First and foremost, I am not arguing that New Mexico’s 49th place ranking in graduation rates is not a problem. It is a big problem. School reform, however, cannot be based on simple statistics. We have been running down that path for over a decade now and have nothing but failure to show for it. Therefore, before we react in any way to our 49th place ranking, we had better stop to first understand what that number does not tell us. Why? Because it does not tell us what the problem is.
Lacking that critical information requires that any reforms made occur after we identify a problem, and must then target that problem preemptively. Unfortunately, no one in this state, Franklin Schargel included, is interested in doing that critical footwork.
If we want to fix education then we will first have to instigate changes that prevent problems from happening. Waiting until the problem happens and then reacting to it does no good. It’s knee jerk. How do we then prevent the problem of 3rd graders who can’t read? Again, the solution is very simple. First, we cap class sizes at 15 students. Second, we bring reading intervention specialists back into the schools. Are these cost neutral changes? No, but as the saying goes there is no such thing as a free lunch.
What should we understand about the 49th place ranking? When NCLB was made law, it came into being with a glaring loophole. Every state can set its own standards; consequently, any state by state comparison has to be severely questioned. Graduation rates only provide an individual measure of a single state, providing no rational comparison to any other state. A better comparison between states looks at the SAT and ACT scores. These tests are a neutral yardstick against which the value of each state’s education system can be measured. In 2010, New Mexico ranks in 21st place. That is well ahead of both Florida and Texas, two states that the Martinez administration tout as examples for New Mexico. As for Alabama, it’s much like New Mexico.
Both Florida and Texas have better graduation rates than New Mexico, but the quality of their graduates is lacking. New Mexico can easily achieve a 100% graduation rate, but graduating everyone and anyone is not a reform. At best, that’s a copout, at worst it’s a political lie.
An argument may be made that SAT and ACT scores only reveal information about those students going to college. So what? That argument ignores the fact that our education system is built on the assumption that every student is going to college. No exceptions are made. Given that, SAT and ACT scores do provide an accurate measure of the efficacy of New Mexico’s education system. Until we change the foundation assumption of schools to include both a trades and a college basis, those scores will remain as the best indicator of how New Mexico is doing. Does that mean that we have no room for improvement? Of course not. But in no way are we the cesspool that Schragel claims we are.
I cannot help but question Schragel’s motivations in writing his column. Schragel is not a fool; he understands what NCLB did. He understands that graduation rates on only usable as internal measures. For him to claim that graduation rates are anything else raises a very serious question regarding his motivations. How does he gain from this?
Ultimately, all of this boils down to three things when reforming education. First, we have to focus our limited resources where they will do the most good. Second, we must base changes on accurate data. Third, we have to make every effort to understand what that data tells us. Nothing else will do. Franklin Schragel knows this. Why, then, did he choose to mislead New Mexico?