During the last 20 years, I spent eight years on the Los Alamos School Board. I continue to listen to many school board members and to students, administrators at every level, parents, teachers (including my wife and brother), and union officials.
I spent many hours working with educators on implementing classroom technology. I spend many more hours reading articles and books.
I have tremendous respect and admiration for teachers who, day after day and year after year, are able to impart their love of learning to students, effectively develop subject matter skills in students, and motivate students to meet high standards.
I also respect and admire administrators who do an outstanding job of supporting teachers and facilitating learning. These administrators and teachers should be our heroes.
In spite of many outstanding teachers and administrators, we face a crisis in education in New Mexico. We are at the bottom of too many good lists and at the top of too many bad ones.
There is no single answer, but we can make progress if everyone – parents, teachers, administrators, board members, legislators and students – focuses on student achievement.
I believe student achievement comes from well trained, highly motivated teachers maximizing their time with students with strong support from parents and administrators.
How can we make this happen? If one reads about successful schools, three principles emerge: flexibility, accountability and resources.
Different schools have different issues: many issues faced by Jemez Mountain schools are different from those faced by Los Alamos schools.
Schools need flexibility to create learning environments and allocate resources to things that will make the most difference for their students.
We have to cease the “one size fits all” policies and solutions imposed from on high. Smaller class sizes may be the highest priority in one school, while an aggressive parent involvement program may be best for students in another.
With flexibility comes accountability. Schools should be able to define student achievement goals within guidelines and with community input.
Then the community will be able to hold schools and personnel accountable for achieving these goals and to recognize and celebrate success.
Further, accountability will encourage schools to learn from each other and become more effective.
K-12 education does need more resources. Because of the economic challenges of the last five years, general fund support for K-12 education has not recovered to FY 2007 levels, although American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds covered parts of the shortfall for several years.
Besides adding more money, we need to ensure as much money as possible gets to the school level. One of the school districts with which I am familiar has 300 students and is required to turn in 200 reports/year to state and federal officials. How can this amount of bureaucratic overhead benefit students?
Are we getting there? Although we have a long way to go, I am pleased to report some progress. Santa Fe Superintendent Joel Boyd is implementing an ambitious school based goal-setting and accountability program (Sept. 23 Albuquerque Journal opinion page.)
Los Alamos Public Schools and several other districts in New Mexico are testing a comprehensive teacher evaluation program with an increased emphasis on student achievement.
The legislature increased general fund spending on K-12 education by $89 million, or 3.8 percent, from the general fund appropriation for public education in FY 2012 and increased funding for early reading programs.
In summary, while there is no magic bullet, there are many proven strategies for successful schools. Often mentioned are a commitment to a rigorous and relevant curriculum, challenging goals and effective feedback, parent and community involvement, a safe and orderly environment, and collegiality and professionalism within the school.
An overview of research into best practices is at http://www.leadered.com/pdf/Successful%20Schools%206-05.pdf.
A fascinating experiment at the high school level is going on at the Arrowhead Center in Las Cruces.
In the end, schools need the flexibility, accountability and resources to select, implement and measure the best strategies for their students. Communities must recognize and celebrate school successes. Students need these schools!