And, if education is the most powerful tool in the life of a child, we should honor and reward our best teachers and intervene quickly to help those who need it.
But, we must choose courage over comfort. The status quo is comfortable – each teacher paid the same, every evaluation identical, and the misguided belief that all teachers should be simply labeled as meeting competency.
Those are comfortable notions. But, they do not center on the one question we should be asking above all others when it comes to education: are our kids learning?
If that is the central question then there is no doubt we would embrace reform.
Yes, we are evaluating our teachers in a more meaningful way than ever before, and I understand that change can be difficult and challenging. But we continue to listen to ways in which we can improve and make the process better. I will meet anyone halfway, so long as our children learning is the only goal in front of us.
We also continue to look for ways to better support our teachers, because we know how important their work is. For example, teachers tell me two things most often – that starting teachers aren’t paid enough, and that they shouldn’t have to spend money from their own pockets on school supplies in their classrooms.
I couldn’t agree more, and that’s why I’m proposing that we raise starting teacher salaries by an additional $2,000 per year, to help us recruit and retain more teachers.
And to help teachers who are having to pay for classroom materials out-of-pocket, we should provide every New Mexico teacher with a pre-loaded $100 debit card for the purchase of classroom supplies.
I also recognize how difficult it can be in a state as large and rural as ours to recruit certain types of teachers – bilingual, special ed, math and science. So, let’s offer two-year stipends to these types of teachers if they’re willing to teach in schools or districts where recruitment or retention has been a challenge.
And I firmly believe that we should allow adjunct teachers into our high schools to teach certain difficult subjects, such as scientists from Los Alamos or Sandia teaching one or two chemistry classes, or well-trained researchers teaching geometry or calculus. Again, if our goal is to provide our kids with the best instruction possible, these are opportunities we cannot pass up.
Let me say this, however. If education is the key to a brighter future for our children, then we must have the courage to demand that our kids are in their seats and learning. Truancy is a cancer in our schools. Today’s habitually truant kids are indeed tomorrow’s dropouts. It is our collective problem. And we know who the at-risk kids are; teachers say they can spot them a mile away – detached, behavior issues, lack of interest in school and their peers.
So I propose that districts with high truancy problems come to the state with local plans to stop it. Which middle schools could really benefit from having social workers on campus, to interact with at-risk kids? And in the high schools that are fed by these middle schools, let’s hire dropout prevention coaches whose sole purpose is to see these kids receive a diploma.
Of course, despite our best efforts, some young people will not get the message until we have the courage to be tougher. To that end, we should pass legislation that would not allow habitually truant students to obtain or keep their driver’s license.
But ask yourself this: how did many troubled students end up that way - uninterested in school, dropping out, perhaps engaging in criminal activity, achieving far lower than their potential? As a prosecutor for 25 years, as someone who has listened to the stories of teachers who try to reach these kids, chances are, it’s because they can’t read very well.
They fell behind early, couldn’t read a children’s book…passed along.
Words got bigger, chapters got longer, and subjects got harder…passed along.
Asked to read out loud in class? No way. Too embarrassed.
Homework? Can’t read it and stopped trying, tired of failing.
“I’m struggling” becomes “I’ll never understand this,” which becomes “I’m not smart, so I’m done trying.”
When children cannot read, and yet they are passed along anyway, we do them no favors. We discourage them. We frustrate them. We hurt their chances for success in life. We hamper their ability to get a good job. My friends, that does not build self-esteem in a child!
We have condoned this for far too long, taken the easy way out, and made the comfortable decision.
It takes courage to do the right thing. Now is the time, this is the moment, when we stop being complicit in this practice. We must stop passing our children from one grade to the next when they cannot read.
On my watch, we’ve more than doubled pre-K funding, and I’m proposing more this year. We’ve made K-3 Plus permanent, allowing 18,000 struggling readers to take advantage of summer tutoring. I know it starts early, and our efforts to stop social promotion are jam-packed with interventions, starting at kindergarten, to get children help so that retaining them is not necessary. But let’s acknowledge the devastating negative ripple effects of socially promoting our youngest children. It impacts their ability to learn and succeed, it makes it harder for teachers in later grades to bring them up to speed, and it makes it harder for businesses to find the qualified workforce they need.
Let’s choose progress, not politics, on this issue.