By Denise Tessier
It’s good to see that the Sunday Journal (Feb. 13) put on its front page the criticism New Mexico educators had for a plan that would pay $152,000 to eight out-of-state consultants – most of whom are policy wonks or communicators with no classroom experience — for advice on how to improve education in this state.
The story outlining the criticism merits front-page placement, notably because the criticism comes from both New Mexico teachers and administrators.
But front-page placement is only fair – considering the Journal has trumpeted Florida’s education plan since last July, when it decided a story about then-candidate Susana Martinez’s endorsement of Florida’s education agenda was worth Page One.
Since then, the Journal backed on its editorial page the idea that New Mexico should copy Florida, running two editorials (linked here and here) supporting Martinez’s choice of Hanna Skandera to head the state Department of Education.
Last July’s story, “Does Florida Have the Answer?” which, like Sunday’s story is written by staff writer Hailey Heinz, was solid in terms of reporting. Its front-page placement at the time, however, wasn’t necessarily warranted, leaving the impression the story got top treatment because the Journal was backing Martinez’s candidacy, with the added bonus of giving front-page coverage to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was being talked about as a future presidential contender.
So, with the Journal endorsing the Florida plan (which, as Heinz pointed out back in July was also backed by the Rio Grande Foundation), it should come as no surprise that Martinez would follow through by selecting Skandera, who served as an education administrator for Jeb Bush, former President George W. Bush (No Child Left Behind), and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. And now, Skandera plans to hire eight consultants, six of whom, as Heinz points out, have careers tied to either Jeb or George W. Bush.
Granted, as Heinz’s July story lays out, the Florida education story is impressive:
A decade ago, 53 percent of Florida fourth-graders scored at a basic level on a national reading test. In 2009, that number had jumped to 73 percent. In a state where more than half the students are minorities, those kinds of numbers make policymakers sit up and take notice. . . .
Nearly everyone agrees Florida has made impressive gains in the past 10 years, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. . . .
Even in categories where Florida has posted the least growth since 1998 (up 9 percentage points in eighth-grade reading), it has outperformed New Mexico (down 5 percentage points in the same category). . . .
Hispanic students have been a driving force behind the gains. Florida’s Hispanic students outscored their counterparts in every other state on fourth-grade reading and tied for the second-highest average score nationwide on eighth-grade reading and fourth-grade math. While achievement gaps persist in Florida, they have narrowed.
So, what’s not to like about the Florida system? That answer also can be found in Heinz’s July story, via quotes from Sherman Dorn, an education researcher at the University of South Florida, and from Peter Winograd, education adviser under Gov. Bill Richardson, both of whom say successful reforms take money:
Dorn said less sexy, more substantive reforms like decreased class size and emphasis on reading in the early grades are more responsible for the gains (than assigned schools A-F grades based on student performance). During the last decade, Florida adopted a class size amendment that caps class sizes between 18 and 25, depending on grade level.
The state also hired about 2,000 full-time reading coaches and set up academies for teachers that taught best practices for reading instruction in grades K-3. . . .
Peter Winograd, Gov. Bill Richardson’s adviser on education, said third-grade retention is a good policy but expensive when done right.
“You’ve got to make sure kids have all the support they need to succeed by third grade. . . .Good support for students is very expensive.”
Heinz’s story last year noted that Florida “began its reforms at a time when tax revenues were high.” That’s certainly not the scenario in New Mexico right now. Dorn told Heinz “many people using Florida’s playbook are only talking about the cheapest reforms, not the pricier supports necessary to back them up.”
This Sunday’s story quotes one of Skandera’s consultants as saying she and the others will offer a fresh eye on New Mexico’s policies, and that in-state comments will be gathered as well.
But perhaps New Mexico should, as the educators have pointed out, spend that $152,000 on something other than consultants. And if they want good ideas on school reform, Skandera need look no further than some of the stories about education that have appeared in the Journal. A couple immediately come to mind:
- One is reporter Elaine Briseno’s look (Jan. 12, 2010) at the success Rio Rancho Elementary had with its bilingual program, which is open to students trying to learn English and to Hispanic students who want to learn Spanish. According to the story, some Hispanic students in the program were outperforming Anglo kids (which made me wonder why its techniques couldn’t be applied universally to all kids).
- The other is a more recent feature by Heinz about an all-boy class of fifth-graders whose test scores improved (a program that was canceled when budget restraints forced increased class sizes at the school, the antithesis of the Florida plan, which calls for smaller class sizes).
And there have been scores of others over the past year, from reportage on charter schools to a series focusing on the “Achievement Gap.”
It shouldn’t take so-called out-of-state experts to sort it all out. And it will be good to see the Journal follow-up on this controversy.