“I don’t believe 87 percent of our schools are failing,” Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez said at a July 25 study session on student test scores.
Seated at a conference table in the SFPS central office building at 610 Alta Vista St., Gutierrez was reading from prepared remarks three days after the announcement that all but one of the district’s schools failed to meet federal academic standards. With her head bowed over the papers like a scolded child, even Gutierrez’ lilting Texas accent didn’t hide her defensive, embattled tone.
When the previous round of data came out in the summer of 2010, Gutierrez said test scores can be misleading and disguise positive change. Three out of 30 public schools in Santa Fe met national Adequate Yearly Progress standards that year.
In 2009, five schools met the standard. At the time, Gutierrez said it was humanly and statistically impossible for districts to meet the ultimate goals of AYP, and argued that a different metric for gauging students’ achievement should be developed.
But to critics, such excuses ring increasingly hollow.
"I think anybody leading a district that has been in charge for three years has got to take more ownership and be held more accountable for the performance of the school," SFPS Board of Education Member Steve Carrillo says. "If our scores are consistently dropping and our graduation rates are consistently falling, then it needs to be the superintendent that's held accountable for that."
Few disagree that the AYP benchmark established by No Child Left Behind has ceased to be a meaningful way to look at Santa Fe’s schools or at New Mexico’s in general. The 2001 law enacted by former President George W Bush created standards in reading and math for students in elementary, middle and high schools.
Each year, a higher percentage of students must be “proficient” in the tested material; otherwise, the schools in question are labeled as failing.
Most critics of the AYP system point to the ever-advancing standard, which leaves more and more schools in the “fail” zone each year, as evidence that the system is designed to disappoint. By 2014, schools will fail if 100 percent of their students aren’t proficient in both math and reading. When a record proportion of schools statewide fell short of the benchmark this year, the drumbeat of anti-AYP sentiment grew louder.
It's not unusual for administrators to react to the predictably dire results the way Gutierrez did—and the way board President Barbara Gudwin did at the same study session in July, stating that AYP is an unsatisfactory ratings system which "doesn't tell us anything about whether kids are learning."
But the obvious problems with the provisions of No Child Left Behind also create an excuse behind which SFPS can hide. Although the NCLB benchmark may be unrealistically high, the district's AYP scores are far from meaningless. On the contrary, they show that Santa Fe is well below state averages in nearly every indicator of academic success.
A comparison between Santa Fe and the state as a whole, based on the test data used to determine AYP—called Standards Based Assessment data—reveals a significant gap. For overall results among all grade levels and subgroups, Santa Fe’s math scores are 9.6 percentage points below state average. Reading scores are 7.9 percentage points below. For Hispanic students, the gap is even larger: 11.2 percentage points lower than the state average in math and 9.8 percentage points lower in reading.
But current scores aren’t as important as their changes from previous years, Gudwin and Board Member Frank Montaño have argued. This summer, SFR reported that Gutierrez presented skewed data to the board during her contract negotiations in February: Gutierrez’ report showed growth in 2009-2010 SBA scores over the previous year by removing all data for underperforming students [news, June 29: “Zero Sum”]. In defense of that report, Gudwin and Montaño said at several board meetings that, although overall scores were poor, the incidences of positive change were important to note.
This year, signs of improvement were even harder to find in statewide test data because the New Mexico Public Education Department changed its proficiency standards. But like the ever-moving AYP benchmark, the new proficiency standard created one more smoke screen disguising the SBA test scores' significance; Gutierrez spent longer discussing that issue at the July study session than addressing the need for academic improvement.
Under PED's new definition, improved scores were almost too much to hope for. Scores declined somewhat across the state, but SFPS' scores for almost every subgroup dropped more steeply. Reading proficiency among ELL, or English language learners, plummeted 18.9 percentage points in Santa Fe, while statewide it dipped only 6.6 percentage points. Math scores for ELL took an 11.3 percentage-point dive in Santa Fe; at the state level, they fell by just 3.4 percentage points.
In New Mexico, though, even state averages are far from exemplary. Nationwide, the state ranks 32nd for educational achievement. Less than half of New Mexico public school kids are proficient in math (41.8 percent) or reading (49.8 percent).
A look at sample SBA test questions undermines the notion that poor test scores stem from unrealistic standards, Santa Fe parent Julie Murray says. One question, for instance, asks a third-grader which operation (addition, subtraction, multiplication or division) performed on the numbers 8 and 4 yields the number 32.
“[When you look at the test,] you say, ‘Yeah, I want my kids to be able to answer this question correctly,’” Murray says. “The tests are based on the standards, and the standards are good.”
But test scores aren’t the only indicator of SFPS’ deficiency relative to the rest of the state. Last year, its high school graduation rate—53 percent—was the second-worst out of all 89 New Mexico school districts.
The parent gap
The principal of Clovis’ Zia Elementary School, which has met the AYP benchmark every year, says parent involvement is perhaps the most important factor in her school’s excellent test history. National research and SFPS data support her point. In 2008, researchers at the University of New Hampshire found that sufficient parental involvement—even at the level of dinnertime conversations about school—equates to approximately $1,000 in additional per-pupil educational expenditures.
At SFPS, four out of five of the district’s worst-performing schools have no parent teacher associations at all. Although some level of involvement depends on the parents, Zia Principal Jarilyn Butler says, schools are still responsible for cultivating it.
"There are always students that come from homes that are very, very busy," Butler notes. "Parents may not realize how crucial that developmental stage is, so it's our job to communicate with parents and help them help their child."
Given the importance of parent involvement, it's surprising that more SFPS kids aren't excelling. Some local parents are so involved that they stepped up to raise money not just for extra school programs, but also for basic needs such as physical education teachers and substitute teacher salaries. SFPS parents show up to often-epic Tuesday night school board meetings and voice their opinions, whether the microphone is plugged in or not [June 22: "School Board Divided on Comment Snafu"]. But many parents feel the district doesn't support their activities—that instead, the district considers them a nuisance.
"As a parent, I don't feel like I'm on the same team as the district; I always feel like we're on a different side," Wood Gormley Elementary Parent-Teacher Council President Dan Baker says. "We have massive parental involvement, and I feel it's in spite of the district. It's just crazy. I just feel like the district, quite honestly, doesn't want us to talk to each other. Otherwise, they would make sure every school has a PTA."
Former SFPS Superintendent Leslie Carpenter, who held that position for three years before passing the baton to Gutierrez in 2008, says her biggest regret about her tenure was her failure to encourage more parent involvement, which she says has a "huge impact" on test scores.
National nonprofit Project Appleseed finds that 79 percent of elementary and middle school parents want to be more involved in their children's education, and 77 percent feel that teachers need more training in how to involve them. According to Project Appleseed, teachers' lack of time or inclination to reach out to parents is a major barrier to parent involvement.
"Parents need to know there's these opportunities for indirect support that are the critical pieces of supporting your child," Carpenter says. "We have parent-teacher conferences, but I don't think we do enough parent training to educate parents…It has not ever received the attention we have placed on the teacher's role…and I think the parents' role in schooling is equally important."
Test score trends from elementary school to junior high at SFPS bear out the importance of parental involvement. Seventh-grade test scores are approximately 10 percent lower than the average across all grades; a dismal 21 percent of SFPS seventh-graders are proficient in math, while only 32 percent are proficient in reading.
Many SFPS parents are familiar with the "middle school problem"—the conundrum of whether to keep their children in the public school system after 6th grade or jump ship to a private or charter school. Santa Fe's public middle schools have poor reputations, so often parents who can afford other options pull their kids out of public school. Some say that leaves only students with less-involved parents at the public middle schools.
De Vargas Middle School Principal Diane Garcia-Piro says middle school in general creates challenges for developing a PTA because parents are only around for two years. This year, Garcia-Piro hopes De Vargas will have a PTA and a parent teacher council, but since school just began, they haven't formed yet, she says.
Wood Gormley Principal Linda Besett says it’s critical for teachers, principals and administrators to treat parents like equals in the education process. Gutierrez says she believes Baker is mistaken in perceiving parents’ relationship with SFPS administrators as adversarial, but when she talks about “beyond the bake sale” ways for parents to be involved, they tend more toward serving the school than the kids—such as helping landscape, putting up bulletin boards and “feel[ing] useful.”
But parents are only one part of what Carrillo calls the “sacred triad.” Teachers and principals have the other two critical roles, and SFPS’ top-down management approach restricts them from exercising their power. Last year, SFPS started a new program to try standardizing reading instruction throughout the district. The Treasures curriculum program from Macmillan/McGraw-Hill education publishing company is designed to provide comprehensive reading materials and test preparation from kindergarten through sixth grade. The program cost the district $1.4 million and has angered even Gutierrez, who at a June school board meeting ranted, “I hate Treasures. I hate Treasures!”
Gutierrez now says “hate” was probably too strong a word, and that her outburst stemmed from frustration at Treasures’ cost and its less-than-literary quality. But she says having a standardized curriculum throughout the district helps ensure kids learn the state-mandated standards.
She says the New Mexico Public Education Department requires that districts choose a curriculum from an approved list, but PED spokesman Larry Behrens says districts can apply for waivers to exempt themselves from that requirement without losing funding.
From several parents' points of view, Treasures doesn't challenge students or inspire them to learn. Parent Sharon Pomeranz recounts how her second-grade daughter mocked the babyish tone of a recent Treasures offering about leeches, saying that both the book and its subject matter "sucked." Watching her daughter navigate the internet and learn from articles targeted to a general audience, Pomeranz feels that dumbed-down readers are hardly interesting, or enriching, to the latest generation of kids.
Baker says he believes Wood Gormley’s success this year in AYP—it was the only school in Santa Fe to meet that goal—is partly due to its refusal to stick exclusively to the Treasures program, for which he says Besett was reprimanded by district brass. Besett confirms that her school has been “firmly addressed” on the importance of “fidelity” to the program on numerous occasions. Gutierrez won’t confirm that Besett was reprimanded, but says fidelity to the core program is important and state-mandated.
Besett says Wood Gormley uses Treasures in group settings but augments it with regular books. One of Besett's core educational philosophies is that academic standards are more important than adherence to any one program. She adds that Treasures is tailored to Texas and California's standards, not to New Mexico's, so it must be supplemented with other materials—not to mention that Treasures isn't challenging enough for advanced readers, and kids of all reading levels want to read real books, she says.
"The content of the Treasures program is built from test material. The problem I have with it is they teach so directly to the tests that it's not literature; it's just fragmented word problems," says Baker, who feels that SFPS kids served as guinea pigs for an untried program. "There's no context, no character, no thought. It's just mechanical; it's test prep material."
For adults who remember discovering classics such as Where the Red Fern Grows or the works of Beverly Cleary, the idea of literature turned into test-prep sound bites is repugnant enough. But the fact that, by "teaching to the test," Treasures actually made test scores worse is even more upsetting.
"I just think that was a big waste of money and a big irritant to teachers and parents," Murray says. Gutierrez argues that a new curriculum usually has seven years to prove its worth, but with the state mulling a new "A-F" school rating system, it's hard to say what curricular changes might be ahead. She would not commit to ditching Treasures if scores don't improve this year.
The backlash against Treasures points to another possible area for improvement: moving away from top-down, central-office-dictated practices to "school-based management," wherein each principal acts as a minisuperintendent, with the freedom to tailor programs to his or her particular school. Board Vice President Glenn Wikle says he would like to see a shift toward a more school-based management model, and Carrillo believes it is the kind of "creative, innovative, bold initiative needed to pull us out of this rut."
One of the main arguments in favor of school-based management is that it makes each principal directly accountable for an individual school's performance. It also gives parents more direct input at their kids' schools, rather than forcing them to appeal to the district-wide school board or superintendent. Increased control can in turn motivate parent participation, including fundraising.
Parent Dave Merriman argues that, at the least, the district should make better use of principals’ on-the-ground experience with the teachers and students.
"I see some highly capable principals who are never solicited for their ideas on how [the district] could do better," Merriman says. "There hasn't been one meeting, I don't think, where Bobbie pulled principals in and kind of gave them a blank piece of paper and said, 'What do you need to do your job better?'"
In a meeting with Gutierrez and SFR, SFPS Director of Assessment and Accountability Lynn Vanderlinden said Gutierrez has reached out to principals for their input. Both Gutierrez and Vanderlinden say the school-based management style has drawbacks because principals have to be responsible for facility and budget issues that lie outside their realm of expertise.
Gudwin says the district can explore such options at a future board meeting aimed at creating a strategic plan for the district. No such plan currently exists—a fact critics point to as a profound lack of vision and planning, especially in a district in such obvious need of improvement. There is, however, a district-wide plan laying out one of the least-popular top-down initiatives SFPS has tried to implement. It's called the Facilities Master Plan, and it details future construction plans in the district.
Superintendent of construction
To some, the fact that SFPS has a long-range plan for construction, but not for academic improvement, epitomizes its misplaced focus.
Construction initiatives have also generated more ire from parents and community members than nearly anything else the district has done. After Acequia Madre and Atalaya elementaries, two higher-performing east-side schools, were targeted for closing and consolidation, a record number of voters turned out for the 2010 school board election.
In a sweeping moment of turnover, they elected three "reform" candidates to replace those members who were deemed partly responsible for the consolidation. Those two schools were spared, though three others were consolidated last year.
Test scores at Aspen Community Magnet School, created out of Kaune, Alvord and Larragoite elementaries, suggest consolidation may have adversely affected academic performance. Under the A-F rating system the state is transitioning toward, Larragoite would have received an A and Alvord a B; Aspen would receive a C. Gutierrez says that Kaune was the biggest of the three schools, so its former population dominates Aspen and drags down its scores—but to Wikle, it's still evidence of a failed policy decision.
"I don't believe the consolidation benefited those kids in any way," Wikle says. "I don't think that the setup at Aspen is any better than it was at the original schools."
Agua Fria Elementary, which is slated to be torn down and replaced with a new facility—a controversial plan opposed by many community members and completely in limbo as of press time because of wildly inaccurate construction cost estimates [Indicators, June 29: "Hard Sell"]—performed worse than every other SFPS elementary. It was also the ninth-worst performing elementary statewide, out of 371 schools.
Thirty-five elementary schools jumped ahead of Agua Fria in the rankings during the past year while debate raged over the fate of its facility [news, April 13: "Cold Water"]. Meanwhile, construction activities have consumed much of the school board's time and sent parents into panic mode, with few tangible positive results.
So far this year, the SFPS board has spent almost no time discussing anything curriculum-related. Construction issues have taken up far more of the members' time, as have damage control discussions about various controversies concerning Gutierrez.
"I really can't help but wonder what's been going on the last eight years that certain things like [a strategic plan] weren't in place," Carrillo says. "Everything we need to be doing needs to be feeding the goals of graduating more kids…We could have the best facilities in the western United States, but if we can't graduate kids, what point is there?"
Though none of the school board members have said publicly that they want to oust her, Gutierrez has been at odds with the three newest members from the beginning, after the outgoing board approved her contract for an additional year at the last minute. In a school board meeting last spring, Gutierrez seemed on the verge of breaking down when she said that the board could vote to get rid of her immediately if it felt that was the best course of action [briefs, June 22: "Board Blame"].
Based on student performance trends, the board's concerns about Gutierrez are not unfounded. When Gutierrez took over from Carpenter, SFPS achievement data were showing an upward trajectory. After Gutierrez took the helm, the numbers stayed roughly level for a year, then started to dip (see page 17).
Gutierrez blames SFPS' inferior performance on factors that are consistent throughout the state: the economy and the budget, which is set on a per-pupil rate and affects all districts equally. She also says better-performing districts have fewer economically disadvantaged kids. But when presented with a list of 32 New Mexico school districts with higher percentages of those kids than SFPS, and higher graduation rates, she responded that the comparison is unfair because those districts are smaller. However, Albuquerque and Las Cruces are larger districts with higher graduation rates than SFPS.
"Can we improve in Santa Fe Public Schools? Absolutely," Gutierrez says. "Do we have some black eyes and some gaping holes and some sores we need to cure? Absolutely. But that's not the complete and total fault and responsibility of the school district. That's a community issue that we all need to get behind."
Gutierrez has already said that the new A-F rating system could be problematic—high-performing Wood Gormley would receive a C purely on a technicality, she says. But the prospect of new models for evaluating New Mexico's schools also provides a dangerous opportunity for SFPS to hide behind another flawed-testing-method excuse.
In the state's capital city—a community blessed with a diverse, politically active population, reform-minded school board members, education-oriented nonprofit organizations and plenty of affluence—it's shocking to many that district leadership is focused on justifying poor student performance instead of trying to lead the state academically.
"Santa Fe has the most amazing potential," Carrillo says. "I think our teachers are fantastic; I think our school communities are wonderful; and there's no reason why we shouldn't be excelling."
But it’s up to district leadership to help make that leap.