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New Mexico Tests True Power of ESSA by Rejecting Turnaround Plans for the 4 Worst Schools in the State

By Kate Stringer | April 9, 2018

When the New Mexico Public Education Department was handed plans meant to improve the four worst schools in the state, the department returned them all in March with the same response: not good enough.

All the schools are chronically failing. Some have math and reading proficiency rates in the single digits. Two have been marked as failing for six years, and the other two for five years — or, as New Mexico Secretary of Education–designate Christopher Ruszkowski told The 74, “have underserved an entire generation of students.”

Now the districts have until April 11 to come up with better plans, and the department has met with them both — Albuquerque Public Schools and Dulce Public Schools — to give feedback.

The aggressive back-and-forth between the state and districts is early evidence of the Every Student Succeeds Act in action. Under No Child Left Behind, the federal government had a heavy-handed role in mandating turnaround options for failing schools from a set menu of models, but the Every Student Succeeds Act empowers states to take a much more targeted approach, working directly with districts to develop custom turnaround plans that meet a school’s needs.

Under New Mexico’s plan, districts could pick from options to address failing schools: closing schools, restarting as a charter school, championing and providing choice, or significantly restructuring and redesigning the schools.

The four worst-performing schools in New Mexico all picked the fourth option, restructuring and redesigning. But their plans, which included measures like rehiring principals, implementing performance-based teacher pay, and bolstering professional development, didn’t go far enough, the state said. In its response letters, the department said each school plan “lacks the requisite urgency, clarity, and cohesiveness to dramatically improve student achievement outcomes.”

The department said these schools should make sure teacher pay is dramatically higher than anywhere else in the district, hire principals with multi-year track records of success, and use evidence-based curriculum and assessments.

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“When we reviewed those plans in March, they were not transformative. They did not significantly restructure and redesign,” Ruszkowski said. “We want districts to seize resources and opportunities and show communities that they believe in equity.”

In letters to their schools explaining the state’s decision, Albuquerque superintendents called the original proposals “a good plan” that incorporated input from a dozen meetings with teachers, parents, and community leaders. “Unfortunately, the state Public Education Department doesn’t feel the plan goes far enough,” the letters said. “So, in the coming weeks, we will expand on this plan, addressing some of the concerns raised by the state.”

The Albuquerque district declined to comment further. The superintendent of Dulce Public Schools could not be reached for comment.

The Albuquerque Journal’s editorial board defended the state’s rejection of the plans, saying the “first turnaround go-round fell short, with the district opting for what amounts to rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship.”

The schools could see $8 million to $10 million in additional funding over the next three years for their turnarounds, Ruszkowski said. If the state rejects the districts’ plans again, it can select one for them.

New Mexico’s school improvement plan under ESSA has been heralded as one of the most specific and aggressive, according to an independent review by Bellwether Education Partners. But the review said a weakness of the state plan is the exit criteria for when previously struggling schools no longer need targeted interventions.

Anne Wicks, director of leadership programs and education reform at the George W. Bush Institute, was one of the independent reviewers of state ESSA plans. Wicks said that in denying the districts’ plans, New Mexico showed it is doing exactly what its ESSA plan promised.

“Can you imagine sending your kindergartner to a failing school and now [that school] is still failing in sixth grade?” Wicks said. “That’s the opportunity of ESSA: States have the opportunity to be that clear and specific about what districts can do.”

Disclosure: Andy Rotherham co-founded Bellwether Education Partners. He sits on The 74’s board of directors and serves as one of the site’s senior editors.

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