Closing The Achievement Gap

An Interview With State Education Secretary Veronica Garcia

Tim McGivern
13 min read
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When New Mexico voters created a state secretary of education back in Sept. 2003, Gov. Bill Richardson promised that the new position would be an integral part of his administration's education reform initiative. Richardson pledged that a cabinet-level secretary would hold public schools accountable for how state funds were spent, ensuring that the lion's share went into the classroom and not administrators' pockets.

So on Nov. 3, 2003, Richardson named Dr. Veronica Garcia to the post, with the promise that statewide education reform would have a face and a name tied to it. Or as Gilbert Gallegos, the governor's spokesperson, put it: “You need to have a leader and that's what the governor expects from her.” Dr. Garcia's credentials seem to match the magnitude of her challenge. She holds a doctorate in education from UNM, climbed the ladder at APS from substitute teacher to regional superintendent and also served as superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools before assuming her current position.

After nearly two years on the job, the Alibi spoke with Dr. Garcia last month to learn more about the state's education reform initiatives and the role she's playing in the effort.

As the state's first education secretary, you've been discussing education in public forums in terms of achievement. First define “achievement gap.”

An achievement gap is the difference between student achievement levels for various ethnicities, special education students and students living in poverty as defined by [federal] Title I guidelines. We have a definite gap in New Mexico between Anglo students, Asian Pacific and [other ethnic] groups. I believe this gap is attributable to income, limited proficiency with the English language and lack of educational opportunities.

You're talking about Anglo students performing better than non-Anglo students in New Mexico?

Generally speaking, yes. I also think there is a correlation between income, achievement and language. If you are not proficient in English you are going to have a more difficult time. Nonetheless, it’s still unacceptable, so we have to figure out what we as a community and educational system are going to do to address this gap. If you look at the research you will find that schools that are more impoverished or have a higher number of minority students have less experienced teachers and often need additional resources and support. But when we look at the academic performance of our Anglo students, I don't think we should all shout with joy. In some instances the performance of these students, dependent on grade level, ranges between 60 and 70 percent [proficiency in math and reading]. This is far off from our goal of 100 percent proficiency for all students. We really want all students achieving at higher levels. We address this by looking at higher expectations for all kids and providing appropriate support to make a difference.

You don’t want the achievement of the groups doing the best in New Mexico, which are Asian and Anglo students, to come down. Some people think that when we talk about closing the achievement gap, we’re going to lower the bar. You have to keep challenging the highest performing group in order to accelerate the performance of the other students. This year's performance on the Standards Based Assessment (SBA) is indicative of students being challenged with a more rigorous test. We are suffering the growing pains of educational reform. I believe that students and teachers will adjust to this higher set of expectations and we will see higher academic performance for all students in the future. We are on the right trajectory by increasing expectations for all.

If one of the goals is to bring up standardized test scores of all students, does that mean New Mexico would be up in the national ranking if all students performed at the level of the state's Anglo students? Would our state be up on the top of the list rather than on the bottom?

Yes. I think one thing I should clarify for you that may be confusing to people, these tests are not percentiles like they used to be—where everybody should be, for example, at the 90th percentile and statistically no one can achieve that because of the bell-shaped curve. These tests are looking at proficiency levels. We're aiming to meet proficiency standards which are mandated by No Child Left Behind. The goal of the federal law is for all students to be 100 percent proficient in math, science and reading by the year 2014. So the goal in New Mexico is to get all students at a minimum proficiency or above and to eliminate an achievement gap.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act we are required to report the status of a school and the associated performance of the various subgroups within a school that have made the achievement gap more evident and more in the public eye.

This achievement gap has gone unaddressed for a number of years. And that's why I often say that I support the spirit of the No Child Left Behind legislation, because it has forced us as an education community to recognize that we have a problem. There is a compelling need to have an educated citizenry across all ethnicities and income levels. I mean, we can’t afford that 60 percent of the population not be able to read and do math and science at proficient levels. We cannot compete in a global economy. Education is the only chance that people have of breaking cycles of poverty. Now there’s an economic imperative that I think is helpful, because it forces public officials to [become more involved]. … But the overall principle of closing the achievement gap and assuring that we’re working to have all students proficient, I think, is admirable.

At APS, we've seen new charter schools sprouting up every year for the past five years and it seems that there’s this trend pushing toward smaller, more personalized education. At the same time, we still have these enormous high school clusters in Albuquerque, with plans to build two more giant high schools on the West Mesa. What do you think about this?

You know, that's a local control/community choice issue. I have no authority to tell Albuquerque Public Schools what kind of school they should build. That is a local decision. But I believe even with a large comprehensive high school, you can create smaller learning communities. And that school could be built or structured in terms of career clusters or academies that can help personalize the educational opportunities for these students.

The personalization issue can also be addressed through creative scheduling. We should also get more creative in terms of the hours of the day that a high school is open. I think there are some fabulous innovative things that could be done. Creating a new high school is ripe for innovation. But it really is up to the principal and the community to want to do things that are a little more creative.

I think you are right that the research shows that depersonalization really turns off a lot of kids. They feel like they don’t matter to anyone. You’ll hear the three R’s discussed a lot on the subject of high school reform. One is relevance—so that students understand why they're learning what they're learning. Two is rigor. High school students will [often] tell you they think teachers expect too little of them and that they could work harder. So, as research tells us, when you raise the expectations, instead of students dropping out, students actually feel more engaged. The third R, and now we're talking in terms of [school and classroom] size, is relationship. Students have to have a relationship to a significant adult at school where they feel a personal connection. Whether they are involved in athletics, an extracurricular activity or whether they participate in the newspaper or the speech team—they hang out with those kids, know the teachers and feel like they have a place in school. But if you don’t have a relationship you don’t feel the connection and desire to be there. So we as educators have to create these environments where young people experience the three R's.

It's hard for me to speak specifically about what’s happening in all the high schools, but Del Norte and Albuquerque High, for example, are doing some creative things. But there are ways to structure the school day where you can do a night program. High schools should be run from six in the morning until 10 o’clock at night. They’re underutilized facilities. I have an early-bird son who would love doing schoolwork early because of afternoon athletics, and I have a night-owl daughter who could probably start at five o’clock in the afternoon. I think we don’t allow ourselves the creativity to play with how these schools can be structured.

What are your theories on why New Mexico hasn’t been up to standard in math and computers?

I think, and there are people who don’t want to admit it, we have a lower expectation of ourselves and of our students. Secondly, many communities in our state weren't requiring students to take higher levels of mathematics in order to graduate. We also need to look at teacher preparation particularly at the elementary and middle school levels in the area of mathematics.

Give me some examples.

Having worked throughout APS and watched students move from one part of town to the other, you can see the same kids doing different things in different schools because the expectations are different. I experienced that when I attended public school. But at that time Washington Junior High was considered more of a higher-performing school. The old Lincoln Junior High School had by far more of the poorer kids. The expectation of the curriculum we were presented was much less. I don't see that changing a whole lot. When I was teaching, many of my kids in special education were coming to me from the 9th grade and they were still coloring ducks and doing whole number operations. By the time they left my class they could do algebra 1, because I asked them if they would like to do other things, and they got excited. They would tell me they didn’t know their multiplication tables so I would suggest a calculator. I would start teaching them fractions, decimals and percents and they came right along. Soon they didn't need the calculator to remember their multiplication facts. I think people rise to the level of expectation and support. I think we have allowed ourselves to become complacent.

So what can be done to enact reforms?

We have begun what is called “The High School Initiative” and we have 10 high school redesign pilots around the state. One of them is in Pecos and it’s fabulous what that faculty has done. They have developed a partnership with Luna Community College and they spend three days a week going to Luna. Students take courses that give them high school and college credit. Many of them will be able to graduate with high school degrees and college associates degrees or will be very close when they leave high school.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico First had a town hall last November on high school redesign. We brought people from all over the state to look at how to redesign high schools and also prepare students for the world. All students need course work that we used to think was considered college prep. Fifteen years ago you wouldn’t think everybody would need computer skills; now even cashiers need to have basic computer skills.

What’s it really going to take to raise these expectations citywide?

Well, let me tell you what I’ve begun to do. A strategy that I found to be very successful when I worked in Santa Fe was to have community conversations. Community conversations are different than Town Hall meetings, because at a Town Hall [administrators] sit up there and listen, they write and write and write, and then go away and don’t always act on the problem. A community conversation is different. We say: What can we do about the achievement gap? You tell me your ideas and I’ll tell you my ideas. Well, I’m having community conversations with specific populations. After school starts I’m going to start them in school communities statewide. We had one in Bernalillo. We had secretaries, students, parents and public and school officials. I showed them the data for their community. And we looked at just 11th grade. It was fascinating. We could see where we were. During the Bernalillo conversation, I mean you could see where Native American students in Bernalillo only reached 20 percent proficiency in reading. And Hispanic students were at 40 percent proficiency in reading.

I don’t think they had ever looked at their data as a community outside of the educational system. At a table were parents and teachers and we talked about possible causes. We hadn’t assigned tables, so participants were all mixed up talking to each other. We allowed people to present their ideas so we can talk about it and come to a consensus, and then they shared with the whole group what they felt. The kids told us that people expected too little of them. I mean, unprompted, and that changed the parents' response on how they needed to figure out how to engage other parents. But they told us they needed to know how kids are performing and they needed it in Spanish as well as English. We talked about how kids come to school hungry. One of the things that came out of that community conversation is that the superintendent is going to institute a K-12 breakfast before classes start. I am really proud of Bernalillo for being one of the first to publicly engage in this process. Research shows that eating a nutritious breakfast should help academic performance. So what I intend to do is engage communities throughout the state to ensure that we are all working together to close the achievement gap.

Secondly, we are taking a whole-child approach looking at other factors that impact the achievement gap and see how our department can partner with other state agencies to support youth. We are doing this through the Children's Cabinet. Lastly, and most importantly, we've raised expectations in our math, reading/language arts and science standards. Our assessments (tests) are aligned to these standards and we are reporting the results. This higher level of expectation and accountability will make a difference. There are so many other reforms I could talk about such as our new three-tiered licensure system that will allow us to attract and retain highly qualified teachers. I can tell you this: I am confident that New Mexico is moving in the right direction to improve the system of public education.

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