June 13, 2017

A hope that the next secretary of education will embrace real change


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Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, is often quoted for saying “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” This has been used as motivation in all forms of contests to gain an edge on competitors. Most people do not realize, however, what Coach Lombardi actually meant. It was not about winning at all costs—ignoring the human spirit or looking at the scoreboard as the ultimate measure of success. In an interview late in life, Lombardi said about his winning quote that “I wished I’d never said the thing… I meant the effort. I meant having a goal. I sure didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.”

In the world of corporate-driven education ‘reform,’ which finds its ultimate goal in free market profits, the human aspect of learning and leading has become equal to “winning” as measured by a standardized test. This is the kind of ‘reform’ we see in New Mexico today. But the most effective strategies for educating children are characterized by collaboration, using the best practices available, thoughtful planning, open communication, and especially kindness and a spirit of compassion.

Howie Morales is a Democrat who represents Senate District 28.

State Sen. Howie Morales

As the governor considers a permanent secretary of education, the job description ought to focus on an individual who is capable of inspiring students, staff and parental engagement, developing leaders, improving performance, transforming our culture of education, and even love. Yes love, because love is what will allow this individual to recognize that humans thrive when systems of support exist in balance.

The support system must address the mental, physical, spiritual, cultural, and social needs of our teachers and students. It must be centered in a holistic approach to learning and excellence. To ignore the total needs of our educational community is equivalent to treating cancer with a band-aid. Our state can no longer afford an out-of-touch, one-size-fits-all approach to education leadership. It is time we started treating people like people, not as data inputs—only then will New Mexico​ start winning in education.

New Mexico today ranks 50th in student achievement, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The education policies of the last seven years were wrong, and a new direction is needed.

Secretary Hanna Skandera and Governor Susana Martinez continually pushed data-driven policies that were unproven. There was far too much importance placed on relentless testing with standardized exams. Behind those approaches, coincidentally, stood powerful corporations who stood to profit from tens of millions of taxpayers’ dollars.

Skandera blamed teachers for the failure. But New Mexico has deep poverty that is spread broadly across almost every community in our state. The connection between low student achievement and poverty has been known since the 1960s. Yet she and the governor acted as if it did not exist.

We hope the next secretary will reject the punitive approach to children who are not reading at grade level—particularly at third grade level—and the public shaming of schools that fall short. Yes, we all need accountability in life. But educating the next generation of New Mexicans is not a race in which each teacher is in competition with every other teacher. That approach is driving teachers out of the profession, contributing to the huge shortage of educators our schools face. Successful education should be about collaboration and cooperation.

It would be helpful if the next secretary of education is free of troubling conflicts of interest, such as sitting on the boards of for-profit corporations doing business in New Mexico, as Skandera did. It calls into question the motives behind policy preferences advocated by the Governor’s administration.

We hope the next secretary will embrace the real change that many students urgently need, the kind of change that delivers improvement. We know what it looks like: three years of high-quality preschool for all kids beginning at the age of two and half; cutting class sizes in half for all children in elementary school, to create an environment like in expensive private schools; rich curriculum that fires the imagination and creativity of students and their teachers alike, and offering teachers excellent support and professional development rather than threatening and disrespecting them. Those are the policies that would get immediate and lasting results for students in a relatively poor state like ours.

A real love and appreciation for children doing their best to learn—that is what is needed. If New Mexico’s future public education executive possesses that, he can do all the photo ops with kids he wants, and I will be perfectly fine with it.