Feds reject NM education plan; Senate should reject its author
Senators need to hold Skandera accountable for her failure, and particularly her proposal to manipulate school grades to mask the degree to which schools are not doing enough to help the students most in need of improved instruction.
New Mexico senators need to bite the bullet and vote to send Hanna Skandera packing before they wind up their current legislative session.
Skandera is the non-educator Governor Martinez brought to New Mexico to be secretary of public education. She has held the position, without Senate confirmation, for more than a year.
During her unconfirmed tenure, Skandera has displayed remarkable distrust of New Mexico parents, teachers and school administrators and disdain for state laws and traditions. Now, thanks to Washington, we know that she is incompetent.
Upon arrival, Skandera disbanded the state advisory councils on Indian education, Hispanic education and bilingual education. She fired dozens of employees in the Public Education Department and brought into New Mexico highly-paid temporary consultants, one of whom lamented that N.M. student assessment rules did not permit English-only testing.
And she sent $800,000 of state funds appropriated for Indian education to a New York Organization, Teach for America, which devoted one percent of the money to recruit and train Indian teachers.
Irrefutable proof of Skandera’s unfitness to be New Mexico’s Secretary of Education was delivered last week when the U.S. Department of Education (USED) ruled on the adequacy of 11 state plans submitted to it in November for relief from some of the harshest requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. Plans from Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee were approved by USED. Only one state plan – the New Mexico plan developed by Hanna Skandera – was rejected!
Flaws in Skandera’s plan
Letters USED sent to Skandera in December (here) and January (here) identified major problems with her plan. Although the letters are public documents, they are not displayed on the NMPED website. We have, however, read them carefully.
One reason the plan was rejected was that there was no evidence that Skandera had complied with the requirement to consult with teachers and school administrators in developing the plan. Nor was there evidence that she had “meaningfully engaged and solicited input on its request from other diverse communities, such as students, parents, community-based organizations, civil rights organizations, organizations representing students with disabilities and English Learners, business organizations and Indian tribes.”
The truth is that Skandera did not accept or even respond to offers from New Mexico education groups to assist in developing the plan. Indeed, the public had no opportunity to make input on the application since it was not posted on the NMPED website until after it was received by USED in Washington!
Even worse than the procedural problems associated with Skandera’s “I’ll-do-it-alone” approach to developing a state educational improvement and accountability plan is the substance of the plan itself. To be approved, plans had to show that the state had a clear and coherent set of strategies and programs to improve instruction and to support schools in their improvement efforts. Ten states met this standard. New Mexico did not.
The most flagrant failure of Skandera’s education plan was that it ignored the essential purpose of state plans – to boost the academic test scores and graduation rates of the student subgroups who have been historically underserved in the state’s public schools. In New Mexico, as in many other states, these student subgroups include racial and ethnic minority students, poor students, students who are learning English as a second language, and students with disabilities.
In its December and January letters to Skandera, the USED pointedly noted that the plan’s accountability and support system “does not utilize subgroups and does not include interventions for subgroups, particularly English Learners and students with disabilities, based on achievement, graduation rates, or performance and progress.” Even after two warnings, Skandera failed to come up with a plan for addressing the needs of the student subgroups that should be a central focus of state plans.
Why did Skandera persist in ignoring these student subgroups in developing her educational accountability and support plan? Because she had another way of dealing with student subgroups – the manipulation of test scores.
In the December and January letters to Skandera, USED raised a red flag about her “use of conditioned school status estimates in the school grading model and the transparency of these estimates for parents and educators.” What USED found objectionable was a complex formula, buried in the attachments to the state’s plan, to determine a school’s report card grade by adjusting them on the basis of student race, ethnicity, family income, native language, and disabilities.
This statistical sleight of hand mocks the “transparency” of the new “simplified” grade A-F state school report card. While the formula is incomprehensible to most college graduates, its intended effect is clear: to compensate statistically for the “social characteristics” often associated with low academic performance.
This is an unconscionable example of what has been termed “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The formula institutionalizes and legitimizes lower expectations for children of color, poor children, children who speak a language other than English at home. In so doing, Skandera’s plan violates the central purpose of NCLB and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It also violates all civil rights law applicable to education and quite likely, the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
This statistical chicanery belies a perspective that has no place in public education, but especially in New Mexico, where 70 percent of the state’s students are classified as racial or ethnic “minorities,” where proportionately more children are poor than in any of the other 50 states, and where nearly one-third of all children start school speaking a language other than English.
No cabinet post is more important to NM’s future
New Mexico senators need to heed last week’s message from Washington about Skandera’s education reform plan. The chief education officials in 10 other states submitted acceptable plans to improve to improve public education. Skandera’s plan was rejected.
Senators need to hold Skandera accountable for her failure, and particularly her proposal to manipulate school grades to mask the degree to which schools are not doing enough to help the students most in need of improved instruction. At worst, her idea is the product of personal prejudice. At best, it is a cunning deception to produce an illusion that her policies have brought about a dramatic improvement in school performance.
In the few remaining days of this legislative session, Senators should vote on Skandera’s nomination. They should reject her and urge the governor to appoint a capable educational leader who can lead our schools forward.
No state cabinet post is more important to New Mexico’s future. The quality of New Mexico’s system of public education will determine whether our youth can compete with those in other states and countries, whether our businesses will prosper or wither, and whether the quality of life in our communities improves or declines.
Briseño is executive director of the New Mexico Association for Bilingual Education in Clovis. Lyons is a civil-rights attorney in Arlington, Virginia.
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