ICYMI: SANTA FE NEW MEXICAN EDITORIAL: Our View: Reading, retention and compromise 

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The New Mexican
Monday, December 16, 2013 11:30 pm


Gov. Susana Martinez is inching toward compromise… on her signature initiative to improve the reading ability of New Mexico schoolchildren.

The goal is hardly controversial: Ensure children learn to read by third grade, so that they can succeed in school. It’s how to get there that has caused disagreement. Martinez and her Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera want children held back in third grade if they aren’t reading up to grade level.

Now, we hear of possible compromise, through a bill that would provide additional intervention in the early grades. Retention is still in the mix, but not until 2016, so that the programs could be evaluated first. Sen. Gay Kernan, a Republican from Hobbs, is carrying the legislation to shore up reading, called “Academic Success Through Remediation Act.” Sen. Mary Helen Garcia, a Democrat from Las Cruces, also is in favor of the legislation, making this a bipartisan bill.

Democrats such as Rep. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque still don’t like the retention portion of the bill — but even those provisions have exceptions, as Kernan points out. Parents could petition principals for a promotion, for example. Money to pay for extra help for kids would come in part with $15.5 million from the N.M. Reads to Lead initiative; more money, though, will have to be paid for by local districts. Whether the districts have money to divert to early reading programs, we need to find out.

This legislation is an important step toward finding better ways to help schoolchildren succeed. We disagree that holding kids back is the only answer; early intervention is a better focus. Should further compromise be needed, the Martinez administration might consider a carrot approach — let districts choose retention, and fund more reading programs if they do. That might create enough different approaches that by 2016, New Mexico has a better idea of what works.

To its credit, Martinez’s Education Department has realized the importance of early education.

The Reads to Lead program allocated some $3 million in 2012-13 to recruit and hire 46 reading coaches across the state, and $4.9 million to hire another 68 reading coaches and 52 reading interventionists. The coaches are in place to help teachers find better strategies to teach reading; some 700 K-3 teachers and 1,300 students in need of intervention have been affected. State education department figures show that third-grade reading scores from 13 initial participating districts and schools improved some 7.8 percentage points, compared to the statewide reading increases of 2.9 percentage points. Money is being spent, too, on training teachers and on assessing children’s reading skills frequently throughout the year, so that families know how their children are doing.

More broadly, funding for pre-K programs in New Mexico has more than doubled since 2011, an increase of $15.65 million. Some 4,230 students are projected to be served this school year, up from 2,061. Pre-K, of course, helps children prepare to read — and it must be expanded more aggressively and broadly. As the children grow older, programs such as K-3 Plus work to help narrow the achievement gaps between disadvantaged students and others. This program extends the school year by 25 instructional days — but it’s not cheap. Some 15,959 students participated in summer 2013, with $15.9 million allocated for 2013-14 programs.

Should the early education and intervention programs work, retention will be beside the point. Children will be reading at grade level. That is a goal all sides of the education debate can agree on, and that’s why too much focus on holding kids back is counterproductive. Keep emphasizing early education. Help children learn to read and help teachers become better at improving literacy. But don’t block programs that work because of a one-size-fits-all retention mandate. Compromise — this is a first step — and let improved reading scores be the everyone-wins result.