Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

9-21 Prioritizing Education Hasn't Helped

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- Every governor candidate and most legislative candidates next year will be placing a high priority on education. In fact every governor in New Mexico's past has made education a top priority.
And yet not much has happened. We still rank near the bottom in many categories. It was recently revealed that only 54 percent of New Mexico students entering high school continue on to graduate.
So what's wrong. Why hasn't all this prioritization of education produced some results? What is the magic formula that we are missing? Actually it's a nationwide problem. Every state is trying the same things and they're not working.
Raising the academic qualifications of teachers was one of the first solutions. Then consolidation of school districts was mandated. We got rid of those little one-room, country schools so we could have a broader curriculum. Science labs were deemed critical as we fretted about Sputnik.
Then we worried about class size. My elementary school class pictures have 40 students in them. Twenty years later, the fifth-grade classes I taught had 30 students. Now the averages are around 20.
Smaller makes sense. Teachers can give more individual attention. But it requires twice as many teachers for 20 students per class instead of 40. And test scores are still falling in comparison with schools in other nations.
Then we heard the argument that we get what we pay for. Low salaries in the teaching profession don't attract top talent. Efforts in recent years have begun to remedy that but there still are major shortages in specialized areas.
Then we said if we pay teachers more we have to hold them accountable for better teaching. Early attempts at having principals decide which teachers deserve more pay led to major problems.
The federal "No Child Left Behind" act uses student testing to determine which schools are adequate, in need of improvement or deserving of meritorious increases in funding.
Now the emphasis at the federal level is turning to tying student test performance to teacher evaluations and pay. It hasn't been popular with teachers but the Obama administration has begun tying it to receipt of stimulus money for schools.
It sounds good but there are problems. The only accurate measure of how students have progressed during a year is to test them at the beginning of the year as well as at the end. That is costly and time consuming.
Pre-school education also has been implemented. Half-time kindergartens were added 30 years ago. In recent years, they have become full-day kindergartens. Now the emphasis is on pre-school education to give students even more of a head start.
Think New Mexico, a Santa Fe-based think tank with a high rate of legislative success, is proposing a plan to make schools smaller by setting limits on the size of new schools.
The group has put together a wealth of material demonstrating better academic performance and significantly improved dropout rates in the state's smaller schools. This is a complete shift from earlier efforts to consolidate schools but bigger ceases to be better at a certain point.
The most important role of all, however, is played by parents. Those who nurture their children from the cradle and closely monitor their progress throughout school stand an excellent chance of having children who succeed academically. Elected officials know this but have not succeeded in making some parents care.
There are other answers but they require a more authoritarian approach than Americans are willing to accept. China and India are making tremendous strides in student performance.
And even they are looking at the example of Singapore which has risen from hopeless illiteracy 40 years ago to the seventh richest nation on earth per capita by educating a workforce that is second to none.
The country was desperate and took desperate measures that were wildly successful. We could take a moderate dose of that in the United States. We'll talk more on the subject later.
MON, 9-21-09

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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