New Mexico and a Tale of School Accountability

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This guest post is in response to a new series of briefs from Bellwether, From Pandemic to Progress, which puts forth eight ambitious but achievable pathways that leaders and policymakers can follow to rebuild education – and student learning and well-being – as the country begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It seems that nowadays just the mention of school accountability elicits groans of frustration and hopelessness. For many working to improve education in our country, school accountability has been a critical tool, but one that — as Bonnie O’Keefe lays out in her recent brief,  “Redesigning Accountability has been fraught with implementation challenges and political toxicity. Equally as important as acknowledging the shortcomings of school accountability is highlighting stories of success. 

New Mexico, my home state, may not have a lot to brag about when it comes to education outcomes, but we do have a story that I think all advocates for school accountability can learn from. 

In late 2017, New Mexico became the first state in the country to assign schools under the Every Student Success Act’s new designations, including identifying schools as in need of “More Rigorous Intervention” (MRI). Identification of a state’s worst performing schools was not required by ESSA until 2021, but New Mexico recognized the urgency of school turnaround and acted immediately. Four elementary schools were identified for more rigorous intervention after earning five or six consecutive “F” letter grades in New Mexico’s school grading system. This meant that an elementary school student could have attended a failing school for their entire elementary school experience, beginning to end. 

Each school was provided four options: 

  1. Closure: Close the school and enroll the students who attended that school in other schools in the surrounding area that are higher performing. 
  2. Restart: Close the school and reopen it under a charter school operator that has been selected through a rigorous state or local authorizer review process. 
  3. Champion & Provide Choice: Champion a range of choices in an open system that focuses on new approaches to learning; one that keeps the individual student(s) at the center of accessing options that best support their learning path. 
  4. Significantly restructure and redesign the vision and systems at a school including extending instructional time, significantly changing staffing to include only educators earning highly effective ratings and above, state-selected curriculum approaches, and/or personalized learning models for all students. 

As predicted, each elementary school chose to redesign and restructure, which resulted in a months long back and forth between the Public Education Department and the administration of Albuquerque Public Schools, which oversaw three of the four schools identified. Ultimately, then Secretary of Public Education Christopher Ruszkowski held the line in demanding serious reforms to the schools including extended learning time and eventually the department and the district agreed on plans to redesign each school, unlocking approximately  $1 million of support for each school over the three-year MRI period. If a school did not improve over the three-year period, it faced closure from the state. 

Anyone reading the local paper or watching local news saw play out what advocates know all too well: the department was vilified for “labeling schools” and “threatening closure.” In fact, a lawsuit was filed to fight against the identification of one of the schools. But eventually, as time passed and the reforms were implemented with financial support from the department of education, something amazing happened – the schools improved! In fact, Hawthorne Elementary saw a 10.4 percentage point increase in their reading proficiency scores in a single year, which was the largest improvement in the district. 

I wish the story stopped here. This is the story we are all striving for, the story in which struggling schools are identified, given a timeline to implement rigorous changes, supported with funding and motivated by a sense of urgency, and ultimately improve learning outcomes for children before it’s too late. But that’s now how this story ends. 

In 2019, New Mexico’s newly elected Governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham took office and on day one, she decoupled student assessments from teacher evaluations and removed New Mexico from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARC) consortium. Soon after, the legislature enacted changes to New Mexico’s school accountability system, doing away with the A-F ratings and the Department of Education submitted an amendment to the state’s ESSA plan removing “MRI” designations from the four previously identified schools. 

This was a win, right? It was problematic to put such heavy pressure on perpetually underperforming schools and threaten closure, wasn’t it? 

While the move may have earned political favor, it brought with it disappointing news for the schools that were seeing results from their new plans–no MRI designation, no funding. Instead, the schools were re-identified as “Comprehensive Support Intervention,” which came with less financial support, thus leaving the district to self fund the continued programming that was bringing success and increased enrollment, to the schools targeted for turnaround. It was a political win that brought devastating financial consequences. 

In my opinion, a state’s education department has one primary responsibility: accountability. It is uncomfortable and fraught with political landmines but it is necessary and absolutely worth it. School accountability is challenging to execute well but it is necessary in the fight towards equity. Oftentimes the worst performing schools serve a state’s most vulnerable students and allowing them to flounder in schools with single-digit proficiencies for five or more years in a row, as was the case for New Mexico’s first MRI schools, is an abandonment of our moral responsibility to do right by our students. Our students deserve more.  

I hope that as each state grapples with school accountability in the years ahead, we recognize that while it is not easy, it is possible to implement school accountability systems grounded in equity, transparency and data -informed action to improve outcomes for students. We did it once in New Mexico and I hope we find the courage to do it again.

Amanda Aragon is the Executive Director of NewMexicoKidsCAN.