Who knew that the road forward for New Mexico education would lead through Mississippi?

Long our partner at the bottom of national rankings, our southern friend now sees us in the rearview mirror.

By implementing a variety of reforms, Mississippi has climbed from 49th in the nation for fourth grade reading in 2013 to 29th in 2019. In fourth grade math, they rose from 50th to 23rd.

We used to say “Thank God for Mississippi!” because it meant New Mexico was not bringing up the bottom. Now we thank Mississippi for a new reason: because it has demonstrated that a relatively poor state with many challenges can dramatically improve student outcomes.

If Mississippi can do it, so can New Mexico.

Not only can we do it, but we must. The 2018 Yazzie-Martinez court ruling held that our students have a constitutional right to a better education and required that New Mexico provide a plan to raise the quality of education for at-risk students.

Think New Mexico’s “Roadmap for Rethinking Public Education” report offers recommendations that would help meet those requirements.

Each of the following reforms could significantly move the needle for student outcomes based on experience in New Mexico and elsewhere.

Increase learning time for students by one hour a day for elementary students and a half-hour a day for middle/high school, while giving districts flexibility about how to implement that extra time.

Improve teacher training by pairing beginning teachers with an expert teacher for a year and providing them with evidence-based professional development throughout their careers.

Pair beginning principals with expert principals for a semester, provide ongoing coaching, and offer more competitive salaries.

Upgrade the quality of local school boards by increasing training for school board members from five to 24 hours annually, require members to automatically resign when they run for another office, and ensure that meetings are webcast and archived for the public.

Right-size to smaller, more personalized classes and schools.

Make it easier to close failing charter schools and make it easier to expand successful ones, especially in under-served areas, and allow charters to give enrollment preference to at-risk students and students with special needs.

Enhance high school graduation requirements to include financial literacy, civics, two foreign language credits, and two credits for career and technical education.

Depoliticize year-end assessments by replacing them with shorter interim assessments that promote student learning rather than punishing or rewarding the adults in the school system.

Pay for these reforms with strategies that include shifting dollars from school district central administrative spending to school sites and classrooms

Like many educators, I chose the classroom as a place where I could make a direct impact on the lives of children. But no matter how much teachers give of ourselves, too many factors can wreak havoc, from gaps in teacher preparation and training to a lack of effective school leadership.

Students feel the repercussions daily. Think New Mexico’s road map could once again put us alongside Mississippi — lifting us up from the bottom of the nation’s rankings.

We encourage parents, teachers, and all New Mexicans to visit Think New Mexico’s website at thinknewmexico.org, where you can read the full report. Then head to our Action Center and call on your legislators and the governor to support these reforms.

Mandi Torrez is the education reform director for Think New Mexico and is the 2020 New Mexico Teacher of the Year.

Mandi Torrez, Think New Mexico