empty vessels who show up at school waiting to have information poured into their heads in pre-determined corporate packages. Children are—and need to be—active agents in their own lives and their own learning experiences. For that to happen we need to transform the assembly-line, factory schools into engaging environments where students are given voice and choice in their learning. They must construct their own sense of meaning; their questions about life and the world need to be a respected part of the curriculum.

This is a fundamental shift: We must see children as whole people whose intellectual and emotional lives, physical health and well-being, aesthetic understandings and cultural heritages are all given consideration as we negotiate their education with them.

 It’s Time to Think Differently About Teachers

 We have a fundamental problem with the way we have come to think about teachers. Too often—and increasingly of late—teachers have been demonized. We underpay them; then we blame them for the poor test scores recorded by our students. Where once teaching was thought of as a noble profession where (mostly) women would take on the all-important work of inspiring and educating our children, now it’s all too common to scoff at those who go into teaching, hold them “accountable” for learning issues that start in the home and even demean them for “only” working 9 months of the year.

 A second problem has more to do with the roles we assign teachers rather than our negative judgment of the profession. Currently we have two unproductive models for how teaching should be done: The teacher should be either “a guide on the side” or “a sage on the stage.” Neither description fits the role teachers must fill if we are going to reimagine schools in New Mexico. There’s a better description that fits what we need from teachers and for students: teacher as activator.

A teacher who is an activator moves among several key roles: questioner, expert, resource provider, co-learner and provocateur. In a classroom where the teacher is an activator, there is much more guided learning than test taking; more exploration and discovery than taking dictation; more chances to “try this now” than to “take this test.”

This is a far cry from what teachers are required to do in our schools today. Teachers in our schools today are harried, over-evaluated, micro-managed information dispensers and test over-seers who shovel out required bits of the curriculum in bite-sized lessons that are demanded by heavy-handed evaluators.

What we need are teachers who are creative and thoughtful academic coaches who have the freedom to create learning-friendly classroom environments. We need them to be continual learners like their students; we need them to understand child development and tailor their teaching appropriately; we need them to connect their lessons to the issues that are alive in their communities.

A Proposal for a New Focus

We believe New Mexico should adopt five fundamental learning lenses as the framework for public education in our state. These are the capabilities we want our young people to appreciate and to demonstrate skillfulness in:

  • Scholarship
  • Leadership
  • Stewardship
  • Citizenship
  • Entrepreneurship

Let’s explore them in more detail, one at a time.

 Scholarship (Not Testing)

Standardized testing may give us a snapshot of what a student can achieve in the way of memorization, test preparation and test taking. It does not encourage or develop real scholarship.

Scholarship comprises accuracy, critical thinking and thoroughness. Schools that focus on scholarship create curricula that call on students to apply higher order thinking and analysis to solve problems. These schools design tasks that require rigor and that give students an opportunity to explore, propose, re-think and revise, collaborate and ultimately arrive at an understanding of what excellence looks like in their own process of learning.

Just as important, scholarship encourages cross-disciplinary learning: Students draw from knowledge in several different fields to inform their thinking.

Unfortunately, instead of pursuing scholarship in our schools, we’re chasing “achievement”—generally defined as improved test scores. We sacrifice deep learning—the willingness to pursue questions and topics over a sustained period of time—for superficial test preparation. We expose our students to fewer long reading assignments, fewer complex writing tasks and fewer integrated projects that cut across disciplines. Students don’t learn the power of multiple iterations of an assignment; they aren’t challenged to work their way through a series of written drafts or experiments so they can appreciate how their answers improve, their understanding deepen and their sense of mastery develop.

These are all skills that are critical for success in the 21st century—and we are systematically excluding them from our classrooms.

Leadership (Not Compliance)

Whether we like to admit it or not, compliance is a major part of daily life in most public schools in America. A culture of compliance suggests to students that they will do best if they do what they are told and regurgitate the lessons they are being spoon-fed. A culture of compliance suggests to teachers that they will do best if they serve up the bits and pieces of lessons that have been mandated by higher-ups and that will lead to higher test scores and an easier time for everyone in the system.

What a culture of compliance does not do, however, is to foster creative problem solving and critical thinking. A culture of compliance does not teach students to collaborate, to ask hard questions, to trace back to the root causes of problems, to consider ethics in their decisions and—most clearly—to question authority and ask, “Why?”

These are the skills of a leader. These are skills that we have intentionally removed from the lessons taught in school as we seek higher test scores and fewer interruptions.

In fact, one of the most disappointing aspects of the national efforts labeled “education reform” has been the unwillingness of its advocates to include students in the shaping of their own education. Reform efforts are rarely done in partnership withstudents; they are almost always done tostudents. Yet research over a long period of time has demonstrated that students who have a voice in shaping their own education are far more likely to be motivated to learn than those who are left to comply with the mandates of others.

If we want to foster leadership in our students, we need to design learning experiences that promote the skills of a leader. An example of such strategies is Project Based Learning (PBL), a methodology organized around important questions. One experienced proponent of PBL explains it this way: “In Project Based Learning, students are pulled through the curriculum by a meaningful question to explore, an engaging real-world problem to solve or a challenge to design or create something.” (For more on Project Based Learning go to the back of this paper.[i])

PBL classrooms require teachers to be co-learners with the students. That shift in the power dynamic in the classroom changes the way students behave. When students feel empowered to pursue their own learning, they work harder, persevere longer and demonstrate more open-mindedness in dealing with complex ideas.

Schools that value leadership over compliance are fundamentally different from traditional schools in this country. They encourage students to advocate for their own education and their own learning. They support skillful collaboration as an essential part of learning. They expect students to read widely and to discuss their reading with others. And they push students to serve as co-teachers in building the learning and leading capacities of the entire student body.

 Stewardship (Not Consumerism)

The idea of stewardship should be familiar to New Mexicans. Very simply, teaching stewardship as a fundamental building block of public education emphasizes the importance of engaging students in the life-long work of creating healthy futures for themselves, their communities and the planet.

Unfortunately, stewardship is overlooked in most traditional schools where the norm is a separation of subjects, a curriculum geared to meeting test requirements and an absence of engaging learning work and student ownership for that work. Most schools in most communities operate in a bubble; the school stands separate and apart from the community rather than immersed in it.

An education for stewardship turns traditional education on its head.

Education in stewardship challenges students to take an active and creative role in their school and in the broader community. To do that, students need to learn new skills—skills that will stand them in good stead for their entire lives: envisioning new possibilities, participating in dialogue, understanding how complex systems work and applying design thinking to create original solutions.

The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education lists nine standards to guide the development of students as stewards. Many of these categories will be familiar to New Mexicans—in fact, many of them speak directly to the way of life that is New Mexico. Three of them that are immediately relevant to New Mexico are:

  1. Cultural Preservation and Transformation

The preservation of cultural histories and heritages and the transformation of cultural identities and practices that contribute to sustainable communities. Students will develop the ability to discern, with others, what to preserve and what to change in order for future generations to thrive.

  1. Multiple Perspectives

The perspectives, life experiences and cultures of others, as well as our own. Students will know, understand, value and draw from multiple perspectives in order to create with diverse communities shared visions and actions to make a healthy and sustainable future.

  1. Strong Sense of Place

The strong connection to the place in which one lives. Students will recognize and value the interrelationships between the social, economic, ecological and architectural history of their place—and contribute to its ongoing health.

(For the complete list go to the Cloud Institute web site: https://cloudinstitute.org/cloud-efs-standards/)

Even a cursory reading of this list should immediately indicate what a perfect fit for New Mexico a sustainability focus would be. A curriculum with stewardship as one of its pillars would mark a major shift in the way we view education in our state and indicate a new understanding of the importance of bringing together disparate disciplines into a single framework that will support our students throughout their lives.

Citizenship (Not Spectatorship)

New Mexico does have a required high school class on government. The problem is, the curriculum is more about consuming government—spectatorship—than getting involved in civic engagement. What we need to teach is democracy as participation: how to protect and develop the commons and participate in civic discourse. Citizenship is essential for democracy; students need to learn that citizenship is part of their lives and their work.

Democracy cannot function or survive on autopilot. A fundamental purpose of education is to produce citizens who understand local, national and global issues, have the skills to find and discuss problems, seek multiple points of view, demonstrate empathy and compassion and apply their knowledge to design workable solutions to complex 21st century problems.

Entrepreneurship (Not Conformity)

Entrepreneurship is not about starting a business. It’s about thinking differently about what’s possible, what’s desirable, what’s remarkable. It’s about teaching students to take responsibility for their own educations and for their own futures.

Unfortunately, too much of what happens at school is about preserving the existing way things are. Factory schools simply encourage students to fit in and get along. But the future will be created by students who are encouraged to innovate, to experiment, to push the boundaries and to imagine new possibilities.

Entrepreneurship offers students a new way to think and a new set of skills: a willingness to evaluate and take risks; a capacity to fail and learn from failure on the path to success; and a recognition and celebration of uniqueness and individuality. Research tells us that students are most creative in kindergarten and first grade. Over time, as students move through the grade levels, their creativity is gradually tamped down and replaced with the desire to find “the one right answer.” Entrepreneurship pushes back against this conformist mindset; it feeds the creativity and ingenuity of students and rewards their independence of mind.

Partnering with the Arts

We could not complete the framing of a new vision of schooling for New Mexico without speaking to the power of the arts as a critical component of a rich education.  Each of the five lenses is enriched and deepened by the arts. Research by neuroscientists and psychologists suggests thatthe arts help nurture the right hemisphere of the brain and are exactly what the more left brained curriculum needs to create new thinking skills leading to creativity

Throughout the centuries the arts have played a critical role in helping to shape and define New Mexico. We would expect them to be present in much richer, more integrative and consistent ways than currently seen in our schools. The study of the arts should move far beyond a once-a-week class in elementary school and an elective or two in secondary school. The arts are useful not only to express ideas, but also to build theory, understand complexity, explore history and culture, and promote curiosity and intellectual adventure.

What the Lenses Can Offer

These five lenses and the integration of the arts both reframe the fundamental purpose of education and provide guidance on how to achieve that purpose.

If education in New Mexico were to adopt this framework as a new definition of what we wanted for our students, we would benefit in a number of ways: We would have a clear idea as to what we want our students to achieve by virtue of their education; we would have a curriculum tailored to the unique needs and capabilities of New Mexico; we would create an approach and a curriculum that would serve our state and our state’s children for years to come; and we would have a definition of the purpose of public education that makes sense; we would blaze a new trail for public education that others would be inspired to follow. (We could also answer that fundamental question as to whether New Mexico is fulfilling its Constitutional requirement to provide a sufficient public education.[ii])

[i]A list of possible PBL projects includes the following:

  • Create an interactive family tree with voice-overs from living family members
  • Help local businesses increase environmental sustainability (e.g. reduce waste)
  • Leverage the wisdom of nursing homes
  • Design your best possible school, including new content areas, grading, collaboration and community involvement

[ii]It’s interesting to compare this list of the five “-ships” to a statement by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in a 1993 court case over what constitutes a public education of sufficiently high quality (a question currently being litigated in New Mexico Courts, as well). Here’s what the Massachusetts Court said at the conclusion of its decision. The court stated that:

“[a]n educated child must possess at least the seven following capabilities: (i) sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization; (ii) sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems to enable students to make informed choices; (iii) sufficient understanding of governmental processes to enable the student to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation; (iv) sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness; (v) sufficient grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage; (vi) sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently; and (vii) sufficient level of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.”

A student who has graduated from high school in New Mexico after taking a curriculum based on scholarship, leadership, stewardship, citizenship, entrepreneurship and the arts would meet the test of the Massachusetts Supreme Court—and the test of the future.

Let’s Get Started

Several practices seem no-brainers when it comes to reshaping New Mexico’s educational terrain. Taken individually, they do not necessarily transform schooling; but each offers possibilities for genuine change and taken together can create momentum for transformation

1.  Start Early:   Research on preschool has provided us with a well-lighted path to improving education: enroll students in quality preschools. Well-designed early childhood programs that grow from decades of comprehensive research on child development have been proven again and again to support long term impact on students’ education and life success. James Heckman, head of the University of Chicago’s Center for the Economics of Human Development, argues that we should rethink preschool—not so much as an educational intervention, but as an economic development investment that significantly outperforms more traditional investments in business and job creation.

Heckman writes, “Twenty percent of American workers are functionally illiterate and innumerate . . . and these workers create a drag on the economy. Gaps in knowledge and skills develop within the first 5 years of life. On productivity grounds alone, it appears to make sound business sense to invest in young children from disadvantaged environments.”

In New Mexico, where poverty too often shapes students’ possibilities, preschool is a critical step in leveling the playing field and increasing capacity of our population to contribute to the economy and to the quality of life for all.

2. Rethink the Clock and the Calendar:   Few characteristics of schooling are more discussed than the school schedule; yet the conventional six-hour day and nine-month calendar are extraordinarily difficult to change.

Our society is enamored with summer vacation. Some claim this calendar was based on agrarian needs, allowing farm children to be able to work in the field. In truth, urban schools in the early 20thcentury let out for summer so wealthy and middle class families could flee the heat.

Reformers in the late 1900’s lobbied for some kind of standardization—and so a compromise was struck. The major rationale for the summer vacation was to give both teachers and students time off. It’s important to note that this decision had nothing to do with student achievement. And so it remains today.

We believe the time has come to challenge the status quo. Research shows us clearly that for poor children “the summer slide” in achievement is a reality. We do not propose a single right way to structure the day, the week and the months in school. But we do encourage leaders to approach the question with fresh eyes. Leaders in the state and in schools need to recognize that New Mexican children require more time for their learning. Equally important, new ways of learning should shape their school days and their school calendar.

3. Partner With Parents Through Home Visits:  Across the country, schools are discovering the power of home visits as a positive way to deepen the relationship between parents and schools. This is not a new idea—Head Start has used these visits for decades. But it is an idea that is gaining new adherents, as schools see genuine changes in parents’ attitudes about schools and their willingness to partner with schools when problems arise if home visits have been part of the program.

Additionally, schools are seeing decreases in absences and tardiness and increases in achievement scores in home visit schools. Teachers also find the visits, conducted on the parents’ turf, give them valuable insights into the home that can support their work with their students. While teachers’ days are already overloaded, summer visits for which they receive a small stipend are receiving rave reviews from participating teachers and from the National Education Association.

4. Wrap Social Services Around Students and Families:    In the Annie E. Casey Fund’s most recent ratings of states for their abilities to attend to the welfare of their children, New Mexico once again comes in dead last. For the past three years both in education and child well-being, New Mexico consistently lags the nation. In childhood health, we saw some improvement over the past three years—up to the 44thposition—in large part because of the Medicaid expansion.

Despite this consistent record of poor performance, it is hard to detect a sense of urgency among those who bear the greatest responsibility to address these issues. There is one bright spot that offers a compelling example: Communities In Schools. Communities In Schools offers services such as school-based health centers, food pantries, resources for parents in need, access to social workers and after-school and weekend programs. As part of a national initiative, Communities In Schools has demonstrated how to change the landscape of school for children. And they have proven outcomes: 95% of case-managed students who participated in the program were promoted to the next grade; 95% of case-managed students met their behavioral goals;86% of case-managed students met their academic goals. Communities In Schools represents a working model for how we can weave together partnerships and use volunteers to provide needed services. We need is a broader state infrastructure to take this kind of work to all New Mexico children.

 5.  Develop a State-Wide Literacy Initiative:  Because of a growing body of research about this issue[i], third grade reading proficiency has become a critical focus for many schools and states. But the most common approach to a solution—retention if the child is not reading on grade level—is itself fraught with problems. In fact, studies show that retention programs are expensive, humiliating to the student, rarely produce improved reading and can actually increase the likelihood of a student dropping out of school at a later date.

There’s a better approach: an intensive statewide initiative built on developmental understandings about how children learn to read. The research on early reading is comprehensive; what schools need are the resources to support young readers who may struggle for a variety of reasons. A bold state-wide literacy program to insure that all children are reading on grade level, backed by rich resources including technology and personalized learning, can begin to reshape the educational experience for our students

6.  Rethink How We Assess Teaching and Learning:  Standardized testing is a limited tool to help us create a clear profile of a student’s strengths and deficits. But no number can ever replace a close examination of a student’s portfolio, her defense of her own work or a performance that demonstrates key learning.

We aren’t suggesting the elimination of standardized testing—we recognize the political unlikelihood of that. But we do encourage the use of more authentic ways of gauging students’ learning to supplement the numbers. We suggest school staff members spend time analyzing and displaying student work samples as a valid way to improve learning and teaching.

7.  Change School Leadership Models: The conversation about education focuses a lot of attention on the Public Education Department, on superintendents and on teachers. Not enough of the focus is on building leadership. This despite the fact that principals are universally acknowledged as the leaders who set the tone in their buildings and who can create an environment where teachers and students are more—or less—likely to succeed. In fact, a 2009 study by New Leaders for New Schools found that more than one-half of a schools’ impact on student improvement is attributable to principal and teacher effectiveness; teachers account for 33% of the effect, principals 25%.

The Wallace Foundation drives this point home in a 2004 study completed by the University of Minnesota that concluded, “There are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without intervention of a powerful leader.”

Findings like this one are leading more states and cities to invest in “principals’ academies”—training and development programs designed to equip aspiring principals with the knowledge and skills they will need to be effective transformational leaders.

But developing and placing transformational principals is not sufficient if we do not challenge the traditional leadership structure in those schools that far too often leaves both teachers and administrators feeling isolated, overwhelmed and ineffective. We need to draw upon a model that magnifies, not diminishes the principal’s effectiveness. For the last twenty years we have seen bits and pieces of research suggesting distributed leadership can support transformation in schools. The idea of spreading leadership more broadly has finally begun to gain traction in the United States (although it has been popular in England for some time) Educational research has explored this issue for a long time; one recent example is the Bain Report published in 2016.  Here’s their finding on leadership: “We must commit to models of distributed leadership that establish a cadre of talented educators in each building who have end-to-end responsibility for the development of the teachers on their teams.”

The average principal in the Bain research was responsible for the performance and development of 37 teachers and an additional number of non-instructional support staff. This ratio leaves the principal consistently unable to support the high quality observations and interactions that genuinely improve instruction.

Our suggestion is much in alignment with the Bain suggestions: We urge the development of a shared leadership approach that places teacher leaders on the principal’s team with specific responsibility for the supervision, coaching and evaluation of a group of teachers.

The consistent, close interaction in the classroom by a leader with a teacher and his/her students is one of the best ways to improve instruction and student performance

8.  Build Powerful Connections Between Schools and the Community:  Somewhere along the way, someone decided that schools needed to look and act like minimum-security prisons. Perhaps the idea was to keep the kids safe from the community; perhaps it was to keep the community safe from the kids. Either way, the result was a school building and grounds that function like a secure “child depository facility” where kids could be dropped off in the morning and picked up in the afternoon without any contact with the surrounding community. The tacit understanding between families and schools was, “We raise the kids, you educate the kids.”

Creating this artificial barrier between our children, their schools and their communities is bad for our children, their schools and their communities. It reinforces the dubious notion that education is something that only takes place in a school building, in a classroom, divorced from the real-world filled with rich opportunities for learning lapping against the locked buildings. .

Breaking down that artificial barrier happens when educational leaders reimagine the purpose of education and restructure the curriculum to include the real world. There are innumerable ways to introduce the community into the classroom and to take the classroom out into the community. Some of that happens when learning becomes project-based; some happens when students are encouraged to be active participants in designing their own learning experiences; some of it happens when individual portfolios replace standardized tests.

Overall, it is not hard to see how adopting scholarship, leadership, stewardship, citizenship and entrepreneurship as the guiding principles of New Mexico education would necessarily lead to a closer, more supportive relationship between school and community.

9.  Rethink and Reframe Our Support of Teachers:  We expect a lot from our teachers, but too often our approach to supporting them leaves them feeling more judged than supported. In fact the authors of the Bain Report found only 27% of the teachers said they would recommend their school to others as a good place to work.

Add to this the fact that most of the feedback teachers receive is evaluative—the least useful way to develop new skills—and it’s not hard to see why teachers today feel overworked, underappreciated, blamed and cornered. Morale is low; vacancies are high. We have, in effect, created a system designed to produce failure.

We need to make some simple adjustments. First, recognize that most teachers need coaching, support and advice from master teachers, not remediation. When teachers are struggling, we should make it possible for them to ask for and find help, rather than punishment. And we need to eliminate the counter-productive reward/bonus approach that skews the system in ways that actually lead to deterioration of teacher morale and adverse consequences in teacher professionalism. Finally, we need to see teaching as a “team activity,” where teachers can pool their knowledge and experience in the service of each child. That means creating time and space in the schedule for teachers to meet, talk and plan collaboratively.

Ongoing coaching and collaboration are the keys to success in transforming schools.  We must insure these two elements are top priorities in our schools; that there is time in the day for this work and that these keys are valued and nurtured by top leaders

10.  Strengthen Ties to Community Colleges:  One of the absolute realities of education today is how siloed almost all of it is. We cordon off schools and the community; we separate ages and classes within schools; we make distinctions within the curriculum between different categories of knowledge; and we portion out learning into different levels, from elementary school to higher education.

This approach causes many unanticipated problems. It also results in many unrealized opportunities. Perhaps the largest missed opportunity is the chance to connect high schools and community colleges more closely. We talk a great deal about graduation rates from high school and enrollment rates in colleges and universities. But what gets overlooked is the benefit of weaving together high school education and community college offerings. Community colleges have so many remarkable benefits, from the variety and kinds of classes they offer to the intermediate learning environment they provide for students who may want to go to a college or university, but for whom such a step is simple too daunting, too expensive or too difficult—for now.

We need to do much more to knit together our high schools and our community colleges. Those connections should be clear, strong, convenient, supportive and flexible, based on the needs and capabilities of each student.

11.  Draw Upon the Power of Technology to Transform Schooling: Technology is not the solution to our educational problems. But it can make a significant contribution if used wisely and well.

With the physical isolation and lack of resources of many of New Mexico’s schools, technology and high speed internet can open up important possibilities for teachers and students and make learning more engaging, personalized and rigorous. Offering new and rich content is a great starting point. Simulations, for example, can make invisible phenomena, like atoms or heat, visible to students. For students who may not have access to a high quality science lab the Concord Consortium’s free Molecular Workbench software includes lessons about diffusion, osmosis, protein folding and dozens of other phenomena.

Technology also connects students and their important questions with experts around the world. Students can join researchers on the Great Barrier Reef; go backstage at live theatre; ask questions of university professors, authors, museum curators; examine archived documents and art.

Effectively implemented, technology also supports collaboration and creativity that can transform students’ learning. This is what we need to aim for—using technology to support students in accessing the world, developing their understandings and creating new knowledge in their own right. Reliable high speed internet and inexpensive computing devices are foundational tools in reshaping education in New Mexico.

12.  See Money and Budgets For What They Are:  Much of the conversation about education revolves around money. And much of that conversation about money seems trapped in an unproductive exchange of set-piece arguments: “We need to spend more on education.” “We can’t just throw money at the problem.”

We believe that we need to spend more on education and we can’t just throw money at the problem.

What does that translate into? First, we should develop and adhere to some direct, simple design principles for New Mexico educational priorities. We suggest three principles for consideration and discussion:

  1. Keep the organization lean.
  2. Keep class sizes small.
  3. Pay teachers as much as possible.

Second, we need to get clear about what an educational budget is and what it is for. A budget is not simply a math problem where the only thing that matters is that the numbers add up. A budget is a values-based, values-driven statement of purpose.

A budget is a planning document. It needs to match the goals articulated for education in New Mexico. It needs to be transparent and easy to understand, so everyone can see where money is going and how the expenditures support the goals. Very simply, we believe that every budget for education in New Mexico should track to the five “-ships” that we proposed: scholarship, leadership, stewardship, citizenship and entrepreneurship. Anyone reading an education budget in New Mexico should be able to match budget allocations and expenditures to one or more of those five goals.

Our Conclusion: Build a New Mexico Educational System

 The real work of education is to design your own system that meets your own needs.That single recognition should guide New Mexico as we move forward with  creating an education that serves New Mexico’s children with a New Mexico curriculum. Fundamentally, that means we are ready to re-exert control over education in New Mexico. The truth is, we’ve abdicated that responsibility. Instead we’ve found it easier and safer simply to outsource that responsibility to the “education-industrial complex” and its regime of student testing and teacher assessing. It is easier and safer to buy curricula off the shelf—regardless of whether it does or doesn’t match up with the needs of New Mexico students—than to invest in teacher-created curricula that actually do reflect our history, culture, environment, languages and learning styles.

[i]Student scores on the PARCC test last year tell us that fewer than one-third of third grade students in New Mexico are proficient in literacy. The research on these kinds of results is depressing. In an Education Week article posted recently, the magazine highlighted a report by sociology professor Donald Hernandez who compared reading scores and graduation rates of almost 4,000 students. “A student who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer,” says the report. So while it is an urban myth that prisons use third grade test scores to predict the future need for prison beds, there is a correlation between reading on grade level, graduation rates and incarceration rates.

What is the way to create a New Mexico curriculum? Start with the results we want to achieve (the ends) and then reverse-engineer the program we need to create in order to achieve those results (the means).

If we adopt the 5 “-ships” as the educational outcomes we want our students to master, then we need to look at curriculum development as the way to achieve those outcomes. In contrast to most “off the shelf” curricula that consist of “programs”, this approach would both create specific classes around the 5 “-ships” and also weave the concepts throughout the entire curriculum. In this way we would emphasize the mastery of subject matter; design learning experiences that match students’ learning styles, engage them and give them a voice in their own learning experience; and create a curriculum that is uniquely tailored to the place that is New Mexico—a state with our own unique history, culture, people, art, traditions, needs and capabilities.

In the end, curriculum is culture. A New Mexico curriculum has to be both embedded in and a reflection of New Mexico’s culture.

Linda Henke is a transformational educator with experience as Superintendent at the Maplewood Richmond Heights school district in suburban St. Louis, Missouri and as a consultant to schools seeking transformation in communities from New Mexico to Guatemala. She is the founder and executive director of the Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership.

Alan Webber is the founder of One New Mexico, a non-profit organization committed to helping create better lives and opportunities for the people of New Mexico.

Please send your comments to: Alan@Onenewmexico.com


[i].Here’s what two researchers, Todd Risley and Betty Hart, found when they observed parents and their children interacting in their homes for the first two-and-a-half years of the children’s lives. They found:

  • ‘Parents on average spoke 1,500 words per hour to their infant children.
  • “Talkative” college-educated parents spoke an average of 2,100 words per hour to their babies.
  • Parents from what the researchers called “welfare families” spoke an average of only 600 words per hour to their babies.

The researchers calculated that by 36 months, babies of “talkative,” college-educated parents had heard 48 million words spoken to them. Babies in “welfare families” had heard only 13 million words. Poverty and early child development are serious issues that can influence our children from their earliest days onward.

[ii]The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a testing program administered by the National Center for Educational Statistics. The program assesses reading and mathematics proficiency across the United States in grades 4, 8 and 12. Whatever else these assessments do or do not gauge, they can give us a comparison of how New Mexico students are scoring compared to students in other parts of the country. (The District of Columbia is included in the testing, bringing the total number of jurisdictions used for comparison to 51.) Here’s what the 2013-2014 testing cycle said about New Mexico:

  • Scores for both fourth and eighth grade mathematics were significantly below average (47th place for 8th graders, tied for 51st place with Alabama for 4th graders).
  • Scores for reading abilities for 4th grade New Mexicans ranked 50 out of 51.
  • Subgroups disaggregated by NAEP including Native Americans, Hispanics, African-Americans and Whites all ranked near the bottom on achievement when compared with other states’ subgroups.

Other commonly used metrics also reinforce the evaluation giving New Mexico a low level of achievement. For example:

  • Building a Grade Nation, a 2016 report examining the graduation rate for all high school students in the country, places New Mexico at the bottom of all states, with a graduation rate of only 68.5%. Iowa has the nation’s best graduation rate at 90.5%.
  • Only 32% of all New Mexico students who take the ACT test, used to assess college readiness, meet the college readiness benchmark for math.
  • Only 44% of all New Mexico students taking the ACT test meet the college readiness benchmark for reading. (Only 34% of the Hispanic test takers and 18% of the Native American test takers meet this benchmark.)
  • New Mexico has one of the lowest rates in the nation (42nd) for young adults with at least an associate degree. Only about 20% of those entering community college complete an associate’s degree in three years.
  • Twenty-percent of applicants for the Army in New Mexico do not pass the entry exam, according to 2009 data.
  • Six-year graduation rates from college for all students—White, Hispanic, Native American, African American—are among the lowest in the nation.

These data present a compelling picture of an educational system consistently failing to produce accomplished students ready to compete and succeed in today’s economy. Education is still the ladder of opportunity in this country; given the shift to a knowledge economy where everyone is a knowledge worker, education is more important than ever.

[iii]Education In America: Learning as Factory Work

Changing schooling is no easy task. But if New Mexico is to break loose from the past and chart a new course to the future, we need to challenge one of the most deeply held models in the country, an approach to education that is embedded in the American mindset. It is a model that can be traced back to roots that have little to do with teaching and learning—and everything to do with moving pig iron.

Perhaps the most influential thinker in the field of education in America was Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor was not an educator. He was an efficiency expert who is best known as the Father of Scientific Management. His most famous study involved “the one best way” to move pig iron and became the basis for his influential book, “The Principles of Scientific Management,” published in 1911.

In the 1900s, school administrators absorbed the principles of Taylorism with great enthusiasm. The “cult of efficiency” that Taylor applied to steel, coal and other industries could be made to work in public education. Soon schools across the country adopted a view of education that was factory-like in its methodology, focusing on machine efficiency rather than child development.

Taylor’s influence can be seen in a set of ways we deliver education, much the way an assembly line delivers a finished product. School buildings were designed in accordance with Taylor’s efficiency prescriptions, including the adoption of double-loaded corridors—long hallways lined with classrooms on both sides. Much of what we take for granted today came from Taylor’s scientific management of the early 1900s: Breaking the curriculum into bits and pieces; placing students into classes based on age and moving them along at the same pace (like widgets on a conveyor belt); changing teachers each year; emphasizing testing as a way to measure success; and asking students to sit in desks in straight rows for long periods of time all owe more to Frederick Winslow Taylor than to any visionary educator.