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No “silver bullet” solution to improving New Mexico’s schools

June 13—There is no easy answer to solving New Mexico’s perennial education problem, according to a new report from the Legislative Education Study and Finance committees.

Rather, Chief Analyst Sunny Liu told members of the Legislative Finance Committee on Thursday that improving student outcomes will come from a mix of policy changes, including teacher pay increases, teacher preparation programs and data-driven decision-making.

Smaller class sizes — long favored by teachers as a solution to New Mexico students’ poor performance — won’t lead to big improvements on their own, Liu added.

“You really can’t take a silver bullet approach,” he said.

The report comes as New Mexico retained its last place (or 50th) in the national education rankings in the latest Kids Count Data Book earlier this week.

Research shows that class size can make a difference, Annie Armatage, senior policy analyst for the Legislative Education Study Committee, told lawmakers Thursday.

In a study on this topic, Tennessee students were randomly assigned to smaller classes of 13 to 17 students or regular classes of 22 to 25 students. Those in smaller classes finished about three months ahead of their peers.

Ultimately, however, researchers disagree on whether class size actually improves student outcomes, the legislative report said, although some studies have found that smaller classes have “statistically significant small effects.”

New Mexico classrooms are not packed to the brim with students: the legislative survey found that class sizes on average are below – or well below – minimum legal standards.

State law sets limits on the average number of students allowed in each classroom. Those limits are lowest for classrooms serving the youngest students, with a maximum average of 14 students in kindergarten, or 20 students with a teaching assistant. In middle and high schools, legal limits will shift to a daily maximum of 160 students per teacher, with fewer students in English classes.

While data collection varies statewide, classes in New Mexico largely operate well below the legal maximum, Armage said. For example, kindergarten classes averaged 17 students, the report said, while high school core academic courses typically had fewer than 20 students.

So the analysts argued that improving teacher support – and thus improving student outcomes – is a matter of combining strategies such as smaller class sizes, higher wages and better preparation programs.

The state has been slow to implement these changes. In 2022, the Legislature increased teachers’ base pay to $50,000, $60,000 or $70,000 per year, depending on experience. Lawmakers followed this up with increases of 6% and 3% for primary and secondary school teachers in 2023 and 2024, respectively.

The state also has the “Cadillac version” of teacher preparation programs, Liu said, with residencies for teachers and principals, mentorship opportunities, paid student teaching and other strategies to strengthen teachers’ skills.

During Thursday’s meeting, Arsenio Romero, secretary of the Department of Public Education, asked for lawmakers’ help in drafting a bill to phase in smaller class sizes for the 2025 legislative session.

Lawmakers, Liu said, have transformed New Mexico into “fertile” soil where improvements can grow.

There’s one more piece to this puzzle: student attendance, another topic before the Legislative Finance Committee Thursday.

During the 2023 school year, nearly 40% of New Mexico students — or more than 140,000 students statewide — missed more than 10% of school days, according to data from the Legislative Finance Committee. Chronically absent students had lower proficiency and graduation rates than their peers.

A new report from the commission puts much of the responsibility for improving attendance on the Department of Public Instruction, recommending that the department establish consistent rules and best practices for recording attendance and make the data available in real time for districts.

“This clearly shows that you are not doing your job,” Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, told department officials.

A range of solutions may be needed to improve New Mexico’s education system, but Rep. Brian Baca, R-Los Lunas, said, “More of the same bad education won’t get kids into school.”

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