No question — the headlines, and the reality behind them, hurt. Once more, New Mexico is last, this time on its high school graduation rate.
That news came out last week, part of the report, “Building a Grad Nation,” which examined data from the 2013-14 school year. New Mexico’s four-year adjusted graduation rate for all high school students is 68.6 percent. More than 40 percent of the state’s high schools graduate fewer than 67 percent of their students. The top achiever, Iowa, by contrast has a 90.5 percent high school graduation rate. Yet in this report is the information that New Mexicans can use to improve the situation and, also, to find some comfort. The report’s findings make it clear that the problem with high school graduation rates is less a failure of schools and more a failure of society.
More New Mexico kids live in poverty than nearly any other state (different lists rank the state at 47, 48 or 50, depending on measurements). Add to that the reality that the state has the highest-percentage of English Language Learners in the nation, and reasons — not excuses — begin to emerge to understand what is happening in the schools. New Mexico has another factor not found in most states, either, the poverty in Native communities and the isolation of reservation schools.
All those factors, taken in combination, offer plenty of challenges. Schools can’t fix poverty by finding jobs for parents or providing a stable home life. But they can make sure children aren’t hungry — breakfast and lunch programs, snacks to take home, and in some schools, even meals served in aftercare so that missing supper isn’t an issue. At school, children also can be screened for medical and dental problems; it’s difficult for a child with a nagging toothache to pay attention. Schools can offer classes for parents, too, to show them how to value education and learning, learn to speak English and otherwise help their children navigate the system (that’s happening in Santa Fe’s Parent Academy).
The information in this and many other reports can help reformers begin to target their efforts. Too much time has been spent developing tests, whether for students or teachers or even entire schools. Yes, evaluate learning and evaluate teaching, but put those efforts in their proper place. We are wasting millions of dollars and squandering years of children’s educations.
The same day results of the Grad Nation report were released, an in-depth Legislative Finance Council report showed that New Mexico students lose a third of their classroom instructional time during the school year. This is no coincidence. Late starts, teacher and student absences, parent-teacher conferences and days spent preparing for tests all lead to the results, the LFC found. Preparing for the tests is taking up to 10 days away from learning — that’s a ridiculous figure. Analysts didn’t include the time spent taking the tests as lost time — including those hours would increase time lost and provide a more accurate figure, we believe.
Taking the information from the reports, it’s clear New Mexico has a way forward. To be fair, too, graduation rates have been improving, with New Mexico’s rate increasing 7 points between 2011 and 2013 to more than 70 percent before dipping in 2014. In Santa Fe, the improvement is impressive: from 56.5 percent in 2011 to nearly 67 percent in 2015. With community support, those numbers can improve.
As for English-language learners, find new approaches to teaching English. As so many native Santa Feans remember, the nuns could teach a Spanish-speaking child English in a year. While their methods likely are too drastic for today, students (and their parents) need to become fluent in reading and writing English. English-language support should be available year-round. Conversely, the wealth of Spanish-speaking students should be a resource to be tapped. All students should have the opportunity to become fluent in more than one language.
Use the LFC report to build better class days. We support serving programs such as Breakfast After the Bell because without them, too many children go hungry. But eating after the bell rings does eat into class time. Could schools add 15 minutes to the day to compensate? Could breakfast in 15 minutes or so be worked into attendance taking and other early morning routines so as to not sacrifice learning time? There are teachers who make meals at the desk work, and we should share those examples.
The report suggests — and we agree — that early dismissals for teacher training and development need to be evaluated. We think they disrupt the school week and would like to see teacher development occur outside the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday class window. The emphasis has to be on preserving the school day for learning. And, yes, emphasize classroom management in teacher training. We also agree that New Mexico must continue to increase early childhood education, add teaching days in high-poverty schools and keep emphasizing literacy. We need all of it, now, to get better.
None of these changes take hold overnight. But in looking at our failures squarely, without making excuses but understanding the reality of poverty and language barriers, New Mexicans can improve education. These reports, despite their dismal results, give us a blueprint for what will work.