A Year of Change: Challenges and Opportunities
Happy 2011! A new year brings an opportunity for reflection as well as a feeling of hopefulness that it will be an even better year than the last. I’d like to share some thoughts and reflections on some ideas that are being discussed around the state, ideas that may help shape 2011 for public education.
On its surface, the first idea sounds great- target more money into the classroom. This isn’t really a new idea- it’s been called “the 65% solution” for several years now. The idea is to require that 65% of education spending be directed at classroom instruction. So what’s the concern? Well, generally speaking, classroom instruction is defined as salaries for classroom teachers and classroom assistants, general instructional supplies, activities, and tuition paid to out of state districts and private institutions for special needs students. It’s what is not included that’s the problem, things like student support services-nurses, counselors, speech therapists and librarians, administration, plant operations and maintenance, food service, transportation, teacher training and curriculum development. We know that these “outside the classroom” expenditures are absolutely essential to what goes on “inside the classroom” (and these expenses could never exceed 35% of the budget). Interestingly, 65% is an arbitrary limit and has no basis in research. Clearly this limits local authority and disregards too many essentials for both students and educators. It also limits the power to collectively bargain support that best meets the needs of students and educators in your district.
As educators, we know how important all these services are to the success of our students. Policy-makers who talk about directing more funding to the classroom aren’t talking about providing additional resources-they’re talking about taking already inadequate resources from the “outside of the classroom” expenditures and moving them to the classroom. We know that what we need is additional resources, not re-allocating our already inadequate resources. And this idea allows policy-makers to sound like they support funding for kids while taking them off the hook about making hard choices around funding schools and eliminating corporate loopholes and special tax giveaways.
Another idea I hear is that there is a “silver bullet” for improving education in New Mexico. “Just do what Florida did and the achievement gap will be closed” seems to be the latest popular refrain. As both an educator and a grandparent, I certainly want all our students to succeed, so I did a little research on the “Florida model.” What I found comes as no surprise to us - you can generally use statistics to demonstrate whatever you want! For example, when you dig a little deeper into the Florida statistics, you find that the reading scores for fourth grade students may have improved because they retained a number of students in the third grade. According to a review produced by the National Education Policy Center, low scoring readers-mostly black and Hispanic, were thus screened out of the fourth grade tests. We know children grow and learn at different rates, and we also know that students who are retained are at a much higher risk for dropping out of school. So while the data may show short term improvements in test scores, we have to ask “at what cost?” Our children are more than a test score, and we can’t emphasize that often enough.
Florida did implement some interesting ideas. For example, high schools are given a letter grade of A-F. Half this score is based on the results of the state standardized test. The other half is based on things such as graduation rates, student participation in and/or success in advanced placement courses, success on tests such as ACT and SAT and other factors. The idea of looking at more than the standardized test scores is one we have talked about in New Mexico for the past couple years. We even had Senate Joint Memorial 43 a couple years ago to study this possibility. We know tests don’t tell the whole story about student learning, and we need to consider other ways to demonstrate student success.
Florida also implemented class size limits for core classes. Currently the maximum number of students in prekindergarten through grade 3 is 18; grades 4 through 8 is 22 students; and in grades 9 through 12, 25 students. Class size makes a difference for students and is a concept supported by parents and educators in New Mexico. However, budget cuts have led to larger class sizes, inadequate supplies and an increased work load for teachers.
As we prepare for the 2011 legislative session, I am asking you to be in contact with your legislators. Sign up for legislative updates at www.nea-nm.org, and stay informed on the issues we will be dealing with this year. We know it will be a year of change and opportunity. Let’s make sure these changes are good for our students and for public education in the long term, not just a temporary, but ultimately meaningless increase in test scores. Our students are our future and they are worth the investment – we know it; now let’s be sure our legislators know it too!