Saturday, January 7, 2012

EDUCATION REFORM IN NEW MEXICO: IMPEDIMENTS AND ONE PROPOSAL FOR NOW

It is a very good thing that New Mexico is a land of cultural and scenic enchantment, because it is unlikely to be a land of economic or educational enrichment. Without the benefit of military bases and two national laboratories, it would probably be the poorest state in the union. With the benefit of its public schools and colleges, it is one of the worst educated states in the union.

The record is clear. Fifty percent, plus or minus, of fourth- and eighth-grade students fail to demonstrate proficiency in reading and math. One-third of eighth-grade students drop out of school before graduation. Fewer than ten percent of enrollees at Dona Ana Community College and fewer than fifty percent of enrollees at New Mexico State University graduate within 3 and 6 years, respectively. This record reflects academic performance for decades—a persistent mediocrity which, one must conclude, satisfies the people and their leaders, though almost all of them pretending otherwise.

Elected officials understand the necessity of this pretense and the importance of catering to constituencies with vested interests in the status quo, and thus have done nothing effectual to reform education for results. But, at the same time, they lack the knowledge of education which would enable them to distinguish the effectual from the fashionable. Recent efforts under the banner of education reform—among others, to improve testing, evaluate student and teacher performance, hold teachers and schools accountable (now, giving them A-F grades), shrink class or school size, and hire specialist teachers or educational consultant—do nothing to educate anyone. Every one of these efforts is a management gimmick unrelated to the transfer of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values from those who know more to those who know less. These gimmicks cost money and often create constituencies to vote for those who legislate for and fund them.

Ignorance in matters of public education begins at the top. When I interviewed Diane Denish and Susan Martinez, and attended their Albuquerque debate on education, I was stunned less by their ignorance than by their incomprehension of their ignorance. I was not stunned that Martinez appointed as Secretary of Education, not an educator, but an ideological politico inimical to public education from a state with a different economy and different demographic and educational issues. But the Senate, signaling legislative indifference, has not rejected this nominee not qualified under the state constitution.

Closer to home are elected legislators who patronize public education but have, as the record shows, nothing to show for it. These solons of Santa Fe, like their colleagues, spend about five percent of their time and energy on about fifty percent of the state budget. Typically, the longer-serving legislators from Las Cruces and environs, polished in the pieties and platitudes of good politics, have voted for spending money on the potholes of public education to no effect.

They and other legislators are reluctant to consider alternatives to the educational fads and fashions which perpetuate educational mediocrity because they are ignorant about education, embrace conformity, and desire approval. I speak from my experience with State Senators Stephen Fischmann and John Arthur Smith, both of whom have chosen to carry water for Martinez and Skandera in advancing elements of the “Florida Plan,” a dubious and deceptive approach to public education. But I am only one, and perhaps the least, of many sources providing them not only sustained criticism of this ideology-driven approach to public education, but also alternatives to the conventional wisdom. Indeed, neither has considered the views of such national experts as Diane Ravitch, who knows from her work on both sides of most of today’s educational issues.

I discussed alternatives and their rationales with both senators; I sent or gave them materials, or references to materials, on many alternatives on many educational issues. When Fischmann defended his vote on an element of the Florida Plan, he claimed that he had not received other ideas for improving education. I took this lie, not as a slight to me, but as a necessity to him to cover a lack of courage because of a lack of conviction in reforms not in the mainstream. After a discussion with Smith, throughout which he said “yes, yes” to my comments and suggestions, he said, as we walked to our cars, that his wife was a teacher. I immediately realized that each “yes, yes” meant “no, no,” many teachers being among those most opposed to education reform. I am not surprised that Smith is sponsoring legislation to support Martinez’s politically motivated, punitive, and discriminatory proposal for retaining third-grade students not proficient in reading.

Both senators are typical of most elected state and local officials. Lacking expertise in the subject, they follow the politically powerful, “educrats,” and special-interest agents who sustain the status quo—sheep following goats. Unable to distinguish good from bad advice, they accept the conventional wisdom and avoid the responsibility to think and speak for themselves, and to consider possibly effective alternative educational reforms.

Paradoxically, the last place from which to expect initiatives to reform education is schools of education. When I met with Michael Morehead, Dean of the NMSU School of Education, we rehearsed the record of poor academic performance and high dropout rates in Las Cruces. When I asked him why he thought that his school had well prepared its graduates for teaching, especially at the elementary school level, he answered that it sends principals a client satisfaction survey and receives uniformly favorable replies. When I asked what incentive respondents had to reply otherwise, if otherwise was the case, he had no answer. When I asked him why the low proficiency scores and high dropout rates over decades did not provide a better measure of the preparation of NMSU School of Education graduates, he answered by blaming everyone else, mainly parents. I replied that it seemed odd that the School of Education, with a faculty doing educational research and many students native to the city, county, or state had failed, over decades, to find ways to teach New Mexico students effectively—a comment not well received and urging my departure.

Notwithstanding, there really are low- or no-cost means to improve public education. I am going to discuss one in detail now and others later.

One no-cost proposal addresses the training of elementary school teachers. Everyone avoids this subject because, as these teachers tell us, they try so hard and have good intentions—and because they are politically potent. It is not cynical to say that trying hard and having good intentions are not the stuff of education or the reasons why taxpayers pay for public education.

A symptom of the establishment’s unwillingness to consider these teachers as a major factor in poor student performance is the shift in perceptions of the problems. A few years ago, the perceived problem was dropouts, and the solutions were programs to prevent them. But such programs are too late, costly, and ineffective. For, if students had not learned to read by the end of fourth grade, they would be unable to read to learn thereafter and would and did drop out to avoid continued frustration and failure. Then the perceived problem was the poor preparation of preschoolers. Early childhood reading programs may do some good, but initial gains will be lost from the moment their students enter kindergarten because elementary school teachers, the first to teach—or fail to teach—them cannot sustain the benefits of an early start on literacy. (Such, by the way, has been the record of Head Start.) The shift from one perceived problem to another perceived problems skips over the problem.

The first problem—one elephant in the room—is the failure of elementary school teachers, who are responsible for teaching reading—or were. When it became evident that large percentages of students were not learning to read, students were blamed as the problems and reading specialists were hired as the solution to do what regular teachers had once done. But the large percentages of students still not learning to read persist. Obviously, students were not the problem, and reading specialists were not the solution. But, by avoiding the first problem and adopting a non-solution, legislators everywhere created an ineffective, special-interest constituency now permanent at great expense to the state—another elephant in the room.

The following proposal, if implemented, promises better results at virtually no cost. The proposal is a simple one: require schools of education to ensure that their graduates have mastery of the subject matter which they will have to teach in conformity to state-mandated curriculums. The truth is simple; for example, if students must know grammar, then teachers must know it to teach it.

The concept of curriculum alignment is known to the state. It studied the alignment of high-school courses with college requirements to serve purposes educational and not. But it has not studied the alignment between schools of education course requirements and state-mandated curriculums. Until it does, it will not understand how serious the misalignment is, how much teacher training is misdirected, and how harmful to students the results are; and it will be unable to document the need for reforms.

The gap between what schools of education require of prospective elementary school teachers and what state curriculums require is great, greatest perhaps in English. At NMSU, prospective elementary school teachers select a concentration in one of four academic subjects: English, history, science, or math. About nine in ten pick English. All but two of the required English courses are in literature. The exceptions are composition courses in college writing at the 100 and 200 levels. These courses wrongly assume undergraduate competency in the fundamentals of grammar and the principles of composition. If prospective teachers lack this competency when they enroll, they have no way to acquire it. The NMSU School of Education does not ensure that its students who will become elementary school teachers have or acquire the knowledge and skills which the state curriculums require.

Obviously, one way to improve teaching by elementary school teachers is to require courses ensuring their mastery of the knowledge and skills which the curriculums imply that they must teach to their students. Requirements for this alignment are modest: have schools of education revise their course requirements in these four subjects; have the appropriate academic departments develop state-curriculum-based courses for teachers; find teachers to teach those courses, and reduce requirements for methods courses, which crowd out subject-matter courses and cannot compensate for ignorance.

There are problems: schools of education might not know what state curriculums require, and their faculty members and perhaps those in other academic departments might be unable to teach such courses. Likely impediments to this suggestion are less these practical difficulties, but attitudinal resistance. The lesser is a faculty belief that graduates going into elementary school teaching know or can quickly learn what they need to teach. The greater is a faculty mindset which discounts intellectual development and academic mastery, and overrates emotional and social development—in a word, disconnects the interplay among them in student development and disregards the public interest in competent graduates. A result of this institutionalized anti-intellectualism is mediocre state scores in reading and math proficiency—proof of just how successful school of education deans, faculty members, and their graduates can be in acting free of accountability to the public.

More, later.

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