As Education Secretary-designate for the state of New Mexico, Hanna Skandera has implemented a number of educational-reform programs that have become fodder for criticism and headlines even as other states adopt them: an A-F school grading system, a new teacher-evaluation plan, and pursuing both Race to the Top funds and waivers to the No Child Left Behind mandates.
Generation Next reporter Blanca Ortiz spoke with Skandera at her office in the Public Education Department earlier this month.
Generation Next: What is the role of the secretary of education of the state of New Mexico?
Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera: To improve student achievements and ensure our kids are preforming at the highest levels — ready to compete not just in our state or nation, but internationally, so they are prepared to be globally competitive and successful in college and career.
Gen Next: How does being an unconfirmed Cabinet head impact you and your ability to do your job?
Skandera: It doesn’t. I still have all the responsibilities and all the opportunities to deliver on my job, which is to improve student achievement.
Gen Next: How often are you in the public schools talking with students, and what have they told you?
Skandera: My goal is to visit every district; we are such a diverse state. I want to meet kids from all different walks of life and understandwhat gets them excited about learning. Just last week, I was at Los Alamos presenting an award, and one student said, “Do you think we have too much testing in the schools?” And I said that in the last two years, we have cut testing by 40 percent. Whether it is with a first-grader or a 12th [grader], I’m interested in their thoughts.
Gen Next: According to the 2013 Kids Count Report (a study conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation), New Mexico is currently ranked 50th on a number of child well-being standards, including education. What are the underlying causes of our continually low-ranking status when it comes to education?
Skandera: When I first began visiting our schools, there were bright spots across our state, one [of which] is Anthony Elementary [in Anthony, N.M.]. I asked the principal, “What’s happening here? It’s so awesome that your students are achieving.” She said, “When I became principal three years ago, I asked every teacher to make a commitment to no excuses for any child. Every day a child walks in, we are responsible for raising the bar and believing that the sky is the limit.” Sometimes I hear people say it can’t be done because our kids don’t speak English or because our kids are poor, [but] Principal Pérez said it best: We have no excuses; we are going to deliver for kids and they did it. … We are starting to see that in pockets across the state.
Gen Next: How are you going to act on the schools’ grading system, in terms of support, rewards and accountability?
Skandera: Last year in our budget, we received $4 million for targeting and providing interventions for our lowest preforming schools. We want to train our school leaders in our lowest performing schools so they have an opportunity to learn how to turn the school around. In Albuquerque, we are starting a mentoring program, [matching] some of the highest-performing school leaders [with some of] the lower-performing schools. They’re getting a mentor for the year and a stipend to be part of the mentoring program.
Gen Next: Santa Fe Public Schools is leading a charge to get districts to sue the state of New Mexico for “equitable funding” for each district. What do you think of that? Do you approve or disapprove?
Skandera: Gov. Martinez has been in office for the last two and a half years and has invested new money on top of what was already almost a quarter of $1 billion in education alone. She said, “Let’s be accountable for money, because when we look about how much we invest in education today, we are not getting the return for our kids.” I believe investing in education absolutely, but we have to have an expectation for a return on that investment for kids and our state. I do not believe we have done that until the last two and a half years. Right now, I do not approve.
Gen Next: How do you respond to your critics on issues like an unpopular teacher evaluation plan and the school grading system?
Skandera: When we put students’ interests first, the criticism is welcome as an opportunity to get better at what we do. When we’re putting adult interests or politics above our kids, then we have to take it back and ask the question: Is this about our kids or politics and adults?
Gen Next: How do you feel about online learning?
Skandera: I have been a big supporter. The question to is how do we provide the best quality and the best access for education in every student in our state. [Online learning] presents an unbelievable opportunity to tailor and individualize our education.
Gen Next: What do you do for fun?
Skandera: I love hiking. I’m in the Big Brothers Big Sisters and program [through which] I have a little sister, she’s in third grade. … I used to play competitive beach volleyball and run cross-country and track.
Blanca Ortiz is a junior at Capital High School. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.