Garcia Richard: State Education Reform Must Start with Early Reading

Column by Stephanie Garcia Richard, Democratic Candidate for State Rep, District 43

As kids from Los Alamos and around the state get back to school, and the election season begins to gear up, the important role of education in our state’s future becomes more and more apparent. 

Schools and classrooms may not share top billing in this season’s political debates, but it’s one of the most important issues for me.

Maybe that’s because I’m on the front lines. I teach third grade and have been a classroom teacher for over ten years. I have taught in charter schools, BIA schools and public schools.  

For me, education reform is not just an abstract idea. Teaching children to read, helping them when they fall behind, adjusting the lesson to the learner—is my everyday reality. 

And so are standardized tests. One thing I’ve learned is that the foundations for good reading skills are built in early childhood at home with parents and grandparents reading to their children and in good pre school programs that get kids ready to read.  

I’m encouraged that the legislature over the years has expanded these early programs, but we have much further to go.

Los Alamos Public Schools should be commended for the “Reads to Lead” grant they received from the Public Education Department that allowed LAPS to hire an additional reading coach for K-3. 

I am heartened when I see Los Alamos focus on literacy and reading through increased teacher training, literacy coaches, and special classes that provide extra instruction in reading as well as providing summer school to students who need additional support.

Those things will make a difference in curing reading deficiencies much more than punishing children for not performing well on high stakes tests.

One of the bills in the legislature recently required mandatory flunking of children in third grade who couldn’t perform at grade level on the standardized basic assessment test, regardless of parent input.

As a third grade teacher I can tell you that this kind of cookie cutter approach exacerbates the likelihood that the child will have trouble later on, including behavioral and social problems which could lead to an increase in our alarming drop out rate. 

Instead, what our children need are extra help, good teachers, and small classes.

Public schools are the foundation of our democracy, and about half of our state budget. But in recent years, class sizes have grown, teachers have been laid off, budgets cut and duties increased. 

Too often the teachers are forced to teach to the test instead of focusing on the individual child. And the results are showing.

Yes, we need comprehensive education reform but one that takes into account our children’s unique assets, sets high standards in the classroom and rewards our top performing teachers.

Evaluation of teachers has been a controversial item in education reform, but a new pilot program in the Albuquerque public schools, developed by a broad group of stakeholders is beginning to bear fruit. 

It’s based on classroom observation and student improvement rather than just high stakes testing. 

Results are adjusted for low-income factors. When combined with the state’s new teacher evaluation regulations (now being developed) we may arrive at a way to reward good teachers and help those who are not performing as well. 

 For New Mexico kids, public schools are the gateways to economic opportunity and equality. They are even more important in a country where the economic recession has reduced the size of the middle class and shrunk opportunities for young people. 

In recent years, schools have come up short in the state budget and teachers have felt under attack from an administration that seems to value only test scores.  

We need to change all that and work together to strengthen student achievement with more parental involvement, smaller class sizes, and a good teacher in every classroom. 

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