Did lawmakers improve New Mexico’s schools?

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New Mexicans used to seeing news about the state’s struggling schools don’t have to wake up to the same headlines.

So believed a think tank in Santa Fe when its policy pros dug into the state’s perennially last-place school system. Think New Mexico had successfully championed pre-kindergarten expansion – an approach that had become the darling of education reformers – and last year decided to find a way to continue the heavy lift from the bottom of the national education rankings.

To do so, it looked to a former cellar-dwelling state: Mississippi.

“The first thing is that they had a plan. And it’s easy to get lost when you don’t have a map,” said Think New Mexico Director Fred Nathan. The Gulf Coast state found that the simple act of having a plan made the likelihood of its success far more likely. It’s now solidly middle of the pack among states.

From Mississippi’s map, Think New Mexico crafted ten of its own key mileposts and set to work lobbying legislators to take a look at the plan and start on the journey.

The ideas – things like growing its own teachers and creating more relevant, engaging requirements for graduation – fared relatively well in the 60-day legislative session that ended Saturday. Key to the whole thing, Nathan said, is the state’s ability to shift its education spending habits.

“Historically we’ve grown central administrative spending faster than classroom spending, and in New Mexico we need to reverse that because we want to get the money to where the actual learning and teaching takes place,” he said.

Some of the changes adopted by lawmakers and likely to be signed by the governor include somewhat counterintuitive measures like paying principals more to keep them in the same school. That move tends to improve training for teachers and in turn improve their retention rates, too, Nathan explained. Other changes like giving students more classroom time seem straightforward.

At a Thursday bill signing, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the benefit of extra classroom time is well-documented.

“We know that every study says that more time in the classroom learning is more successes for all students,” she said.

Of course, even a noticeable pay bump for teachers is no guarantee that they’ll want additional teaching days eating into precious time off from the grind of the academic year. Creating smaller classes has been suggested as a way of improving outcomes, too.

“The debate is if you have smaller classes, then that in and of itself means you have more class time,” the governor explained.

Overall, Nathan said lawmakers reacted well to the first steps of the journey, passing funding measures that include $15 million for teacher residencies – sort of apprenticeships for teachers – increasing pay for principals, reducing the amount of data that has to be collected and reported to the state, and adding financial literacy to revamped graduation requirements.

It’s not a complete fix, but Nathan said it doesn’t have to be: “It took Mississippi 12 years to get off the bottom and get more toward the middle, so we’re looking at this as sort of a five- to 10-year plan.”