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Education moves show promise — now, what comes next?

January 6, 2019

Elections have consequences. Results can be felt just hours into a new term — and thank goodness for that.

Witness the third day of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham running the state. As promised, she signed executive orders to end a controversial standardized test for New Mexico public schoolchildren. At the same time, she ended the practice of using results from the tests in teacher evaluations.

Her actions mark an essential first step for reforming the education “reforms” of the last governor. We support evaluations, both for students and teachers, but agree that the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers standardized tests, known as PARCC, proved a flawed vehicle at best. Not only were tests not always correlated to curriculum, the linking of scores to how well teachers did on evaluations proved unfair to educators.

Lujan Grisham is wasting no time in keeping her campaign promises, too. That’s an encouraging sign for voters.

More important than eliminating PARCC and its role in teacher evaluations, however, is what happens next. The goal? Spend more education dollars on students and teachers, rather than to pay for tests or to prop up a bureaucracy.

Remember, getting rid of PARCC is easy. Demanding excellence, measuring progress and ensuring that solid learning takes place each and every day remains a challenge. One positive from former Gov. Susana Martinez’s education reform was ensuring principals stopped by classrooms to see teachers in action; that needs to remain even as evaluation methods change.

Now the focus must be on what comes next. Create smart tests that measure progress but don’t take weeks to administer. Have local teachers and administrators develop the measurements, too, rather than relying on a corporate test designed more to enrich out-of-state companies than to benefit New Mexico students. Oh, and do all of this without completely upsetting the apple cart. The last thing our teachers and students need is another flavor-of-the-month reform.

Of course, we need to know who the next Public Education Department secretary will be to understand where the governor’s rethinking of education can take us. Evidently, the governor has not settled on her choice and is asking Lt. Gov. Howie Morales to take on the duties and responsibilities of running the Cabinet-level department for the time being.

It’s a good thing voters had the sense to nominate an educator as lieutenant governor back in the Democratic primary. His background in the classroom as a special education teacher and his work in the Legislature as a senator — he is familiar with how schools are funded and what legislation will be most helpful in boosting schools — make him a good fit. As soon as the news conference announcing the executive orders ended, Morales walked over to the PED building and met the workers he will be supervising. He got right to work.

We like, too, that as the governor announced her decision to stop PARCC testing, she surrounded herself with teachers. Too often, their voices are left out of the debate on educating children. Yet teachers are the people who do the difficult work day in and day out. We need to listen to them as we develop new ways of measuring progress and ensuring that kids are learning what they need to succeed. Parents and students, too, need a say in what happens in classrooms.

New Mexico will be implementing its changes while still complying with its federally approved Every Student Succeeds Act plan; this spring, for example, students might take a mix of PARCC and another assessment while details are finalized. To continue to receive federal dollars, the state has to meet federal guidelines. Those require an assessment for teachers and students. However, it does appear the assessment does not have to be the PARCC test — only New Jersey and the District of Columbia are continuing to use the controversial exams.

Still in place and still controversial are the A-F school grades, brought into being by the Legislature (PARCC exams and the teacher evaluation system were put in place by executive rule). Legislation will be necessary to eliminate the A-F grades, mostly on the basis that it is almost impossible to understand how the state reaches its rating.

Again, it’s important to be transparent about how a school is doing. Without spending hours crunching numbers in a secret formula, schools can post test results, absentee rates, free lunch participation and other information. Then, parents can find out about their children’s schools simply by visiting a website. No fanfare or big news conferences, just basic, important information that helps a community understand how its schools are performing.

In her campaign, Lujan Grisham was clear that she wanted to revamp public education. She took the first steps last week, moving New Mexico to a more child-centered approach to education. More, please, and hurry.

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