Last year, New Mexico had a National Blue Ribbon School.
Central Elementary in Artesia received the national recognition as an honor school in 2012 for showing dramatic improvement in student performance.

This year, the school received a rating of D from the New Mexico Public Education Department, according to a presentation officials made in a Legislative Finance Committee Thursday morning.

In their presentation in the meeting, Hanna Skandera, secretary-designate of the New Mexico Public Education Department, and Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, said the department is working on initiatives to address underperforming schools in the state.

Skandera said her department has proposed to the U.S. Department of Education a Turnaround Leadership for Student Success program, which would assess school leaders and would provide training for educational leaders. She said the program would follow the same guidelines of the University of Virginia’s School Turnaround Specialist Program.

All of New Mexico’s 839 public schools would be required to participate in the department’s turnaround efforts, Skandera said.

“If you were going to invest in an area for change and see change, teachers and schools leaders are where it should go,” she said.

The program works with the leadership teams at the school, district and state levels to support and sustain effective school turnarounds, Skandera said. Strategies for the program include replacing low-performing principals and teachers, tutoring and allocation of central office staff to support the proposed initiative, she said.

Hanushek compared New Mexico’s student achievement to students in high-performing schools in neighboring states and in other countries, such as Canada and Greece.

Hanushek said providing standardized testing to evaluate teachers and principals’ performance is one way to increase and ensure student achievement. He said effective teaching results in good academics.

“What I’m trying to say here is that there is a big gap compared to what we can see is possible in other states,” he said. “The countries that do well internationally are the ones that find a way to make sure that ineffective teachers do not stay in classrooms for very long.”

Hanushek said New Mexican students are performing at a much lower rate than anywhere else in the country. He said 60 percent of students in other states perform better than the state’s students, and this could hurt New Mexicans’ chances in the job market.

However, State Sen. Howie Morales questioned the program’s grading system and asked how a highly rated school could receive a low grade with the same teachers and school leaders. Morales said he was also concerned about how the state’s poverty rate would influence the evaluations, and suggested that poverty could have affected the assessment.

Morales said he was also concerned with Hanushek’s idea of replacing ineffective teachers. He asked Hanushek to explain his research on how removing unproductive teachers from the classroom influences a student’s learning environment.

“Isn’t that an assumption that if those teachers are removed, who is to say they’re not going to be replaced by a first year teacher or an inexperienced teacher who needs extensive training,” he said.

State Rep. Mimi Stewart said 38 of the 41 schools that received D’s or F’s from NMPED were in poor neighborhoods. Stewart, who has been a teacher for over 30 years, said focusing on professional development is more important than removing teachers who fail the test.

“Getting rid of a few lousy teachers, to me, is not going to increase those scores on our particular test, of which teachers don’t even get the results until next year when students are gone,” she said. “We are using a flawed system to grade students, schools and teachers.”

Teachers and principals are doing a better job than what the presentation suggested, Morales said.

“The correlation between poverty and individual achievement is there,” he said. “When you look at the Four Corners area … here in the state, they’re actually defying the odds.”