Monday, February 3, 2014

DOWN AND OUT IN NEW MEXICO AND LAS CRUCES

[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.  OƱate, 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?

5 comments:

  1. Sounds like a rant to me. Although I share many of your sentiments, I have to say it's easy to rant about the low expectations and poor educational performance of our state's students, but what would you propose? What should be done? A lot of people better trained in pedagogy than I, are trying. I've been a substitute teacher and I was shocked by the lackadaisical attitudes of some of the students and Educational Assistants I met, but I also met excellent teachers and hard-working students as well. Paint our educational institutions with a broad brush and you will miss the well designed and earnest efforts that exist in our schools. I challenge you as a journalist to go find them and shine a light on what they are doing.

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    1. Vicki, thanks for taking the trouble to write. I hope that you do not mind that I make your response an example of a common response to criticism of public education.

      First, you think this blog a “rant.” A rant is commonly defined as something spoken or shouted in “a wild, impassioned way.” I am afraid that you either do not know what the word means or do not care to use it honestly in order to reject reasoned criticism contrary to your beliefs.

      Second, you are unreasonable to think that an overview of a deplorable situation in public education, my topic, requires solutions to problems, your topic. Unbeknownst to you, many of my blogs and columns have presented suggestions for improving public education.

      Third, you are unwilling to face any facts beyond your meager experience. The good teachers and hard-working students do not offset the general mediocrity of public education in New Mexico. What a mediocre education for the majority means is that most students are adversely affected, but you show no concern for them.

      Fourth, you are a cheerleader of public education, which usually receives favorable news coverage in a favorable light. An informed, different, and critical opinion has a place in the discussion of public education. As a defender of your friends and the status quo, you duck the issues and thus contribute nothing to the solutions of the problems.

      Finally, on a personal note, I resent your arrogance in challenging me to document your parochial views as if yours constitute the important truth about public education. As someone far more educated, and far more diversely experienced, in public education than you, I know better than you its problems and have some informed ideas about likely solutions.

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    2. I don't have "any important truths about education" - and I'm not sure what "friends" I am supporting when I posted my comment. I am not a teacher, but I do work in the educational field scoring TOEFL tests. Doing a few months in 2006 as a substitute teacher was a shocking wake up call for me after many years away from the public schools when I was a parent of two children who attended them.. Education is in a miserable state for the most part in this state. I just want to know if there are any examples of success in educational institutions. Are there any that you know of? I went to school in the 50's and 60's, too. but there was more money and support for education and then and the teaching profession was well regarded. It's a very different situation today. I think that popular culture is to blame as well for it's "fast food-instant gratification" approach to happiness. Anyway, I won't comment again on your blog as it would appear you use a sledgehammer to resolve any perceived disagreement or conflict.

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    3. I agree with everything you say in this comment about education; I disagree only that I use a "sledgehammer" in response to your comments. You accuse me of ranting and make statements relevant to a limited experience as a substitute teacher. I wrote in reply and stand by what I wrote. Now you have shifted ground--which is why I can agree with you on so much. Peace.

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  2. BTW, I know your main criticism is of the "Diploma of Excellence" being proposed and I agree that it is not the solution. I also fell that the State Lottery Scholarship should only be granted to students with a minimum of a "B" average. I have heard from at least one Bernalillo politician that one of the reasons the state lottery scholarship fund is being depleted is that students get it but do not go to school (maybe they drop out after registering or maybe they get academic probation and cease attending the classes). Many of the students who get it use it to attend a 4 year college that they are not prepared for college level work.

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