Education: Getting back to basics can’t hurt
Everybody wants to improve public education, but nobody seems to know how to do it. Billions of dollars and 30 years of ineffective initiatives from California to our own Albuquerque Public School system should tell us there are no magic bullets.
Despite all of our efforts, employers are still begging for high school graduates with the life skills to hit the ground running, colleges are crying out for incoming students with the basic academic skills to handle college study, and New Mexico’s high dropout rate tells us at least half of our high school students do not believe our current k-12 education system serves their needs.
A recent study by the highly respected liberal leaning Brookings Institution finds that a broad range of initiatives focusing on everything from teacher training to new instructional methods, school financing innovations, standardized test regimens and new administrative methods have all failed to achieve lasting educational improvements. The study also shows very limited success at improving performance at low-achieving schools.
Overcoming the culture of low-performing institutions is a daunting task.
With only a year’s experience on the Senate Education Committee, I don’t claim to have definitive answers. But I can make some observations.
I have spent a good portion of the last year visiting classrooms, talking with teachers and administrators and reviewing various education initiatives. There are lots of creative ideas being pursued by schools and the Public Education Department to make education more relevant both for kids planning to attend college and those planning to pursue a trade after high school. There are lots of dedicated folks working in our schools. But there are significant hurdles to be cleared if we are to achieve widespread success.
Here are some thoughts:
Too many cooks
We’ve got too many cooks. Federal, state and local school officials are practically trampling over one another with programs to improve our schools. Unfortunately they are trampling over our teachers as well. Overwhelmed with a an obsessively long and poorly coordinated list of standardized tests, procedures and programs de jour, our teachers have less time than ever to devote to the individual needs of students.
Some teachers have noted that they administer standardized tests up to 30 days out of the school year. In comparison, colleges require only one, four-hour SAT to determine academic readiness. Something is wrong with this picture.
I have already worked successfully with Las Cruces Schools Superintendant Stan Rounds and the Public Education Department to declare a number of existing standardized tests optional for fiscal 2011. It will be up to individual districts to decide what tests they can eliminate, and we still must come up with a permanently streamlined standardized testing program for the future. Additional work must be done to streamline New Mexico’s overly prescriptive, bureaucratic and time consuming procedures for helping lagging students.
We’re not spending money wisely
We are not spending our education dollars wisely despite the current budget crunch. New Mexico had 89 school districts and additional charter school offices with purely administrative costs of $386 million in the 2008/2009 school year. That amounts to about $1,200 per student. These costs did not include any administrators inside schools such as principals and their staff.
Forty nine of the school districts have fewer than 1,000 children – many less than 500. Yet each district has a superintendant and a school board.
I find it unconscionable that we are cutting back on teachers, music, art and athletic programs for our children while paying for obviously redundant administration. I am preparing legislation to create a workgroup that will determine how to consolidate school districts, eliminate administrative pork and put more of our available resources in the classroom.
This does not mean closing rural schools – they are often the center of their communities – it means eliminating unnecessary administrative positions.
Focus on the basics
We must focus schools on maintaining basic performance standards. No organization succeeds without a mindset that certain basic standards will not be compromised. Some schools have lost sight of this principle.
This problem was made abundantly clear to me when a bill came before the Senate Education Committee mandating analysis of potential learning disabilities in fourth graders who still could not read.
Talk about hitting the brakes after the crash! Is failure so ingrained in the system that special legislation is required to address illiterate fourth graders? Trite as it may sound, our public schools must rededicate themselves to demanding performance from administrators, principals, teachers and students – and to requiring more support from parents.
Our children deserve better
The upshot of all this is that we do not need ever-increasing mandates in an attempt to micromanage what goes on in the classroom. There is no one path to success. We see private schools that succeed with many different educational philosophies.
The common denominators are that children who get parental encouragement, are required to meet standards, and get relevant curriculum are more motivated learn, no matter what the teaching system is.
Let’s get back to basics. The same tried and true techniques that work for many effective organizations can help our schools. Hire good people, give them room to do their job in the way that works best for them, and hold schools accountable for results. That means changing school administration and staff if they are not effective, and yes, moving students and funding to successful schools whenever possible.
Our children deserve better than immersion in a culture of mediocrity. They deserve big returns on our education investment.
Fischmann, a Democrat, is the state senator for District 37 and a retired Fortune 500 corporate executive.
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