It took Lisa Durkin about a month, she figures, of staying after school two or three nights a week. Usually she’d be in her classroom until 7 pm gathering lesson plans or logs of contact she’d had with parents. Slowly, she built her case.
By the time she finished compiling the documentation she hoped would prove to her school district and the state that she was the top-notch teacher she'd always been, Durkin's binders contained 710 pages of information.
Dennis Roch is the superintendent of Logan Municipal Schools and no stranger to the time-suck that is educational data reporting. There are only 316 students in the district this year. And while people in the tiny town about 20 miles west of Texas are fiercely proud of their Logan Longhorns, the district only employs a handful of administrators. It's the superintendent who often has to handle reporting duties.
Roch's district must file more than 140 sets of data with the state Public Education Department every year—stats running the gamut from attendance records to school meal and bus inspections to student assessments. Often, he's sending the PED information that it already has. "It's like, you're in the same department. You're looking at the same data. We send that up to you digitally. Just tap the database and you'll have it," he tells SFR. "Those types of things are frustrating."
He's not surprised, though. Roch is also a Republican state legislator and is just finishing a two-year stint as chairman of the Legislative Education Study Committee.
For years, New Mexico has been trying to figure out how to best measure the performance of its students, teachers and schools. The theory: Gather more information, measure more stuff, and the people who set the direction for the state's schools can't help but find the right compass heading.
Yet, the public education system still seems lost.
There's plenty of data to support that dismal conclusion. Education Week's yearly Quality Counts survey just ranked the state 49th overall. When the publication put together what it calls its "Chance-for-Success index," New Mexico dropped to dead last.
In fact, New Mexico is awash in education data. And on the day before the legislative session began last month, Roch's committee—the most powerful group of lawmakers charting the course for the state's schools—learned we're drowning in it.
Christi Martin, an Austin-based educational consultant, studied all the information school districts and charter schools have to report to the state. The Santa Fe-based Thornburg Foundation funded the study with the blessing of the committee and the PED. Martin concluded that New Mexico educators spend far too much time and money dealing with data. She worked with a small group of educators to find out more about the effort and cost of keeping up with reporting requirements. She crunched the numbers and then compared them to Texas, Nevada and Delaware. New Mexico outspent them all.
The study estimates the state spends almost $212 per student per year to meet all its reporting requirements—26 percent more than Texas, 56 percent more than Delaware and 205 percent more than Nevada. The study figures that's $357,000 every year in salary costs for the average district to report data to state and federal agencies.
New Mexico Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera says Martin's work is "an excellent opportunity for us to look at our systems and efficiencies." If it sounds like she's choosing her words carefully, she is. Now in her seventh year on the job, Skandera has clashed with career educators who say she's a data darling dead-set on finding the right measurables to support a more-with-less approach to New Mexico schools. A report that says her department isn't doing a good job of using the information it collects is not exactly good for business.
Add to that the dismal state budget picture—Skandera says she's less focused on expanding initiatives during the legislative session than she is on preserving funding levels for her key projects—and the likelihood of a data bailout seems slim. That's because the study suggests the largest gains can be made through better technology.
"Evolving into this system that ultimately is cost-saving and time-saving for our schools and our districts takes time and sometimes an initial investment," Skandera tells SFR. If you're just learning education-ese, read that as: If you can find the money for a new software system, let me know, because I just don't see it.
For the study, Skandera's department worked with Martin to show how it collects the information schools send to the state and how it shares that data internally. Martin gave the state credit for developing a more streamlined reporting system—the Student Teacher Accountability Reporting System, or STARS—but said that once all the test scores, evaluations, attendance charts and other information makes its way to the state, the heavy lifting is nowhere near finished for schools. More than a dozen different programs then start asking districts to tweak their reports in what the study called "a protracted and bewildering data validation process."
The whole ordeal is particularly burdensome for charter schools and smaller districts like Logan. As superintendent, Roch spends more time submitting data than his counterparts in larger districts.
"I will call up to the PED, talk to the Title I bureau, and they're asking for information about how many special ed students we have," he says, "And I'll say, 'We send that in in our reports to the special ed bureau.' And somebody on the phone will say, 'Well, we don't really talk to that bureau.'"
As a Republican and as an educator, Roch supports much of what Skandera and Gov. Susana Martinez are trying to accomplish with their educational agenda. He's all in favor of tracking the progress of his students, teachers and schools through data. But some of it seems useless to him.
"If you can't use it, it doesn't do any good. I don't want us to be data-rich and information-poor."
Martin's study right off the bat recommends a hard look at nine different reports—everything from parent surveys to violence and vandalism reports to an accounting of health services—and suggests much of what's collected is either redundant or takes more time to collect and report than could be useful to policy makers. Three of the reports could be axed by the PED. The remaining six would need legislative action to be changed or ditched altogether.
Roch isn't sure, however, whether any legislation to make such a move will see the light of day in the current legislative session. Martin's report is no secret, and both Democrats and Republicans are free to introduce whatever bills they wish in the 60 days they are at the Capitol.
Skandera doesn't plan to stop gathering information in the meantime.
The PED is in the midst of a pilot program to see if it can ease the burden for school districts and make the reporting process more efficient. As both her supporters and her critics would say, she's devoted to her data.
"What gets measured, gets done. And data is really an incredible tool to inform instruction," she insists. The controversial education chief acknowledges, though, that there's no sense in collecting information for its own sake. "Data that's not used is not a good tool."
Why New Mexico hasn't figured out a way to more efficiently use all the information to drive instructional change and get results isn't clear. Certainly the cost of a fancy new software system is a major hurdle. "We don't have any immediate funding opportunities," Skandera says, "but that doesn't mean we won't consistently look for them."
Martin's report says the state wouldn't have had to look far. New Mexico is one of only three states that have not leveraged federal funding to help track educational progress. Many states have already won millions of dollars in grants through two rounds of funding. New Mexico has missed out on both, and the next chance to win any federal cash isn't until 2018.
It would not be fair to Skandera to say she broke something that was working. New Mexico's schools routinely brought up the rear in national surveys like the one by Education Week long before she arrived, and when Democrats ran the show.
There's an adversarial air to the education discussion at the Roundhouse these days. It doesn't bode well for the likelihood of major systemic change for education during the 2017 session. For one, there's no money. Next, the flagships of the current education agenda—emphasis on standardized test scores, a complicated teacher evaluation matrix and an A-through-F grading system for individual schools—haven't delivered substantially better outcomes for students.
Veronica Garcia, current superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools and the woman who held Skandera's job under Bill Richardson, acknowledges graduation numbers have improved under her successor. But she cautions against equating graduation with proficiency.
"We want to make sure that kids are graduating ready for college and career. If you look at remediation numbers, they are pretty high," Garcia says. "What we hear from the business community is that the soft skills we still have to work on; things like showing up on time and kids who know how to work in groups."
Then Garcia adds something interesting.
"I think we need to analyze and look at the data. See how we can improve. Because we want to make sure that we're graduating students who really can go on and have productive lives and not be demoralized when they try to go to a community college and have to take remedial courses."
There's a clear desire by educators of all stripes to get a better picture of what's going on in education; to see what's working.
While schools languish in the doldrums, political parties are at odds about how to put some wind in their sails. Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, admits the bills that would make the most difference, in his eyes, "if they were to get through both chambers, likely face a veto from the governor." At the same time, he offers little chance for key Martinez programs—holding back third-graders who can't read proficiently, for instance—to even make it out of the committee hearings where potential new laws are vetted.
"I think we're treading water at best right now," Soules offers. Educators are keeping their heads above water, but barely. Schools are the largest single budget item funded by the state each year and a prime place for lawmakers to hunt for cost savings.
"You have to look towards schools for that. However, we've underfunded the schools for years and years and years, so it's very difficult when we're having budget issues to then cut from schools that are already woefully underfunded."
He's unimpressed by Gov. Martinez' early rhetoric; the governor told a business group just days before the session began that she planned to target $120 million from school district cash reserves to shore up the current year's budget. She called the reserves a "slush fund."
"That shows a lack of understanding of how schools work and how their funding works," Soules says. "They think it's just money sitting around to buy donuts for principals."
In reality, school districts use their reserve accounts almost like a revolving line of credit. The money can be used to make payroll, fund liability insurance installments or to leverage federal education dollars, which require schools to foot the bill before they're reimbursed by Washington DC. Even people like Soules acknowledge that doesn't mean there's no money to be had, but painting schools as wasteful doesn't make sense to him. "There isn't money sloshing around waiting for somebody to use it in education. We cut it all already."
Charles Goodmacher looks like he's been working the last week of the legislative session, not the first. Late one afternoon last week, sitting on a couch outside the Senate chambers, his blue tie is slightly off-center. His hair, usually neat, shows signs of having had a tired hand run through it at least a few times. The lobbyist for the National Education Association, a union for teachers and support staff, Goodmacher has been trying to stem the tide of legislation aimed both at cutting funding and finding more ways to measure the progress—or lack of it—in New Mexico's education system.
The NEA and another teacher's union, the American Federation of Teachers, went so far as to sue the state over teacher evaluations in 2014. Those two lawsuits are still pending. Five days after SFR interviewed Skandera for this story, she quietly disclosed support for a small shift in teacher measurements. Under the plan, student test scores would account for 40 percent of an evaluation instead of the current 50 percent, and more weight would be given to a principal's observation of the teacher in class.
What else do lawmakers want to do with public education?
The wheels on the bus go round and round … and round and round
House Bill 47 would extend the recommended life for everyday school buses to 15 years. It’s currently at 12 years. By adding three years to the useful life of the big yellow taxis, the state delays having to spend $17.3 million on 204 buses.
Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, says the Legislative Education Study Committee was all in favor of the move and that the replacement cycle for buses takes into account maintenance costs and mechanical evaluations that can hammer buses that drive rural routes. Safety first, he says. “We were very, very careful about that.”
“It’s not like we’re saying there’s some magic number of 12 and once that passes, the bus is unsafe,” Roch says. Activity buses in the state are allowed to age up to 20 years. “We’re sending kids out on 15-, 18-year-old buses now. And hundreds of miles away.”
Another run at the windmill for early childhood education
This might be the year. House Joint Resolution 1 is an ambitious plan to increase the annual distribution from New Mexico’s Land Grant Permanent Fund, which was created in the Constitution to fund schools forever and is currently at a whopping $15 billion. The increase is 1 percent, with two years of that payout giving K-12 schools a budget boost of roughly $130 million before the money goes entirely to early childhood education programs.
The additional distribution would be permanent. That’s likely to raise the hackles of lawmakers who point out that, despite sometimes well-meaning advocates who call it a “rainy-day fund,” the money in the Land Grant Permanent Fund is supposed to be, well, permanent. The State Investment Council has steadfastly warned legislators against expecting unreasonably high returns to justify spending a larger percentage of the fund. The proposal passed its first committee this week on a party-line vote, with Democrats supporting it and Republicans in opposition.
Double-secret probation for charter schools
House Bill 46, sponsored by Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, would put a moratorium on new charter schools until 2020. The alternative schools have been a big hit with some lawmakers and are a particular favorite of Hanna Skandera, the Secretary of Public Education, who says they foster innovation. The bill is only 24 words long, but that may be 24 words too many for the governor, who wields the veto pen.
Still, Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia says the moratorium makes sense in a tight budget environment. “When you look at the charters, they’re like little districts, right? … Would anybody say, ‘Hey, let’s create a new small school district of 125-200 kids’ right now? They would think you’re crazy. So why would we allow charters? We don’t have that money right now.”
Goodmacher's organization called Skandera's idea to alter the balance a minor step in the right direction. The proposed legislation is a bit of a poison pill, though. It gives many teachers more of what they want, but it would also make the evaluation system part of state statute rather than an administrative policy, a move that makes it harder for future leaders to change.
He doesn't fault lawmakers for having to make "horrible choices" about how much to lop off the budget for schools, but he thinks the fact that the state's schools are in this predicament speaks volumes. "I think the signal is clear that it's more important to provide money, both through tax breaks and through direct support, for potential businesses to come into our state than it is to fund sufficiently the education of our students who are here and now," Goodmacher says.
The father of two students currently in Rio Rancho's school system argues, like many advocates, that strong schools are just as valuable to luring businesses to the state's sagging economy as an aggressively low tax structure. He points to a state like California, which is not known for low taxes but is in many ways considered an attractive environment for companies to sprout and grow. "Your taxes are going to be higher in California," Goodmacher says, "but you'll be located in a place where your potential employees want to live."
Though he and the governor are far from pitching tents in the same education camp, they share that sentiment. During her State of the State address, Martinez emphasized the role of education—and public safety—in economic development. She also hit on her continued desire to figure out what's working for New Mexico schools and to duplicate it.
"The old approach cannot prevail here—where we used to dole out cash with no measures of success or incentives to expand opportunities for children," Martinez told lawmakers on the session's opening day. "We must prioritize our spending on proven, successful programs; ones that bring real results to districts that embrace them."
If it were ever true that educators were on the dole and were rarely, if ever, held accountable for results, it's certainly not true now. There's no money to hand out without accompanying hand-wringing—the "horrible choices" Goodmacher mentioned. And while Martinez and Skandera believe compiling data can at least make sense of the horrible choices, it's also clear that New Mexico isn't doing as much as it could with the numbers it gathers—and educators on the ground wonder how, or if, all this number-crunching is really helping.
Lisa Durkin has been a practicing educator for more than a quarter century. You can hear the passion in her voice as she talks about how hard her freshman physical science students try or what it's like to work at a school where the entire administration has turned over twice in the last four years.
Durkin is convinced that the job she does matters, that she's contributing to the greater good and the better she is at teaching, the better off society will be—however small or large the measure. She's not against evaluating teachers or any other part of the education system.
"You know what? If it worked, that would be awesome," she says. "I would be cheerleading. But I don't think we've seen any type of measurable, statistically significant improvement in the productivity of schools based on these reform measures.
"It's such a huge use of our resources. If you look at the shift of school resources toward meeting these accountability measures..." Durkin begins to trail off. Her school and her district—both of which SFR agreed not to name because she says her criticism is not aimed at them—is like almost all others and could use whatever resources are being sucked up by reporting requirements that go above and beyond what's necessary.
All this from an educator who earned the rating she needed and felt she deserved under the state's teacher evaluation matrix that rolled out in 2012. Durkin is, in the eyes of the New Mexico Public Education Department, an exemplary teacher. It feels nice, no question. But it doesn't feel a whole lot different.
"What does it mean that I got this exemplary rating when I'm the same teacher?" she wonders. "Year after year after year I teach the same subject to the same age level of kids. … If we are to innovate and bring schools to a place that's going to meet our needs in modern society, is accountability how we get there?"
For Durkin, the answer is no. But she's been around long enough to know that the data in the two binders and 710 pages she used to prove her worth to the state should be kept close at hand. There's always next year.