Michelle Lujan Grisham’s campaign flyer for Governor of New Mexico states that the candidate wants to take education in a “new direction” and provides a website address for her policy statement. I went to the website, downloaded and printed out the statement, and spent a part of an afternoon reading it.
Her policy statement is a patchwork piece of boilerplate from a special-interest perspective on public education. Probably, Grisham did not write or read it, but she did pick advisers unsuited to publish a candid, complete, and cogent statement of policies, problems, and solutions for the public. I assess Grisham’s “new direction” in education and some of her proposals, especially their costs and benefits.
The easy part of Grisham’s policy statement is a list of some of the state’s rankings and a political accusation: “These national rankings reflect the vacuum of leadership we have seen from the Martinez/Skandera administration.” This claim is nakedly partisan and patently false; “leadership” is not a matter of policy and New Mexico’s public education system has been bottom-ranked for decades. The hard part, the “leadership” part which Grisham avoids, is confronting the reasons for this abysmal record and cataloguing the persistent deficiencies or difficulties in public education. She would offend some constituencies, prompt some employee resistance, and cause many parents to lose faith that public schools know how to educate their children.
The most important omission from this statement is a concept differentiating education from job training. Like Martinez, Grisham urges technical education, with a sop for the arts (mentioned only four times, all in one paragraph). Otherwise, Grisham’s “new direction” merely reverses Martinez’s direction and resurrects older proposed solutions to ill-understood problems. She de-emphasizes testing, teacher evaluation, and charter schools; and re-emphasizes programs for disadvantaged student groups and on early childhood education. Missing is any analysis of the problems to which the components of her “new direction” are proposed as solutions.
Grisham’s pledge to put “more money in classrooms by shifting money from administration and streamlining reporting” is not a “new direction.” Everyone says it; no one does it. Her discussion shows these undue costs but identifies no specific reductions, which would cost her votes in the election or prompt resistance to them after it. Worse, her pledge to cut these costs is at odds with her advocacy of more and larger programs with larger, expensive, permanent staffs. Constituency- and empire-building are inevitable consequences of many of her program proposals.
Grisham supports the latest trend in education—early childhood education (ECE), or “Pre-K education”—with a hyperbolic, spurious claim: “We know that high-quality Pre-K education for three- and four-year-old children makes a measurable difference in cognitive and social development and long-term educational outcomes.” We have no such knowledge. The data are unreliable; any measurable benefit reflects short-term, not enduring, effects (i.e., “novelty effects”); and programs have not existed long enough to establish “long-term educational outcomes.” ECE is Headstart writ large, and Headstart has achieved only three things: no measurable educational benefit by high-school graduation, a reduced chance of a criminal record, and the creation of a large, expensive, and permanent constituency of teachers.
Grisham’s proposal for ECE to go statewide, two-year (3- and 4-year olds), and full-day, is divorced from reality. This enlarged program would “need to create nearly 25,000 new state Pre-K slots”—a number exceeding that of current state-employed teachers. That many new teachers at a starting salary of $36,000 a year would inflate the education budget an additional $900,000,000, a 5% increase over the entire 2017 state budget of $18.2 billion (at $40,000, the addition would be $1,000,000,000). No matter how one jiggers the types of personnel, their numbers, or their pay, the large increases for a program of this proposed magnitude are financially and politically possible.
Grisham’s proposal to raise the annual salaries of over 21,000 teachers—raising minimum pay for Tiers 1, 2, and 3, from $36,000, $44,000, and $54,000 to $40,000, $50,000, and $60,000, respectively, is also neither realistic nor beneficial. By my estimates, the annual increase totals over $100,000,000. An average teacher salary of $45,000 means that each 1% raise increases each teacher’s salary only $450 and increases total salary costs $9,450,000. Grisham finds it easier to raise costs than to buy benefits. For raises to current teachers will not improve their teaching or their students’ learning. An alternative is a much higher salary scale to attract new, highly qualified, rigorously and independently tested teachers, with a path for current teachers to the same salary scale by meeting the same standards.
Grisham’s most puzzling proposal is to “Align the curriculum between elementary, middle, high school, and postsecondary levels to help create a coherent K-12 STEAM system.” It implies that the curriculum is incoherent statewide—true enough. But does it imply that Grisham means to reform or replace Common Core? She gives no answer, for the next sentence is unrelated to curriculum alignment: “Schools must be consistent in their teaching approach and learning standards to ensure that students’ real-life skills and abilities keep pace with their expanding body of knowledge.” It also makes no sense. The meaning of consistency in “teaching approach” is unclear; aligned or not, curriculum has nothing to do with it or “learning standards”; neither is related to, nor can ensure, “real-life skills and abilities,” whatever they are. These conceptual muddles mean that Grisham cannot recognize educational gibberish and her administration will micromanage teachers with changing and confusing guidance.
Grisham and her advisers do not know that the content of required subject-matter courses in schools of education is not aligned with the “incoherent” state curriculum. Thus, for instance, elementary school teachers are ignorant of grammar and unable to teach what the state English curriculum requires students to learn. (I suspect the same can be said of their knowledge of math and science, which fields most avoid as their major.) This non-alignment is a major reason for student failure on fourth- and eighth-grade proficiency tests, and for dropouts. One cheap and easy fix: require schools of education to align program course requirements to state curriculums or forego program funding or state certification of graduates. Another: separate graduation with a degree in education from certification for teaching, and base that certification on passing a national test, as in nursing.
The policy statement does not propose one option to reduce teacher shortages and attract qualified teachers: end the “closed shop” for teachers. State requirements for certification of teachers relocating from other states, military retirees, and skilled career-changers discourage them from teaching in the state. The assignment of rank and salary is equally discouraging. A teacher with out-of-state certification, advanced degrees (one in education), and years of teaching experience would get no credit for education or experience, be required to take more education courses, and start at an entry-level position and salary—so I was told. The only plausible purpose of such requirements is to keep highly capable people out of the public schools and to protect mediocrities in them from the embarrassment of invidious comparison.
The main reason for declining quality of education for over 50 years is the decline in teacher quality, an unintended consequence of women’s liberation. For it enabled the best and the brightest to leave or avoid teaching to enter other professions. The conservative or Republican response punishes teachers, privatizes education, and encourages profiteering, without improving education one whit. Yet Grisham’s “new direction” policy statement provides no approach to restoring public trust in public education because her advisers refuse to trace any (part) of the problems in public education to teachers. If Gresham wants to address the problems underlying New Mexico’s persistently low national rankings, she must start by telling the truth, a large share of it about teachers. A step in the “right direction” is reinvigorating the teaching profession: raise teachers’ academic qualifications, give them professional control of their classroom and participation in school educational decisions, and return school management to local officials to achieve state educational objectives. An educational policy statement not focusing on the teacher in the classroom, where education is supposed to take place, is not worth a flyer to announce it.