Education Reform In New Mexico

The Past And The Future Come Together At School

August March
10 min read
(Corey Yazzie)
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It was the first day of school. On that Monday afternoon just passed, just after lunch, the executive director of communications at Albuquerque Public Schools responded to Weekly Alibi’s request to take photographs at one of their fine educational facilities.

We drove over to
Valley High School. It was after the final bell and the place was mostly deserted. Two students sat in front of the administration building but were unsure if anyone was around to help us.

I found an unlocked door—just like I used to when I was a high school senior—and headed to the office. I knocked and a woman answered. She seemed startled to see that we were actually in the building. I politely told her of our business at the school and she went and retrieved the principal, Mr. Anthony Griego. As we waited for the administrator to appear, I looked over the photos of former principals on display in the main office, looking for familiar faces or traces of some history or another that might make the place more sensible to me.

After some formalities, Griego cut us loose to snap some photos. Because the place was empty, it was also quiet. The paint on the lockers—in school colors—was fresh and the whole place smelled of purple and gold interior latex.

I thought of all the people who had come and gone over the years in that place, all the hopes and dreams and all the disappointments and nightmares, too. The ghosts of the past met with and communed with the spirit of the future, right here, I thought as we walked through the cafeteria, the library, the darkened hallways.

New Leadership

Our trip to Valley High School came on the same day that Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham
named a new head of the state’s Public Education Department. Late Tuesday afternoon, Ryan Stewart—an accomplished administrator and educator from Philadelphia’s non-profit sector—a career educator who also worked teaching eighth grade in California, was appointed to replace Karen Trujillo. The former education secretary was abruptly dismissed three weeks ago.

Though narratives about the dismissal vary depending on which side of the issue one examines, it’s clear that our new governor and her administration have specific goals and a singular vision. And that vision is an urgent one. Failure to get on board with those two agenda items in regard to education can be deleterious to one’s continued membership in the rising tide that is education reform in New Mexico.

A Court Ruling

Last summer—and before the general election in November that swept Lujan Grisham and her followers into power on a massive blue wave—First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton
ruled on the consolidated lawsuits Yazzie v. State of New Mexico and Martinez v. State of New Mexico, actions filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and The New Mexico Center On Law and Poverty on behalf of the citizens of The Land of Enchantment.

The court found that public school funding was inadequate and so violated provisions in the New Mexico State Constitution. This unlawful situation, the court decided, violated equal protection and due process rights for economically disadvantaged students, English language learners and Native Americans enrolled in New Mexico’s system of public schools.

Singleton’s lengthy ruling pointed out that the public schools in New Mexico provided inadequate curricula, teachers and instructional materials to those it served. In order to provide reasonable materials, curriculum and instruction, schools must provide essential programs such as pre-K, summer school and after-school programs to address address these deficiencies and properly serve at-risk student populations.


The court case also provided testing documentation that was startling enough to Judge Singleton, that it clearly helped form the opinion that the situation was dire and required immediate attention from our state leaders.

test data released as Singleton considered ruling in the case showed that among public school students in New Mexico, only 33 percent are proficient in English; only 20 percent are proficient in math.

Looking at and parsing the test results and data, contained in a NM Public Education Department publication called 2017-2018 Student Assessment Results, gives some insight into Singleton’s decision to hold the state accountable for what amounts to a failure to educate its own citizens.

Almost ironically—but certainly with the gravitas of truth holding it up—the report prefaces itself by determining that New Mexico students are “demonstrating unprecedented growth in reading and math” and that student gains over the past few years have been “substantial.” That’s fine and dandy, until one examines the data itself.

Thirty-three percent in English and 20 percent in math may seem low, but the numbers for previous years are grievously lower. In 2015, overall math proficiency was rated at less than 17.5 percent; English language skills languished at almost 26.5 percent. Certainly some progress has been made, but there is obviously much to be done to correct this long-term learning problem.

Further, the report found that, among New Mexico students, English language proficiency hovered in the 30th percentile range, until the 11th grade when it showed a marked increase of at least 10 percentage points.

Demographically, the test data shows the following to be true: White students definitely tend to test better. The test results show an overall English language proficiency of 46.7 percent for those students, while English language proficiency rates for black, Hispanic and Native American students were usually about half that figure, between 22 and 27 percent.

Mathematics proficiency, meanwhile, remains low across demographic lines. Between elementary and middle school and then again between middle school and high school, math proficiency rates drop precipitously. The rate is about 32 percent among third graders, but only 20 percent among eighth graders. Among eleventh graders, mathematics proficiency in public schools across New Mexico was rated at 8.3 percent.

The numbers for high school math proficiency are abysmal. Only 5 percent of 11th graders were proficient at geometry and less than 9 percent were proficient in Algebra II skills. The report does note an interesting anomaly though. Ninth graders taking the Algebra II exam performed in the 40th percentile (47.2 percent were proficient).

The PARCC testing report continues for 42 pages, parsing the data into various schemes, breaking the results apart demographically, by school, by geographic region, et cetera. Although the report provides an optimistic outlook on the future of public education in New Mexico—there have, after all, been small gains in the past few years—it’s evident that Judge Singleton’s concerns reflect those of the state’s citizens at large.

Creating and sustaining an economically and cultural successful version of New Mexico hinges on creating and maintaining an effective and evolved public school system.

The Plan

In her ruling, Judge Singleton wrote about the immediate need for reform, ordering that, “The Defendants will be given until April 15, 2019, to take immediate steps to ensure that New Mexico schools have the resources necessary to give at-risk students the opportunity to obtain a uniform and sufficient education that prepares them for college and career. Reforms to the current system of financing public education and managing schools should address the shortcomings of the current system by ensuring, as a part of that process, that every public school in New Mexico would have the resources necessary for providing the opportunity for a sufficient education for all at-risk students.”

By at-risk students—reminded of the data in the PARCC report—it’s clear that Singleton means every public school student currently enrolled in the state of New Mexico.

Local educators are on board with the choice of Ryan Stewart to head the department and begin implementing changes that will not only satisfy the courts, but also bring quality education to the state’s students.

Mimi Stewart, the New Mexico Senate Majority Whip, told the local daily yesterday that she too is optimistic about the new leadership at NM PED, saying, “What I’m excited about is how much work he’s [Stewart’s] done the last 10 years or so in looking at innovation around teaching with students who are struggling.”

The reform plan itself goes something like this. Using the surplus of money that has its roots in the recent oil and gas boom in The Land of Enchantment, the legislature and
the governor appropriated money—more than $480 million this year—to implement a sustainable pre-K education program, increase teacher salaries, reach out to low-income students and provide incentives to encourage individuals school districts to lengthen the school year with summer school programs.

Over $37 million of that cash infusion will go to raising teacher and staff salaries. Another $62 million will go to adding up to 10 days to class schedules in districts with low student performance. Recent studies show that students grasp and retain reading and math knowledge better when given more time to do so. Most importantly, $113 million has been set aside to address the skills of at-risk students, including low-income students, Native American students and special education students. Partnerships with private institutions outside the public schools will supplement such outreach programs by potentially providing counseling services as well as food and clothing to children in need.

In addition, the Lujan Grisham administration canned the PARCC test. They’re still in the process of looking at a better set of assessment tools. The cancellation of the process that ranked schools using an A to F grading scale, combined with new professional compensation packages for educators, should help get teachers on track to be openly supportive of the changes that will inevitably come.

The Future

But of course—just like that empty newness that I experienced at Valley High School the other day—the future remains unwritten, yet possessed by both the past and the future.

New Mexico has been at the bottom the educational pile for many years and the subject of education reform has reverberated through the Roundhouse for as many decades, as the voices in that old school have been echoing through the well-used hallways and classrooms.

The fact that it took a court decision—and the implicit threat of judiciary oversight of the PED—to get the ball rolling says something about governance in New Mexico.

Perhaps Governor Lujan Grisham’s quick decision to replace PED Secretary Trujillo with newcomer Ryan Stewart speaks more to her realization of the urgency of settling this matter before the courts have to step in and mandate change, having been given the input of the people instead of the policy-makers in the legislature who have allowed the problem to fester for years.

Like the first day of school, only time will tell the outcome of such engagements.

Corey Yazzie


Corey Yazzie

school hall

Corey Yazzie

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