The Time is Now
How to Improve Education in New Mexico Based on Top Performing Models
New Mexico places at or near the bottom of the states in its education rankings. There have been numerous calls for reform and efforts to change the direction the state is taking. Politics enters the equation as the state adopts programs begun in other states (the Florida Model) or that have been required or promoted by the federal government (No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top). The most recent reforms have been with adopting Common Core, PARCC tests, and Value Added Model (VAM) teacher evaluation. Most of these reforms have little evidence based research to support them and some of the early adopters are now moving away from the reforms when the promised results didn’t materialize.
The education reforms have not moved states nor the United States to the top of the world rankings for education. The United States is ranked right about in the middle of the countries who participate in the OECD PISA tests and has actually lost ground as other countries have surged forward. If New Mexico wants to improve the quality of education for its children we should follow the education policies of countries at the top of the world rankings instead of viewing education through the “exceptionalism” lens we often use. By copying what top performing countries do and how they did it, we might move New Mexico education toward world class. We should not aim at being better than Mississippi, Nevada, or Arkansas. We should try to move from worst to first. In this paper, I will outline a path for New Mexico education that moves toward improved education outcomes for our students based on the education practices of some of the top performing countries in the world.
The top five performing countries and cities in the world for education, according to the highly regarded PISA scores, are Shanghai, Finland, Japan, Singapore, and Canada. While the United States and New Mexico in particular do not have much in common with Shanghai and Japan, we have many similarities to Finland, Singapore, and Canada. It is the education systems of these countries that I will use to illustrate what we should be doing to move our education system toward world class.
Goal: Ensure all children enter school ready to learn.
Canada, Singapore and Finland all recognize that inequities between rich and poor limit the ability of schools to educate all children equally The first thing these high performing countries did was to ensure that every child, regardless of status, had access to prenatal care, early childhood education, and medical care before entering school. Brain research indicates that most of the neural connections are made from birth through age five. If young children do not have appropriate nutrition, health care, and brain stimulation, they will not be prepared to take advantage of later educational opportunities. We need to professionalize early-childhood educators with a clear career ladder for those working with our youngest children.
New Mexico should learn from these countries and invest substantial resources in universal early childhood programs and a robust social safety-net to ensure that every child enters school ready to learn. We can do this!
Goal: Improve and support teacher and leader preparation
Teachers matter. Each of the highest performing countries put substantial resources into ensuring a highly qualified education workforce. First, teacher salaries must be substantially increased. Higher salaries attract the best and brightest into the teaching profession. Higher salaries help retain top teachers in the profession. Top performing countries ensure that teacher salaries are competitive with other professions such as engineering, medicine, and finance.
We will never improve the quality of teachers by paying the lowest salaries of any profession requiring the same level of training, and certainly not by paying some of the lowest in the region. We will not attract the best into teacher preparation programs. We will not be able to retain teachers in our state. We will not attract top teachers from other states. We will not be able to choose the best teacher for a job opening but will, instead need to hire under-prepared, alternative licensed, or unlicensed people to cover classes due to a shortage of top-quality teachers.
Teaching assistants need to be professional educators and should hold certification, credentials, or an associates degree in education or similar field. Teaching assistants are vital to the education process and free the professional teacher to lesson plan, work with students needing specialized help, and analyze data. To children, all adults at the school are teachers and training is needed. Teaching assistants also need compensation commensurate with their increased educational attainment.
While increasing the pay for teachers is a long-term goal for providing stability in the teaching profession, we must work with the current professionals. Unions are not the problem and the bashing and blaming of unions for the problems in education is both counterproductive and illogical. The teaching profession in both Finland and Canada are highly unionized. We should involve unions in the reforms. Unions and current teachers know what needs to be done to improve education and relying on that expertise will do much to improve education. This is exactly what Canada did and this reform is credited with much of Canada’s rise in the international rankings. New Mexico will not improve teacher performance through evaluations. Canada worked with the unions and current teachers by helping to make teachers better.
Teacher preparation matters. The U.S., (and New Mexico) model of licensing many teachers through small colleges, 2-year schools, alternative licensing, and waivers is not supported by any of the top performing countries in the world. Top performing countries treat teacher preparation much as a professional school. They have highly selective admission, required subject knowledge expertise earned outside the professional education program, numerous courses in developmental psychology, pedagogy, classroom management, special education, field experience, data management, internships, and mentoring. Prospective teachers spend a full year doing student teaching under the mentorship of a master teacher. All of the training takes place at research universities with a strong emphasis on current evidence based research. Many of the top performing countries pay for the teacher training programs. Teacher preparation is highly competitive, research based, rigorous, and viewed as critical to the future of the country. When you think about it, is this true in the United States?
Leaders matter. Principals, superintendents, and state-level leaders should be selected and prepared to provide leadership that ensures the success of teachers instead of punishing and finding fault. Moving into leadership roles should be a separate career path than continuing on a teaching path. Too often we have selected leaders from among our best teachers, thus removing good teachers from what they do best. We should implement two advancement pathways, one for teaching and one for administrative leaders. Leadership should be based on the ability to support teachers and school level personnel in creating optimal learning environments for all children in our schools. Effective leadership requires a wide variety of skills and an unwavering belief in the value of diversity in all its manifestations.
To meet this goal of improving teaching, we should immediately raise teacher salaries to a minimum of $50,000 a year for beginning teachers with experienced teachers getting similar increases. Future increases should be tied to median salaries of other professions to ensure that education remains competitive at attracting the top quartile of college students. While this is expensive, it will greatly increase the number of students entering teacher preparation programs, will retain our best teachers, reduce turn-over, attract highly qualified teachers from other states and countries, and increase the professionalization of teaching. The top performing countries do this to ensure the high quality of their teachers. We can do this.
To meet this goal we should immediately get rid of teacher mills, alternative licensing, and teacher waivers. These contribute to an underprepared teacher workforce and limit the professionalization of teaching. We should require the professional preparation of teachers at research universities. Teacher preparation should be modeled on the medical school model of a professional school. Top performing countries do this to ensure the quality of their teachers. We can do this.
Leader preparation and support is equally important. School level leaders in particular, require adequate pay, training, and mentorship. District and state leaders can benefit tremendously by being exposed to research based best practices and polices that have been proven to increase educational success and close achievement gaps.
To meet this goal we should work with unions and current education professionals to build a strong teacher and leader workforce. We have substantial knowledge resources and should use them to move toward world class. We can do this.
Goal: increase student learning and achievement
Accountability and testing have become major issues in American education and New Mexico. Students are standardized tested to ensure accountability that they have learned the material. Teachers are held accountable for what their students have learned, based on how those students perform on a standardized test. The idea being that we can determine, from those tests, which teachers and students are performing and which are not. While this sounds reasonable it is far more difficult in practice and lacks evidence that it is effective. And, the other top performing countries don’t do this! In fact, Finland specifically does not test students in this manner and does not evaluate teachers based on student scores. Top performing countries only “sample” student achievement to check on the education system and do not tie those scores to schools, teachers, or students. High performing countries believe teachers should be teaching students, not preparing them for standardized tests. We need to scrap the notion that performance on a standardized test is the purpose of education and move toward guiding students on how to think, problem solve, and cooperate. Standardized tests are good for “sorting” students but not improving learning.
However, it is important to have broad goals of what we expect students to know and be able to do. Finland and Canada rely on boards and committees made up of teachers and educators that develop broad guidelines for what should be taught. There is wide acceptance by the teachers and society because of the professional nature of the committees. This was the original goal of the “Common Core” but Common Core was de-railed by the testing companies and the politics that didn’t trust educators and turned Common Core into a curriculum with textbooks, tests, and accountability measures to ensure everyone was doing it.
What we should be doing is trust professional educators to teach students and not to prepare them for tests. The top performing countries do not test every student to ensure accountability but only sample to check on the system. If sampling shows a decline or problem, then the system needs adjusting. Education needs to return to the interaction of students and teachers and work to instill how to think, evaluate, and cooperate.
We need to reinvest in vocational education while at the same time ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity to attend college if they so desire. However, College is not the goal. Some careers require college but it is not the purpose or reason for education. Other top-performing countries have strong vocational education programs that provide a solid education in a field that leads directly to a career. While college is appropriate for many children, others are made to feel inadequate when their interests are not focused on attending college. In the United States, we have moved most of the vocational training to the 2-year and community colleges which leaves students in high schools looking for direction. A move to increase certificate programs, vocational programs, and hands-on learning helps students who feel lost in traditional academic settings. We need to increase access to vocational and career focused education and begin valuing these options for the important role they play in society.
In Finland, they didn’t set out to have one of the best education systems in the world. Finland set out to provide the best opportunities for their students whether it’s academic or vocational focused. It resulted in some of the top scores in the world rankings. We need to take a similar, long-term approach to improving student outcomes by changing how we teach. It will not result in immediate improvement because many students are already in a system that is under-resourced and focused on testing. However, we can change the model and move toward a world class education system. We can do this.
The school day in most of the top performing countries looks very different from that of most schools in New Mexico. It is shorter, not longer. It has frequent breaks with physical education and physical activity daily. Students in Finland and Canada get less homework than in the United States and classes, particularly at the higher grades, are often larger than we are use to. What is different is the planning time teachers have to collaborate and prepare. New Mexico, as a result of the most recent economic down turn, reduced planning time for teachers. Recess has been reduced or eliminated to find more time for test preparation. However, this has not resulted in better outcomes.
The top performing countries ensure that teachers have adequate planning and time to work with other teachers. In some countries it is as much as 35% of the day is spent without students, preparing lessons. During this time, students are engaged in art, music, language, enrichment, physical activity, and cooperative activities. When students are present, the teacher works actively with each child. Children are encouraged to talk about how they are solving a problem and incorrect processes are not ridiculed or dismissed but are evaluated by the class and used to develop deep analytical skills and thinking. The emphasis is on thinking, not correct answers. Teaching in this manner requires training, practice, and support but the results from other countries show how effective it can be.
We can change how we structure the day for both students and teachers. It will require commitment, resources, trust, and training. We can do this.
Goal: Adequate Funding
Funding is the biggest hurdle if we are going to move toward world class. Some of the goals above can be worked on by reallocating existing funds but some will require new money. Nationally, the U.S. spends more per pupil than most of the other OECD countries but gets substantially poor results. In New Mexico, we are near the bottom third in per pupil spending and we are consistently near the bottom in achievement. How do we change this?
First, we need to realize that education is the best investment New Mexico can make in its future. We need to invest in our children and take a long-term view of preparing and educated population. Singapore moved from a third-world country a few decades ago to a first world intellectual center by consciously investing in education. “But we are a poor state,” some will say. “We can’t afford it.” We can’t afford not to invest in education at all levels.
We should use some of the money from the Permanent Fund into fully funding prenatal, early childhood education, and pre-school for all students. This is the most critical time of their brain development and the return on investment is well established. Affluent children have rich early childhood environments and if we believe all children should have the same opportunities then we must take the necessary steps at the state level to accomplish this equity. We can do this.
We should move significant education money out of testing and testing related evaluation, technology, and textbook funds and reallocate that money to increase the number of social workers, counselors, teacher aides, and enrichment opportunities for students. People who work directly with children and families keep students in school and help with the pressures that inhibit learning. We could do this.
Teacher salaries need substantial increases if we are going to attract and retain the top talent to teach our children. If New Mexico rescinded the Richardson era tax cut to the wealthiest New Mexicans, it would pay for the majority of the needed teacher salary increases. There is scant evidence that the tax cut did anything to stimulate New Mexico’s economy and removed substantial money from the state coffers. Similarly, New Mexico needs to invest 60% of all new money each year in K-12 education until we reach 50% of the state budget. At that point, at least 50% of any new money needs to fund education so we do not let our commitment slip. If we value education, we need to demonstrate that with funding. Twenty years ago, approximately 50% of the state budget was spent on K-12 education. Today, approximately 43% of the budget is spent on K-12 education.
This article lays out a plan for moving New Mexico toward world class. It won’t be achieved in one or two years. It requires a long-term commitment. We also need to realize that other states and countries we might be compared to are not standing by waiting for us to catch-up. They are trying to improve as well and we need to make extraordinary efforts if we believe it matters. People will say that this is too expensive. They will say that we can’t afford it. They will say it is too hard. They will say that it won’t work. They will make any number of excuses for not making the changes that will result in better outcomes. However, we cannot afford to not make the changes. What we have been doing has not been effective. If we keep doing what we have been doing, we will not improve. We should be looking at what top performing countries did to achieve their results and use their model to transform education in New Mexico. Education needs to be a priority and not seen as a business that is ripe for profiteering. We need to view money spent on education as an investment and not an expense. We cannot not just choose to adopt policies and procedures that are cheap. We cannot just do the things that are easy. We need to do the things that are right for our children, regardless of the difficulty or cost. Our future depends on it. New Mexico’s future depends on it.