Education reform: Lessons learned in New Mexico – Full interview with Hanna Skandera | VIEWPOINT


Hanna: Bottom line, you would not think that
people say, “If you’re poor and brown, it can’t be done. We can’t serve kids.” But they do. And at the end of the day, we have to address
that fundamental belief if we want to see the great things for our kids. Rick: Hi, I’m Rick Hess, Director of Education
Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. I’m delighted you could join us today. I’ve got the privilege of having with me Hanna
Skandera, Superintendent of Schools for the state of New Mexico. Hanna’s got a long and impressive history
tackling these issues. She worked with Jeb Bush when he was Governor
of Florida doing leadership of schooling. When Margaret Spelling was Secretary of Education
under President George W. Bush, Hanna was Deputy Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department
of Education. She worked with the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger,
when he was Governor of California helping to drive school improvement. And now, she’s one of the nation’s longest
serving state superintendents in New Mexico. Hanna, thanks for taking the time today. Hanna: Thanks for having me. Rick: Let’s start off big picture. You’ve been doing this work for a long time,
most of it [inaudible 00:01:09]… Hanna: True. Rick: …you’ve been in these leadership roles. What are a couple of things that you’ve learned
over time that you might not have realized back at the beginning? Hanna: You know, a few things stand out to
me, and this really does come over time in being in different states. What’s really different…in some ways, there’s
a lot of overlap in states and what they deal with. And in other ways, there’s nuance, right? And I actually think one of the biggest things
you realize over time is policy matters, but there’s a lot of nuance in this space. But I would say one of my biggest takeaways
over time is that you as a leader, when you’re leading education in a state, and I think
even in a district, and in some ways, at the federal level, you’ve got to know what you’re
coming into. And I think about the spectrum of states right
now, and some are in the very early stages of transformation in education, and some are
down the road. And if you misstep and don’t understand the
historical context and the foundation you’re walking in to or lack thereof, you could do
all the right things…whatever that means, and really miss the mark for truly transforming
opportunities for kids. Rick: So make this a little more concrete
for me. You worked for Jeb Bush in Florida back in…what,
2003, 2004 era? Hanna: More…it was 2005 to ’07. Rick: 2005 to ’07, so more than a decade when
he was really out front. Hanna: Yeah. Rick: You’ve come to New Mexico, which wasn’t
on anybody’s map as an educational leader at that point in time. What’s different? Hanna: Yeah, great. And I call it “What generation of reform are
you in?” And so, when I think about being in Florida…Florida’s
been a leader. And you might say they’re in their second
or third generation, probably third now. Maybe even into the fourth zone. Whereas walking into New Mexico…I’ve said
this affectionately, it’s like the prenatal phase. There was nothing, right? And so, it matters though, right? What do you need to put in on the ground,
and what kind of leader…and I think this is another lesson learned, leadership matters
immensely, people. And we can talk about the role and how important
our teachers are, right? The people matter. And so many times, we want to get to this
space and say, “Well, if I get the right policies, this is what reform looks like.” And I do think there’s some things that when
I think of reform or transformation on education, that I do see as foundational. But I… Rick: What are a couple of those? Hanna: So I think…and sometimes, it seems
like it’s becoming a bad word in education these days: accountability. I think having a foundation of knowing where
you stand. You cannot get somewhere that you want to
go if you don’t know where you’re starting from. The problem, as I look back…and this is
another lesson learned, is we, for so long in the reform movement, if it’s a movement,
focused on the accountability, and got in all these wars, I included, around “What’s
the calculation?” “How are we gonna measure teacher quality?” “How are we gonna…” And at the end of the day, I think those things
matter. But we didn’t even get past that conversation. The only reason, in my opinion, you have a
foundation of accountability is then to build a house that truly serves kids, supports teachers,
and using that information to actually get to what I call the “So that.” We did all these things so that we could actually
move the needle for our kids, not just say where they are. And if we stop at where they are, our kids
and I think we’ve made a big mistake, and I think we’ve done it way too often. Rick: So when you think about accountability
then in a place like Florida versus a neonatal place… Hanna: Yes. Rick: …what should be done differently? So if you’re a leader, if you’re an advocate,
how do you approach it different? Hanna: So I think full candor. So in an early-phase, prenatal generation
state, you’re gonna break a lot of glass. Because at least in New Mexico, but I don’t
think New Mexico is isolated in this regard, the first thing you’re hitting up against
is the culture, pervasive, that says, “Hmm, if our kids are poor and brown, we’re not
sure they really can succeed.” And when I say that out loud, I’m like, “Nobody
would say it like that.” And I can honestly look you in the eye and
say, “Yes, they do.” And so, you’re breaking through the paradigm
of what’s possible. If you’ve been generationally failing your
kids, and New Mexico has been in that space, you’re breaking through a paradigm. It is not pretty. You’re hitting up against an “embrace belief”
system first that says, “I don’t know if this seems possible.” And so, that breaking glass. Whereas in Florida, and as you look in other
spaces…maybe Louisiana or Tennessee where you’ve had a few…you’ve had some people
who have broken glass. But then you’ve also…they’re getting to
the “So that” conversation. The “Why did we do this in the first place? How do we truly work with our teachers, not
just impose,” and here’s another lesson learned for me, “a system?” Parents don’t care about systems. They care about their kids. And I traveled around this country talking
about systems. I believe in good systems. Because actually, in policy, systems matter. But that’s what not normal people care about. They want to know their kid. So let me give an example in the most simple
terms. I had a whole little stump feature about the
things that…the systems that I think matters most, and I still believe they matter most. But I would tell you, instead of talking about
those systems so much and where I talk about the 12,000 more kids when their parents drop
them off at school this year compared to last year, they’re ready to learn. In New Mexico, we had 12,000 more kids in
math and English language arts actually on grade level this year compared to last year. And you know what? When a parent thinks about, “Do I want my
child to be on grade level and ready to learn?” Yeah. “Do I care that they’re proficient or not
proficient if we’re using this language and the assessment used?” Probably not as much. I want to hear “My kid’s ready to learn in
the grade they’re walking in to. And I’m gonna drop them off at school not
wondering. I’m gonna know.” That sounds like a small little thing, and
you think, “Oh, is that just communications?” No, I actually think…it is a communication
piece, but it’s an understanding that we, for a long time in reform, focus so much on
the systems, still believe in focusing on them, and talked so much about them that we
lost sight of why you would have good systems or good policy. Rick: How did that happen? I mean, when you put it this way, it seems
kind of common sensical… Hanna: It does. There’s a humbling as you talk about these
things, you’re like, “How could we not see this?” It is so right there. Talk to any parent, it’s so right there. And I think, often when you’re breaking glass…and
I do believe there’s a place and a space for that where you’re changing paradigms, there’s
so much opposition, that you can kind of put your battle gear on and forget that it’s a
partnership. And you can kind of feel alone because you’re
getting attacked a lot, right? You kind of gird up yourself and you go out
there, and there is a space and a place where you’ve got to have grit, you’ve got to have
courage, you’ve got to be tough. But if you’re only in that space and you’re
not rechecking…I think good ways to avoid this in the future, have good people around
you who say, “Hey, true. Go fight that fight. But don’t forget that you’re fighting this
for, actually, parents and kids. For them to have a better education.” I just think too often, we disconnect. It’s a natural human instinct when you feel
under fire or under pressure to kind of create the barrier, so to speak. And that’s the exact opposite of what we should
be doing. Rick: I mean, it seems to me…that all rings
totally true. And then we talk systems, and especially when
people talk passionately about the [inaudible 00:08:58], I think it’s easy for a lot of
educators in the systems to feel like they’re being scapegoated. Like they’re being told, “Yeah, you’re all
the problem.” And then they run and get defensive, and then
reformers feel like teachers don’t get it. Hanna: Yeah. Rick: I mean, that’s something that…you
know, I think John White in Louisiana has tried to tackle, that you’ve tried to tackle
in New Mexico by trying to change the way you connect with and learn from and talk to
teachers. Hanna: Very much so. Rick: What are some of the things that you
think make a difference there? Hanna: I once again learned this lesson way
too late. There’s those moments like, “Why didn’t I
see this sooner?” But at the end of the day, I made…and once
again, so common sense and so crazy, this assumption. Listen, if I…in a state role, you’ve got
to stay in your lane. If I tell superintendents, superintendents
will tell principals, principals will tell teachers, teachers will tell parents. And you know, I can see why I thought that,
and it sounds good, but it’s like the worst game of telephone ever, right? On the other end of that, the message that
our parents and our teachers, the folks on the ground living this every day are getting
is incredibly distorted at best. That’s if even that process kind of works,
which often, there’s some intermediary. And if you have a union base, for example,
who communicates all the time and is giving a message, and maybe it’s not the one you’re
giving, who are you going to listen to, you know? The state message, even if it’s trickling
through, or your local colleague who’s saying, “No, let me tell you how it is.” I’m gonna listen to my local colleague. So at the end of the day, I look back…and
right now, I always say this, I feel like New Mexico is on steroids when it comes to
parent and teacher engagement. Because at the end of the day, we need a partnership. Rick: So what are a couple of the specific
things that you found helpful on that? Hanna: So we, within literally the last 18
months or so, have launched no less than about 20 different teacher, what I’ll call, opportunities
or unique programs. So a few examples, we have a teacher leader
network. And so, teachers applied for this, and they
had to submit their core beliefs. And by the way, one of the core beliefs we
looked for is “I fundamentally believe that every child can learn,” and I’m gonna tell
you, not everybody said that, right? So a commitment and a conviction, right? And our commitment in this teacher leader
network, we launched it, there’s 50 teachers right now. Our commitment is that by the end of this
year, we will have a teacher in every single school in New Mexico that has the opportunity
to give feedback to us, to me at the department, and can take…and their commitment is they’re
gonna take what they learn, or knowledge, or communication, “Hey, this is what’s coming
out.” So they get to be leaders in knowledge. They get to own and give feedback. They get to help, finesse, and shape. And we have 849 schools…and by the end of
this year, our commitment is we have a teacher in every school that wants to have a teacher
leader giving that voice, making that commitment to build the communication based on the feedback. We also launched…this all actually came
from…I have a teacher advisory, secretaries teacher advisory. And they made it their mission, we want to
equip, empower, and champion educators in New Mexico. I said, “All right, then how do we do it?” We launched a teacher summit last year…I
think you’re invited to come. Last year, we had 300 teachers…it was a
very last-minute launch, we said, “It’s worth doing.” This year, 72 hours after the registration
was out, 1,000 teachers signed up. Maxed out, we’re gonna have to go for a new
venue…I mean, just the excitement….I mean, the incredible excitement of our educators
in owning possibilities for their profession, I think they’ve just felt so disenfranchised
and shut out. And they want desperately and are so passionate
about being a part of the change, not the change just being done to them. Rick: So this seems so much more manageable
when we’re talking about district reform, when we’re talking about states. You spent a lot of time in Washington when
No Child Left Behind was hitting the land and causing…what are some of the things
you learned wrestling with No Child Left Behind? And when you’re thinking about policy at that
federal level, how do you deal with some of these challenges that you’ve just put your
finger on? Hanna: Yeah. I think that’s hard, very hard. And one of the things…that balance of leading,
but also recognizing that you’re empowering. Your leadership is an empowerment position
when you’re at the federal level in many ways. So what are you empowering? And I think those are the big questions…when
Margaret was leading, “What are those things that you are going to empower and do everything
you can to incentivize?” But you are…there’s a partnership with states
and states with districts, etc., to actually make it real. And so, it’s one thing to put a baseline of
what we want to see, but the actual meat on the bones rarely happens at the federal level. And I actually would argue, if you’re putting
meat on the bones at the federal level, there’s the disconnect and the nuance that matters
immensely when we’re talking about our kids because they’re unique, they’re not little
widgets…the disconnect is too great. Rick: When you look back at the implementation
of No Child Left Behind, what’s something that we actually did a pretty decent job,
or that y’all did a decent job getting right? And what are a mistake or two that if you
could rewind the tape, might play differently? Hanna: Yeah. I would say somewhere along the line, the
conversation became in No Child Left Behind [inaudible 00:14:41] about reading and math
and how our kids on grade level are not. But that became so consuming, that if…once
again, if you’re a parent, you’re like, “Yeah, I want that. But I want so much more.” And we failed to articulate this, in my opinion,
is just a baseline. Just a baseline. Reading and math. It is the basics, right? But if we stop there or if that’s the only
conversation we’re having, that’s way too limited. I’m sure as you think about your kid, of course
you would like them on grade level on reading and math. But you would not say that, actually, when
you talk about what you want for your kids in education. You wouldn’t start with, “Well, my first goal
is that they’re on grade level reading and math.” In some ways, I bet you think, “That’s kind
of a given of something I want. Let me tell you my aspirational goal for my
kids that I really want to realize with them,” right? And we narrowed the conversation so much,
and became so focused on those things…and this is a nuance. Because when you’re at the federal level,
you’re often devolved to one-line things that are supposed to articulate education. And so, you start kind of defending a baseline
instead of taking the territory on the aspiration of what education in America could be. Rick: You know…so the silver bullet thing
comes up time and again. Teacher evaluation kind of felt like that. The Obama team pushed it through Race to the
Top, states embraced it. Matt Kraft and Allison Gilmour did this terrific
Brown paper last year pointing out that across three dozen states, most states we didn’t
actually see for all that hassle, any real difference in the number of teachers being
identified for improvement. New Mexico was different. Actually, one of the things they point out
that you actually saw, this evaluation really seemed to make a difference in whether teachers
were being identified as doing their job well, as needing improvement. What did you guys do differently in New Mexico
than what a lot of folks did? Hanna: Great question. I will say, I think the teacher evaluation…at
writ large, in our country, is a perfect example of we got so stuck in getting it in place,
that we never even got to “What could this actually…how could it serve as a tool to
truly support better teaching in the classroom, and truly champion where we’re seeing successes?” And we never got there as a country. And I’d like to think…and I don’t think
you ever arrive in education, personally. But I do think New Mexico has made it to a
space where that’s…we’re doing the “So that” for kids and for teachers, which makes me…I
get excited about it. Because I think that’s closer to an end game
than talking about a system. So New Mexico, what did we do? I think a few things. We did make a commitment to making sure that
we did have data inform our teacher evaluation, and that’s wonky and systems-oriented, but
it matters. Because it allowed for distinctions. Let’s be clear, when we started, 99% of our
teachers met competency, and that was the highest rating you could get. Well, first of all, it’s almost…you know,
[inaudible 00:17:46] met competency and you’re a rock star? Those don’t go together, right? And so, we changed our language, we made sure
that we did have good growth data around how our kids were doing, we felt like that was
really important. We also have great observations. We also put…this is a little-known fact,
teacher attendance counts 5% in our teacher evaluation. And I’ll tell you, we put that in…and I
don’t know of any other state that did that, because we, in 2012, had over 40% of our teachers,
47%, that were missing ten days or more of school, and we know how important a teacher
is. Five percent in the evaluation. We saved $3.6 million in a similar year on
substitute costs. We had teachers in our classroom. And we began to see, really, a shift in “Hey,
this matters, the profession matters. You’ve got to be in your classroom.” So just that distinction, I would say, using
data…and observations are a big piece of that. We do a lot of training with principals about
how do you not just look at a teacher in a classroom, how do you actually give feedback? When you see great things, how do you give
feedback? When a teacher’s struggling, how do you give
feedback? Teachers love that observational feedback. There was…incredible feedback to the department
about that is prized by teachers because often, they’re not getting that feedback they need
to become a better teacher. So today, our distribution, instead of 99%
meeting competency, we have about 3% of our teachers are exemplary. About 21% are highly effective. Forty-seven percent are effective. And then we’ve got about 23% who are minimally
effective and about 5% who are ineffective. We have seen a 30% increase of the highly
effective and exemplary over a two-year period. Rick: What happens if teachers are ineffective? Hanna: It’s local, it is a local decision,
how you want to support that teacher. I should say, there’s a corrective action
plan, if you will. But I’ve…we’ve worked to really change that
language, that was original language. Listen, let’s get a plan in place for…how
do you close your gaps, right? I remember this teacher, he got this call
from a superintendent in the southern end of our state. Blazing mad about this evaluation that one
of his teachers had gotten. “She’s an amazing teacher. In this evaluation, she’s minimally effective. How is that possible?” So we got on the phone together, walked through
the data. Turns out, she’s a science teacher in high
school. We do a terrible job at preparing teachers
in general, but particularly in the science space in their teacher prep programs. And at the end of the day, she was a phenomenal
biology teacher. Phenomenal. The data showed it. She was not so great chem. So now, this superintendent had the opportunity
to say, “You know what? Let’s get you some professional development
in chemistry, or let’s have you teach all our biology classes in our district because
you’re amazing,” right? So those kind of conversations are the ones,
not…I told you our distribution because it’s remarkable compared to other states. But the real issue is now, what happens when
one of those 23% that’s minimally effective…what can we do? And you could have conversations like that
that we could never have before. Rick: And you usually don’t actually hear…made
the centerpiece of these eval systems. Hanna: Not at all, yeah. Rick: It’s “Now we can fire 10%.” Hanna: Right. And we did not have anything around that in
New Mexico, and it remains a local decision. Rick: Last question. You’re coming up on seven years as state chief
in New Mexico. You’re head of Chiefs for Change, a group
of state leaders and district superintendents. When you’re talking to your colleagues, when
you’re sharing things that you’ve learned, what are a couple of the pieces of advice
that you find yourself giving over and over? Hanna: I’ll summarize some things I’ve said. Know what generation of a state, for example,
or district you’re leading, because it matters, right? And so, know who you are and what kind of
leader you are. Don’t try and go in and break glass if that’s
not your style and that’s not what your best gift is. Know where you are, and then make sure you’re
aligned with what your state needs, not what you like to do, what your state needs in the
scope of a longer trajectory than the average of the two years that most folks in my position
have. Listen, two years is a blip on the screen. Our kids are in school for 12-plus years. So keep in mind…you know, you’ve got a short
window that I think matters immensely. But don’t think you’re the end-all, be-all
because there’s a trajectory that’s much broader than any single leader. Build a great team. I have an incredible team. And I credit them for…I have to brag a little
bit, New Mexico, for the first time ever, is up in every single objective measure. Whether it’s grad rates, we’re up eight percentage
points over the last few years, the highest grad rate ever, and we raised the bar. We have more kids on grade level…12,000
more kids in a single year. We’re second in the nation for growth in AP. That didn’t come…not only did it not come
just because of the department, I want to be clear, but I do credit my team, because
they’re committed. So as you’re thinking about leading, build
a team that carries this. So it’s not about you, it’s about a broader
mission that people can be committed to that they impart, then to their team. And when they’re in the field, you know, you
want folks that are absolutely carrying the possibilities in education. So build a great team, expect great things. Check your paradigm around what your expectations
are. And then…I said it earlier, we’ve got to
get past…and I firmly believe in accountability, and I think there’s a real conversation right
now where folks are like, “We’ve got to throw that out. That didn’t work.” I fundamentally disagree. But what didn’t work is staying in the systems
talk instead of getting real about who we serve, the parents and kids. And what do they care about? So definitely…we’ve got to make that transition
and engage our communities. And I, in particular, have a conviction about
our educators and having them be a part of what’s possible for kids instead of feeling
like they’re having something done to them. Rick: Good advice, Hanna. Thanks for taking the time. Hanna: Thank you. Rick: Good to see you. Hanna: Awesome. Rick: Hi, everyone. That’s the end of our discussion with Hanna
Skandera, Superintendent of New Mexico’s public schools. Thanks for watching. As always, let us know what other topics you’d
like AEI scholars to cover a viewpoint. And be sure to check out the rest of our videos
and research from AEI.

2 thoughts on “Education reform: Lessons learned in New Mexico – Full interview with Hanna Skandera | VIEWPOINT”

  1. I taught for about 35 years. I listened to this for 5 min at various points. Nothing but waffle, didn't say anything. She won't make any difference, she'll just take a wage. She talks about change but won't say what it is. When you get a slogan like "no child left behind" … a decade later you look back, nothing changed. She talks but that's all she does.

  2. I think attendance is a huge deal with both teachers & students. I think teacher attendance would be fair for evaluation.

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