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Literacy key to educating New Mexico’s youth

February 5, 2019

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is correct in making public education, and especially early education, a top priority for the state. However, it is clear from the article in the Santa Fe New Mexican that many people find the way forward perplexing (“Lawmakers pressed to devise plan on public education,” Jan. 20). Everyone shares a sense of urgency and seeks results as quickly as possible, but successful outcomes must also be sustainable.

Literacy skills represent the foundation for academic success. Specifically, the third grade is known to be the pivotal year when children transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Data show that students who are not proficient readers in third grade are four times less likely to finish high school. Those who also live in poverty are six times less likely to graduate. The necessity of grade-level reading proficiency by third grade for mastering academic subjects through high school is well documented. Unfortunately, New Mexico ranks last among states in reading proficiency among third-graders.

If the critical factors for academic success are literacy skills, and the foundation for acquiring those skills occurs by third grade, then a primary piece of New Mexico’s response for improving public education overall must target literacy proficiency during that formative period.

While most New Mexico public schools are designated grade D or F schools, some do excel and are rated as grade A or B schools. One leading school district is in Texico. Everything about the Texico schools’ people and facilities is laser focused on a culture of high expectations and an intense, daily collaboration among students, teachers and administrators. The result of their consistent, nurturing environment is that Texico students clearly love their school and are excited about learning (see Texico Report at www.MentoringKidsWorks NM.org).

The type of school environment in Texico is what David Brooks describes in his op-ed in the New York Times (“Students learn from people they love,” Jan. 17). His point is that effective learning depends upon the emotional relationships students form with people who share their learning experience. That connection for effective learning is supported by neuroscience research. More detail can be found in the Aspen Institute’s report entitled “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope.”

Teachers and administrators work hard to provide a nurturing experience, but each teacher is working with many students. One way to advance learning is by adding one-on-one assistance. Mentoring third-graders in literacy skills, for example, offers personalized learning via a nurturing relationship that strengthens each student’s intellectual and emotional investment. For New Mexico, providing bilingual mentors is also important.

Three powerful outcomes can be realized from the mentoring example above. First, learning is accelerated by reinforcing what is happening in the classroom. Second, because literacy proficiency is achieved by the third grade, students are prepared to master math and other academic subjects thereafter (early success is multiplied). And third, the positive emotional relationships students develop toward learning and helping others contribute to their success in life as well as academics.

For sustainable success in public education, I urge the Legislature to establish a state-funded initiative during the current session that supports literacy attainment across all New Mexico, especially for third-graders (e.g. a comprehensive literacy consortium). Practices working well for students anywhere in the state should be shared in the most efficient ways across the rest of the state. It is a matter of New Mexicans helping New Mexicans as we educate our youth and improve our state’s future standard of living for all.

Michael Droge, Ph.D., is a Santa Fe resident, a retired university president and former professor who conducted neuroscience research.

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