Yesterday Governor Richardson accepted the "America's Greatest Education Governor Award" from the National Educational Association, a lobby group for teachers. Among the reasons given for extending the award was his "fighting to put physical education back into elementary schools, and taking junk foods out, increasing teacher pay and restoring collective bargaining rights for educators." But these accomplishments, after all, have nothing to do with academic achievement and a lot more to do with issues the NEA is interested in. So we should also ask: did the Richardson administration, in addition to the benefits cited above, improve the academic record of students in New Mexico, which, for most parents, with all due respect for reducing junk food and restoring collective bargaining rights, is the bottom line? In other words, how do Johnny and Maria rank in reading and math? Let's find out.
Bottom Line: New Mexico students did not improve their academic performance during the Richardson administration. The evidence suggests a very slight decline. The prestigious American Legislative Exchange Council, using many factors of evaluation, ranked New Mexico 48th in the nation in 2007, the same as it gave New Mexico in 2002, after ranking New Mexico 49th during most years of Richardson's administration. During the late 1990s New Mexico routinely scored in the low 40s, so the last few years represent a definite decline. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce this year gives New Mexico an "F" in its report card for overall academic achievement, and an "F" for the academic achievement of low income and minority students, and an "F" for the return on investment per dollar spent. Why these scores were given will be evident below.
Sources: In looking at the record I went to three major sources. First, I consulted the American Legislative Exchange Council, which issues a Report Card on American Education; second, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Education Progress, an outstanding source for data; third, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Education Report Card. Readers who wish to review my work are invited to visit these sources by clicking on these sites.
Math: In 2003, the year Richardson became governor, New Mexico lagged 9 points behind the nation in fourth grade math and 7 points behind in eighth grade math scores, about the same as the lag in the 1990s (all data on math and reading can be checked on the NAEP site, above). Five years into the Richardson administration, in 2007, things were worse. The gap between New Mexico and the rest of the country had grown to 11 points in math scores for fourth grade, and 17 points in eighth grade math scores. Only one state was below New Mexico in fourth grade math, and two in eighth grade math.
Reading: In 2003 the reading gap between New Mexico and the rest of the country was 11 points in the fourth grade and 9 points in the eighth grade. In 2007 the fourth grade reading gap remained at 11 points and had grown to 10 points for eighth grade. This placed New Mexico 49th out of 51 (the data includes the District of Columbia) in fourth grade reading, and 50th in eighth grade reading five years after Richardson was elected governor.
Hispanics: Given that Richardson is Hispanic, one might expect the gap in scores between Hispanic and white non-Hispanic students in the state would have been addressed and closed. But the evidence does not support this expectation. Fourth grade math scores of Hispanic students remained exactly 20 points behind white non-Hispanic math scores between 2003 and 2007. There was a barely discernible improvement in the gap in eighth grade math scores, from a lag of 28 points in 2003 to a lag of 25 points in 2007. The lag between Hispanic and white non-Hispanic reading scores likewise remained virtually identical, moving from 20 points in 2003 to 21 points in 2007 in fourth grade reading, and from 25 points in 2003 to 24 points in 2007 in eighth grade reading. Hispanic students in New Mexico remained behind Hispanic students in other states, in math, by about 4 points throughout the Richardson administration, and in reading by 1-2 points. This is a switch from the mid-1990s when New Mexico Hispanics were ahead of Hispanics in the rest of the country. Bottom line: The gap between white-non Hispanic students and Hispanic students in New Mexico remained the same, with scores of both groups below national averages, during the Richardson administration.
Non-Hispanics: White non-Hispanic math scores among fourth grade New Mexicans trailed national white non-Hispanic students by 6 points both in 2003 and in 2007, and by 5 points in eighth grade math scores in both 2003 and 2007. So white non-Hispanic students in New Mexico did not improve relative to the white non-Hispanics in the rest of the country.
Black student performance in New Mexico was about the same as Hispanic student performance during the Richardson administration, jumping four points ahead of Hispanics in 8th grade math from 2003-2007, remaining 1-2 points behind Hispanics in fourth grade math between 2003 and 2007, and remaining between 2 and 5 points ahead of Hispanics in reading scores between 2003-2007.
Lack of Resources? Frequently teachers associations such as the NEA equate performance of students with expenditures of money on schools. But a lack of money and other resources cannot be the cause of New Mexico's educational failure. New Mexico ranks 31 in expenditures per pupil, 30th in pupil-teacher ratio (better than the national average), and 37th in average instructional salaries, even though we are a poor state, but 48th in educational achievement. Arizona is 50th in expenditures per pupil (New Mexico spends $2080 more per pupil than Arizona), and 50th in student-teacher ratio ( 9 students more per classroom than New Mexico) but Arizona ranks 33rd in academic excellence, fully 15 positions higher in rankings than New Mexico. The case of Washington D.C. is even more dramatic: it ranks 3rd in per capita expenditures (it spends $5520 more per pupil than New Mexico), and first in teachers salaries (teachers receive $19,558 more than New Mexican teachers, on average), yet it is dead last--51--in educational achievement. Money spent on students, while important, is not a determining factor.
The Good News: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's report card, while failing New Mexico in academic achievement and return on investment, does give a glimmer of good news. Basically, the educational system is honest enough to earn a "B" grade in "truth in advertising about student proficiency," and a "B" in "data quality." These are not trivial accomplishments, since a major first step in addressing systemic failure is to measure just how bad it is. So this is a good sign. And perhaps a key to understanding New Mexico's failures in spite of a relative abundance of resources, lies in the "C" grade given by the Chamber for New Mexico's "rigor of standards" category. You are unlikely to improve unless standards are high and expectations are high. A little public help from a governor would go a long ways toward sending the message to students, teachers, and administrators that they will be held accountable to higher standards than is now the case.
Other States Have Improved: It is not impossible to improve educational outcomes, and several states have proved this during the years Richardson was governor of New Mexico. Texas, for example, moved from a ranking of 43rd to 29th between 2002 and 2008. During the same time period New Jersey moved from 26th to 9th. Pennsylvania jumped from 41 in 2001 to 17th in 2008. South Dakota moved from 35th in 1999 to 5th in 2008. And Virginia moved from 27th in 2001 to 11th in 2008. Why did one of these governors not receive the award this year?
Why the Award? Given this record of failure in New Mexico education, why would the NEA give the governor it's award? The answer, of course, lies in the politics of education. The NEA is one of the most powerful trade unions in the country, interested far more in its political clout nation-wide and in the welfare of teachers who deduct part of their salary for the organization than in the educational achievements of students. Richardson, an accomplished fund-raiser, has undoubtedly done favors over the years to the institution, and they are undoubtedly repaying him, during a moment when his reputation could use some propping up. In this sense the award can be likened to the award given for School Board of the Year (see story on Dec. 14) by the New Mexico School Boards Association to the Gadsden Independent School District, one of the worst-performing districts in the state, just at a moment when Superintendent of GISD Cynthia Nava--also State Senator Cynthia Nava, Chair, Education Committee--was discovered to be $4 million in the hole with no explanation (except for politics) as to how the district could go for four years without a single, required, annual audit.
But these awards, however much they might enhance the reputation of the recipients, do not change the sobering realities of math and reading scores in New Mexico or the GISD, nor will they make Johnny and Maria one bit more competitive in the globalized economy of tomorrow. New Mexico schools still rank at the bottom of the barrel of academic achievement.