Critical thinking about public education
Well-meaning New Mexico educators focus on an array of bad proposals to fix public education, while Gov. Susana Martinez intends to debilitate or dismantle the system
Critical thinking about public education in New Mexico is not really necessary. In New Mexico, as elsewhere, everyone is an expert on education and, in particular, public education. Everyone has the experience of attending school, though some have more, some less, experience because of the number of years in attendance.
Of course, everyone has a right to an opinion, but everyone is wrong to believe that a right to an opinion makes any opinion right.
Since moving to New Mexico nearly four years ago, I have continued as a civic activist and columnist, with a paramount interest reflecting my background in public education. I have read articles and reports on New Mexico public education, discussed education issues with elected and appointed local and state officials, attended school board meetings, and served on two ad-hoc school-board committees.
I have found everyone to appear well meaning; I have found no one to have a “signature” achievement or a significant commitment to a goal likely to make a difference in the education of public school students.
Worse, as in other places, I have found no one with official responsibility in the field of public education who gives evidence of independent and insightful thinking about the issues. I have not found one who qualifies as an educator or an educational manager.
Instead, invariably, each addresses currently fashionable topics in currently fashionable terms. The topics range from accountability, test scores, higher standards, qualified teachers, merit or performance-based pay, dropouts or dropout rates, graduation rates, smaller or charter schools – the list goes on.
An array of bad proposals
This conventional wisdom, or received opinion, offers an array of proposals that can do little or nothing at great expense, have failed elsewhere and cannot succeed here, and deflect critical thinking from approaches which are less costly but more likely to improve public education. (Of these, I shall write in another column.)
For example, merit pay or performance-based pay is a recurrent proposal which, despite various incarnations, determined advocates, and dedicated millions and millions, seems to recommend itself as a promise of success with every failed performance elsewhere.
Many who know that public education is in trouble also believe either that they know who the culprits are or that they know what the problem is and what the solution to it is. Usually, they believe both: Identify the culprit, specify the one problem above all others, and stipulate the corrective action.
For example, many believe that teachers are the culprit; ergo, they blame them for everything and seek to make them follow detailed and inflexible lesson plans, to freeze their pay, to eliminate job security, or to weaken their unions. Despite this daily dose of abuse and degradation, many also profess to want to attract the best and the brightest to the teaching profession. The contradiction is a sure sign of the absence of critical thinking.
The new administration’s political ideology
For some – and now we come to the new administration – all of the problems have solutions according to an approach defined by political ideology, not educational sense. Thus, Governor Martinez, who demonstrated a total lack of understanding of education in her campaign, indicated her attraction to a politically inspired approach, which, since her election, she is adopting.
This approach, which in its application in Florida is creating havoc there, will create the same havoc in New Mexico. But that result is the point: The purpose of this approach is to debilitate, if not dismantle, public education.
The implementation in New Mexico begins with Martinez’s appointment of Hanna Skandera as state secretary of education. Skandera, a tropical import from Florida, has no professional experience in or with schools as an educator, but she has strong political connections to the Bush brothers, George and Jeb, and No Child Left Behind legislation and the “Florida Plan,” respectively.
The “Florida Plan” focuses its efforts on privatizing public schools by building small schools, developing a charter school system, and using vouchers to enable state tax dollars to follow students into religious or private schools.
Here, Skandera’s first effort to advance these objectives is to stigmatize public schools by letter grades, regardless of effects on students, parents, or teachers – not to mention the education provided. Who, with decency or sense, thinks that putting a pejorative label on an individual, a group, or an institution serves any constructive purpose?
But advocates argue that grading schools enables parents to choose to send their children to better schools. Assuming that parents would, only the half living in larger cities would have a feasible opportunity to do so; the other half would have to send their children on one- or two-hour bus rides each way. Even so, since most schools operate at full capacity, they have no room for more than a very few transfers.
The proposal is a sham. The concomitant dedication of more money to the better schools means that the better off get better off and the rest get left farther behind. This proposal redistributes economic benefits to those who need them less and increases educational inequity.
No stake in the state
In anticipation of her needs to transform public education, Skandera is contracting for the services, perhaps short-term, of eight, out-of-state advisors, mostly Floridians, who share her ideology and are committed to her agenda. Many New Mexicans have already noted that none of these eight people has professional experience as educators, that none has experience in New Mexico, and that Skandera’s uniform choice of outsiders insults presumably qualified personnel in New Mexico.
These criticisms are true, but they miss the point. Only outsiders have no stake in the state, can act with reckless disregard of the consequences of their actions, and will depart as quickly as they arrive, when their advice on enervating or vandalizing public education has greased the skids.
As an aside, a consultant’s defense of this influx of consultants is, of course, self-serving, and it is lame. She says that public education in New Mexico needs a “fresh look.” However, the one thing ideologues cannot do is give any situation a “fresh look.” In their eyes, one size fits all. Moreover, although non-ideologues can take “a fresh look,” they often can see without understanding what they see.
It is worth noting, also, that such ideologues are also focusing their attention, not only on Florida, but also on Washington, D. C. – both jurisdictions like New Mexico, in which many residents are poor and minorities. By contrast, ideologues are not trying to inveigle their plans into states like Massachusetts that are economically and educationally better off, and largely white.
I wonder whether the discrepancy does not reflect a desire to experiment on the disadvantaged, use them to advance a political agenda which does not benefit them, and perhaps even keep them disadvantaged.
Except for resorting to data manipulated to prove unprecedented success in raising test scores and closing the achievement gap between whites and minorities, nothing else about the “Florida Plan” suggests its transferability to New Mexico. Hispanics in Florida have been traditionally Cuban and predominantly urban and middle-class; those in New Mexico are predominantly Mexican, rural and lower-class. So cultural, geographical, and economic differences suggest obstacles to easy adaptation of a plan developed for one population, not another.
Nevertheless, imported ideologues claim that the “Florida Plan” rapidly and dramatically improved minority achievement in elementary grades and can do so in New Mexico. I take reports and promises of such success with a grain of salt. Our state legislators should do likewise but seem gulled by glibness and graphs.
The author and presumed authority on the “Florida Plan” and the perpetrator of its manipulated data is Rio Grande Foundation sponsored scholar Dr. Matthew Ladner. He has recently received one of the 2010 Bunkum Awards given by the National Education Policy Center for “his spurious claim that a series of Florida reforms, including tax vouchers and grade retention, “caused” racial achievement gaps to narrow in the Sunshine State.”
An exit to a national stage?
How are New Mexicans to explain the governor’s commitment to an ideological program and ideologues to implement it? My guess – only a guess – is that Martinez is anticipating her exit to a national stage.
By aligning herself with “the Florida Plan,” advocating it, and appointing or contracting with associates of Jeb Bush, she is currying favor with a nationally powerful political figure in the Republican Party and sacrificing a state in need of a truly reformed public school system to a soon-to-be-ruined one.
Worse, New Mexicans who identify themselves as Democrats, progressives, or staffers of “independent think tanks,” who know no better and who are eager to give the new governor and her nominee for secretary of education the benefit of the doubt, are enabling ideologues by giving them time to discredit and dismantle public education in New Mexico.
Perhaps they should consider the nomination more closely than they have.
Michael L. Hays (Ph.D., English) is a retired consultant in defense, energy and environment; former high school and college teacher; and continuing civic activist. His bi-monthly Saturday column appears in the Las Cruces Sun-News; his bi-monthly blog, First Impressions & Second Thoughts, appears on the intervening Saturdays at firstimpressionssecondthoughts.blogspot.com.
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