What do the U.S. Secretary of Education, the Highlands and Luna presidents, the New Mexico Secretary of Education and our local school superintendents have in common?
For starters, they are all educational leaders who spend large amounts of our tax dollars. They are also subject to judgments of their value based on measurements of what their students learn — or don’t — in our schools.
But for me, the most important commonality shared by these stalwart public servants is that they don’t seem to have a clue as to the key causes of the massive failures their various organizations produce.
Let’s start with Arne Duncan, the top Obama educator. He has chosen a large bore federal shotgun to fire billions of dollars to states producing the most comprehensive, innovative improvement plans. Alas, this macro-approach will produce no lasting beneficial results if only because it does not directly and unequivocally target the major cause of the great majority of school failures, the inability of our students to read and understand their textbooks.
Whatever Arne’s claims of success may be, his efforts (and our money) will be spent to no ultimate avail, because the pervasive and disabling outcomes of ineffective reading instruction will remain. Reading scores will not improve because there is no direct reward to motivate the needed systematic changes in the traditional, time-based instructional processes.
On a state level, Veronica Garcia, the top K-12 official, is responsible for much and accountable for nothing, if the earned consequences for failure that have not accrued to her are at all representative. Listening to Dr. Garcia ponder and explain the test data for New Mexico will give you a big clue why this happens. She simply cannot realize that good reading skill — and the required obsessive, single focus on developing this — is the necessary if not sufficient condition for all educational success. If I were her boss, I’d make half her salary contingent on reading skills gains in our schools. But, sadly, her real, if unwritten, job description is to pour political oil on the troubled waters of the 88 public school districts, so she’ll probably not have any time, energy or money left for anything as simplistic as teaching kids to read. She’ll be gone soon, as the Richardson era ends, moving on to another bureaucratic challenge or a sinecure in some college of education.
As for our two local superintendents and our community college president, I’ll only hypothesize that an audit of their work time, over a school year, would show somewhere between a paucity and zero time devoted to the specifics of creating, developing, delivering, managing, analyzing, measuring and otherwise ensuring reading comprehension skills. How can I be so sure of this? Just look at the abysmal reading scores of their students. Clearly, these superintendents could never have produced these levels of failure if they had devoted any time or rational effort to improving their students’ reading skills. And I do add Dr. Campos to this pair, given his long superintendency presiding over the City Schools. I’d suggest that if you listen to him on the local radio offering his usual repertoire of repetitiously redundant inanities, you’ll have some further evidence of the causes of his schools’ reading problems. He is not known as “Platitude Pete” for nothing!
Highlands president Jim Fries actually knows better, but he seems frozen in the headlights of apprehension that his faculty (a) can’t even begin to solve the problem of the non-reading freshmen (Jim is right on this), and (b) they will fight him to the death (or, even worse, to the loss of his job) to prevent bringing to Highlands the capability to reduce and eliminate the university’s most debilitating weakness, citing the usual bogus fears of lost academic freedom, etc., as their rationale. Jim, a very smart fellow, realizes that Highlands now has a graduation rate that is at an all-time low, a dropout rate that is preposterously high, an academic reputation that is comically poor, a developing tradition of unattractiveness for new freshmen, while competing schools (Eastern, Western, CNM, UNM, etc.) are in boom enrollment times, and a clearly-distracted Board of Regents more concerned about a ludicrously expensive rodeo program than the reading skill deficiencies bedeviling the vast majority of freshmen. And, by the way, take a look at the official NCAA data on the success of Highlands’ athletic programs.
And, so it goes for our schools, our community and our state. It also goes this way for America. Our local contribution — or lack thereof — helps to weaken our nation and moves all of us a bit farther down the competitive world rankings.
If we cannot teach most of our students, most of the time, to read reasonably well, we will pay — indeed we are paying — a heavy price. Think about this the next time you listen to, or at least hear, Platitude Pete on the radio, or the Highlands regents expressing great concern about rodeo or wrestling, or Veronica Garcia reciting her usual generic list of educational nothingness.
John Loehr is a former Highlands regent who lives in Montezuma. He may be reached at 454-1731.