The U.S. Education Department on Wednesday (Aug. 9) approved New Mexico's plan for adopting new federal public-education reform standards, giving the state the go-ahead to commit to a five-year blueprint that largely conforms with policies already put in place by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez's administration, but roundly criticized by teachers unions and some Democratic lawmakers.
That means the state will stick with its current educational standards, known as "Common Core," and the standardized tests that come with it.
The approval announced Wednesday by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also endorses the state's teacher evaluation system - which has led to two separate lawsuits questioning its validity - and New Mexico's A-F grading system for schools, which some claim is difficult to understand.
The plan also pushes schools to ensure that English-language learners become proficient in English at a faster rate and encourages school districts to intervene if a school is continually failing. It declares an ambitious goal of improving graduation rates by some 14 percentage points, to 85 percent from 71 percent, in the next five years.
The Republican governor issued a statement welcoming news that the state's proposal was accepted under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, saying, "Federal approval of this plan will help us continue this progress so that more New Mexico kids have a chance to succeed in life."
New Mexico's acting public education secretary, Christopher Ruszkowski, said in an interview Wednesday that the federal government's approval of the roughly 160-page plan is a testament to "momentum" the state has seen over the past 6 1/2 years under Martinez and former Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera.
While New Mexico's graduation rates have increased steadily and more schools have received A or B grades, academic achievement rates remain poor and the state is at or near the bottom in most education rankings.
At least one of the state's teachers unions decried news of the plan's approval. Stephanie Ly, president of the American Federation of Teachers of New Mexico, said in an email Wednesday that the plan simply follows "failed policies that the Public Education Department was already doing under former Secretary Skandera. This represents a significant missed opportunity for New Mexico's students to have real flexibility at a state level."
Shortly after New Mexico submitted its plan to the U.S. Department of Education in April, the state's teachers unions and several Democrats in the state Legislature said it was nothing more than a continuation of Skandera's agenda, including the controversial teacher evaluation system. They also questioned whether it will cost the financially challenged state more money to implement measures in the plan.
But in June, an independent panel of educators overseen by two policy nonprofits, the Washington, D.C.-based Bellwether Education Partners and the Alexandria, Virginia-based Collaborative for Student Success, called New Mexico's plan "outstanding" and said its goals are achievable.
The plan also includes several new ideas, such as the creation of a statewide student advisory council, the use of science test scores as part of a school's overall grade and a new grading system to judge how the state's colleges are doing in preparing students to become good teachers.
State Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he hopes the state can find the resources to put the many aspects of the plan in place. Otherwise, he said, "It will just be words on paper."
But, he added, "I think it's a good thing we got the plan approved and can move forward."
So far, of the 17 states that have submitted plans, four have received approval from the U.S. Department of Education: New Mexico, New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware.