[NOTE: By request, I post this column, with its introductory covering note to my email subscribers, which appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News on 25 January.]
Introductory covering note:
The truth hurts, so the Sun-News ran the story about 51% of NM high school graduates requiring remediation on an inside page and did not display it on the website under “News-education” or “Opinion.” I added a significant local tidbit in editing earlier drafts of this column. You can find the original by typing in “Simonich,” but I provide the link here: http://www.lcsun-news.com/las_cruces-news/ci_24952943/study-51-percent-new-mexico-graduates-ill-prepared?IADID=Search-www.lcsun-news.com-www.lcsun-news.com. The larger point of my column is that New Mexico officials continue to recycle stupidity and practice duplicity when it comes to dealing with its persistent and interdependent problems.
This story takes on more importance in light of a headline story in today’s [23 January] Sun-News. According to it, the LCPS school board voted unanimously without any prior readings—talk about policy made in panic--to substitute “an alternate path to graduate from high school without having to pass the state standardized test.” The Board wants graduation for those who cannot pass state standardized tests to depend on “grade point averages, final exam grades, portfolios and work and extracurricular experience.” I congratulate the Board—Connie Phillips, Chuck David, Maria Flores, Bonnie Votaw, and Barbara Hall—for their honesty in abandoning any pretense to setting meaningful academic standards for graduation. This proposal enables the District to avoid higher (but not very high) state standards, conceal continued rot in academic performance, but lower the bar so that the school can placate parents by awarding the same “diploma of excellence” received by students who pass the state test. Other than grade point averages and final exam grades (though all course grades, especially those reliant on essay-type assignments or answers, can be inflated), there are no standards, only subjective appraisals, for portfolios, work experience, and extracurricular activities (football, anyone?). Has anyone ever failed according to these criteria? Does anyone think that these devices will mean fewer high school graduates requiring remediation? Employers beware. Lottery scholarships for these high achievers?
One point which I do not address in discussing the ineffectuality of programs to “reform” education is the latest “silver bullet,” early childhood education. The theory seems to be “as the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” Wishful thinking or unsupported rot—take your pick. A similar effort, Headstart, has built a wonderful reputation, a professional constituency, and a record of no success. By high school graduation, there is no statistically significant academic difference between students who had been in the program and peers who had not. So it will be with early childhood education. If schools cannot reinforce and add value to what entering students have acquired, then these efforts are simply a waste of resources. But they give self-promoters opportunities to make fine speeches at gala events of assembled dignitaries to kick off programs of little or no use.
A personal note. When, at the age of 5, I entered kindergarten in 1945, I learned how to behave as a student. A year later, I learned to read and write (that would be by hand!) the alphabet and numerals within a few weeks, and then to read silently and aloud age-appropriate books by the end of the school year. Of course, my teachers were well educated as they are not now and used methods now not in favor. It all worked for my classmates and me. Those who wanted to go to college did so, and few needed remediation. But we have come such a long way since then. Is everybody proud of our recent improvements in teacher preparation, academic curriculum, and instructional methods?
Column: Down and Out in New Mexico and Las Cruces
If we had met, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy’s eldest child, would have invited me, as she once invited another, to join her, in long-since-famous words: “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.” I would have much to say.
Despite persistent poverty, poor education, poor health, poor housing, and poor nutrition, New Mexicans are innately conservative because they fear that change, not to mention reform, makes things worse. State and city officials fear to enact legislation to address and alleviate these ills systematically or to anticipate changing circumstances and conditions which, unaddressed, will worsen them.
As things related to the economy and education worsen, the future vigor of New Mexico and Las Cruces comes into question. The news is uniformly bad. As the nation emerges from the Great Recession, New Mexico lags. Its economic growth is about half that in neighboring states. As nationwide housing starts and housing prices slowly increase, New Mexico’s remain flat, and Las Cruces’s slide. Although more people with advanced degrees are entering than leaving the state, more are leaving than entering the city. Northern New Mexico is standing still; southern New Mexico, with Las Cruces at its center, is slipping.
Education is the state’s and the city’s paramount problem because it undermines the economy, present and future. By comparison with education in countries with advanced economies, American education continues to be middling overall. For grades K-12, New Mexico’s public school system ranks 50th in the nation, and its second largest district, Las Cruces Public School District, ranks mediocre. The LCPS District is one of the country’s worst.
Yet in this State of Denial, local leaders tout LCPS’s wonderful schools and wonderful teachers. The reality is not wonderful to those facing the facts and their implications. LCPS has a preponderance of teachers ineffective for many reasons, and teachers, principals, and district officials dishonest and dissembling. Oñate, Mayfield and Las Cruces High are three of the top five high schools in numbers of graduates needing remedial work in state colleges. Yet, for unworthy purposes, officials promote college for everyone. One, protect employment in the education industry in the state with the highest number of colleges per capita in the country. Second, push colleges to teach graduates today what high schools taught graduates fifty years ago.
Rhetorical question: wonderful? Real question: how possible? Answer: diplomas for those who cannot make change or multiply and divide numbers. LCPS wants citizens to believe that students who cannot do arithmetic can pass algebra! Its job: lying to students, parents, the public, and public officials that graduates with “diplomas of excellence” are ready for careers or college.
State and District, not to mention NMSU School of Education, education leaders offer nothing to change this dynamic of deficiencies and deceits in public education. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core State Standards education “reforms” have been little more than ideologically driven stunts without substance or success. Even well-intentioned lottery scholarships merely encourage mediocre students to go to mediocre state colleges and delay their difficulty getting decent jobs in the state even if they graduate.
LCPS announces new programs to overcome continuing problems unsolved by similar PR programs similarly ballyhooed a few years earlier. Days ago, the School Board voted unanimously to substitute work-arounds for a state standardized test as a graduation requirement. Its decision, a White Flag of surrender, admits that the District cannot educate 20% of its students well enough to graduate by a state standard, allows it to conceal ineffective teaching, but enables it to placate parents with worthless diplomas but ensure enrollments for per-capita funding.
This bankruptcy of education foretells economic deterioration. Unable to provide a workforce attractive to businesses, state and city offer financial inducements in exchange for low-skill, low-wage jobs requiring little education—which jobs hide their educational failures. By reducing revenues—lowering corporate income and other business tax rates and receiving lower tax revenues from low-income earners—they cannot design, develop, and invest in reforms to educate students well enough to staff or attract companies requiring well-educated, well-paid employees. Thus, state and city perpetuate a cycle of self-impoverishment.
The issues of economics and education come together at LCPS and NMSU. Instead of serving as engines of economic development and educational excellence, they serve as the city’s largest employers. Both churn out poorly educated graduates fit mainly for low-skill, low-pay jobs in agriculture and construction, or low-standard positions in law enforcement, business, or education. NMSU’s mediocre Arrowhead Business and Research Park has failed to attract high-skilled, innovative entrepreneurs, who confront an unreceptive developer-oriented, Chamber-based bloc, the city’s poor schools, and an unready workforce.
State and city officials have no strategy for a different future. Largely dependent on the federal government, New Mexico operates more like a territory than a state. So the Big Picture for state and city is not enchanting. Have I said enough, Alice?