NM Center for school Leadership’s Tony Monfiletto blogs on putting the “public” back in New Mexico’s public education

Exit, Voice and Loyalty by Tony Monfiletto

How do we grapple with our state’s failing education system? By “we”, I don’t mean the policy makers or state officials, I mean we, the parents, grandparents, neighbors and community members, and the students. By “we”, I mean New Mexicans.  

Albert O Hirschman is the recently deceased author of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Hirschman spent his lifetime going to unusual and challenging places, and thinking and writing about the ways that organizations can become more responsive to their clients.  Exit, Voice, and Loyalty is a classic economics book, but it has some interesting and important implications when considered in the context of public education in New Mexico—something we all need to bear in mind with New Mexico’s recent fall to bitter last in the Nation for child welfare. 

Hirschman explores why some institutions are better able to adapt to the needs of their members than others.  One of the principle factors he identifies in the success of certain organizations has to do with a sense of loyalty and “voice” in its members. If we do not feel loyalty towards our schools, churches, or communities, we “exit” to find new ones more suited to our needs. If we do develop that sense of loyalty—and feel as though we have something at stake—we use our “voice” to demand change. It is a pretty straightforward market principal that can be paramount in creating effective schools in our state.Too much of our current education reform debate misses Hirschman’s fundamental point:  successful institutions are those in constant contact and conversation with its members.

In New Mexico, as in most other states, that sense of contact has been lost, replaced by school report cards, test scores and initiatives that claim to measure success but have stripped local communities of the right and ability to assess and improve the quality of their own schools. Our schools will only improve when the community exercises influence over them. Articulating our displeasure by “exiting” our communities’ public schools in search of a better education is not a solution to our state’s education woes, nor is it an option for many New Mexican families. Even if there are choices in your community, or you can afford to pay for a private education, your departure only makes it even less likely that your neighborhood school will improve after you have left. When families go, their voice (and the potential for change) goes with them.

Imagine the progress we could make if we came together to design a system built to respond to the hopes and dreams of the neighbors, parents, employers, organizations and students it affects through community influence and decision-making. Those schools and the policies that inform them would directly respond to, support, and promote the health and growth of our communities. Currently, we as New Mexicans, have very limited access to the levers of power that create the policies that govern our schools and the way our kids are taught. Using our voices is one of our first essential strides towards effectively reforming New Mexico’s education system to benefit our students and bring out their strengths.

Our school bureaucracies are increasingly designed and engineered to try and eliminate any chance of failure or malfeasance. Laws are created by the legislature and governor, policies are set by local boards, and district officials create the administrative directives for schools. School administrators must follow directions through a command and control structure; like corporals in the army, they must become excellent at doing what they are told in order to hold their rank.  The fact that students in radically different communities are taught the same thing in the same way at the same time is a consequence of this system. 

I assume that the state of national government did not intend for every student to learn to master Algebra in the same way, regardless of language, culture, environment, and learning style.  They are in the standards game and problem is that when they create a high stakes standardized testing system that accompanies Common Core (or any other standards) the implementers of policy who work in districts get in line by standardizing instruction.  We are living an unintended consequence of the standards movement and the tail is wagging the dog. We also know in our hearts that all schools should be different, and as Theodore Sizer once said, they even differ week to week, year to year, by virtue of the lives of the people that populate them. However, the last generation has seen the influence of national education policies steadily increase over our local districts. Our districts have consequentially become “middlemen”, as the wedge between where policy is made and the place where it is implemented grows greater and greater. An individual citizen’s influence over school board elections, or even or PTAs, cannot compete with this overwhelming trend. But the challenges we have in New Mexico are unique, rooted in the circumstances of our local communities, so what can we do?

Imagine if educators were committed to interpreting the needs of employers, parents and community leaders when they designed schools.  What would a school look like that was created after round tables with people who will actually employ their graduates?  Do you think they would say that high scores on a standardized test is the gold standard for a school’s responsiveness?  Yet that is exactly what we assume.  We start by interpreting the standards set out by the state and then build an instructional model that mimics the standardized test that comes at the end of the year.  The consequence (intended or not) is that our schools and local districts are run by compliance officers that believe they are hamstrung by state and federal officials.  Do you blame the school leader who is at the bottom of a pecking order that starts with a philosophy that “If we can’t use a standardized test to measure learning, then it doesn’t count.” 

I think I know what Hirshman would say about a system of neighborhood schools that was run by people who live 2,000 miles away.

Tony Monfiletto is the Executive Director of the New Mexico Center for School Leadership, a former school principal and education budget analyst and a Sizer Fellow of the Forum for Education and Democracy