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What could have been for New Mexico kids

Commentary: Another year, another 50th ranking for New Mexico in the annual Kids Count report. And this dismal ranking doesn’t even take into account the negative impact of COVID 19 and Gov. Lujan Grisham’s harsh lockdowns and over a year of lost in-person schooling.

The average U.S. child has lost the equivalent of five to nine months of learning during the pandemic, according to a report from McKinsey & Company. With New Mexico’s high poverty rates and lack of broadband access relative to other states (combined with more lost classroom time than all but 5 other states), the picture is indeed bleak for New Mexico’s youth.

Normally, this is where some wiseacre would say “Thank God for Mississippi!” But at 50th, we can’t even say that anymore. In fact, while the Magnolia State shares many of New Mexico’s deep-seated poverty issues and social problems, the reality is that in the all-important area of 4th grade reading, Mississippi is rapidly moving in the right direction while New Mexico remains stuck in neutral.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the widely-recognized “gold standard” for educational performance. It is given to a representative sample of students in every state at various grade levels every two years. 

While all aspects of learning are critically important, 4th grade reading scores are widely-recognized to be the most important. That’s because up until 4th grade students are learning to read while after that they need solid reading skills in order to learn in all manner of subject areas.

Back in 2013 Mississippi’s 4th grade reading scores were comparable to New Mexico’s with Mississippi holding a slight advantage 209 to 206. By 2019, Mississippi’s 4th grade reading scores had risen to 219 while New Mexico’s barely budged up to 208. Mississippi has opened up a significant (and growing) gap between itself and New Mexico in getting its most important group of students to read. 

So, what happened in Mississippi that didn’t happen in New Mexico? 

We wanted to find out, so we talked to education experts in Mississippi and heard about some education reform efforts that probably sound familiar to many New Mexicans. Mississippi’s reforms included a 2013 law called “3rd grade reading gate” which both included resources for early childhood reading AND training for teachers in those grade levels in phonics-based teaching. Substantially, Mississippi also stopped social promotion (with intensive intervention for failing students) and adopted an A-F school grading system based on improving student outcomes. 

If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Mississippi’s reforms are based on successful reforms implemented in Florida more than a decade ago under then-Gov. Jeb Bush. Florida’s reforms were also the basis for New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez’s reforms when she came into office in January of 2010. 

The main difference between Mississippi and New Mexico is that the former had the political will to fully implement the reforms while Susana Martinez and her Education Secretary Hanna Skandera had to fight tooth and nail against hostile legislators and the unions. The Florida Model was abandoned immediately upon Michelle Lujan Grisham taking office. 

The Florida (or Mississippi) model may not have had the same success in New Mexico as it did in those states, but it would have been nice to have tried. The current Administration’s approach involves a lot of new spending. Unfortunately, it also involved New Mexico students missing a lot of class time relative to their peers in other states during the COVID pandemic thanks to political decisions made by the Lujan Grisham Administration. 

New Mexican children desperately need a high-functioning school system right now. If throwing money at a problem will fix it, then by all means let’s fix it, but we can’t be myopic about other possible solutions which have demonstrably worked elsewhere. This approach has left the Land of Enchantment dead last in educational outcomes. We must be open to new approaches. Perhaps the Governor could try her own version of the Florida/Mississippi model? Ojalá.

Edwin Aybar Lopez is Director of Education Coalitions at Opportunity for All Kids New Mexico www.oaknm.org, an organization dedicated to reforming New Mexico’s education system.