Advocates: More school time needs better instruction
Last updated 1/14/2023 at 3:44pm
Increasing required learning time for students in New Mexico’s public schools would be a big step toward boosting achievement — but only if the effort were combined with flexibility for districts and higher-quality instruction, educators and advocates say.
“Extending instructional time is not the initiative that’s going to provide the solution to have better outcomes,” said Hilario “Larry” Chavez, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools. “I think it’s a combination of extending the instructional hours or time, but the quality of instruction in each and every classroom also has to change.”
Lawmakers say they will try to strike that balance with legislation during the 60-day legislative session that begins this week.
A bill being drafted would increase mandatory instructional time in elementary and secondary schools across the state to 1,140 hours per year, a 60- to 150-hour increase over current requirements. But the extra hours would also include time for teachers’ professional development and parent-teacher conferences.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham included $220 million Tuesday in her proposed budget for fiscal year 2024 to extend in-classroom learning time by two weeks.
The Public Education Department had requested $261.1 million.
How, exactly, schools would implement the increased learning time would be up to each district.
“We’re adding instructional hours, but we’re actually changing the definition to make it more flexible for the districts how to use those instructional hours,” said Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, during a Legislative Education Study Committee meeting in early December.
Committee Director Gwen Perea Warniment told lawmakers the proposed bill would expand the definition of “instructional hours” to include all sorts of educational activities, from traditional classroom time to work-based learning programs, social-emotional intervention and enrichment activities.
Up to 60 hours of the total learning time would be reserved for professional work time — including home visits, professional development for teachers, collaboration time for school employees and parent-teacher conferences, Perea Warniment said.
Santa Fe Public Schools — like many districts across the state — typically provides more than the state’s required number of instructional hours, Chavez said. Local elementary school students receive 1,114 hours of instruction per year, while middle- and high-schoolers receive 1,104 hours.
Those numbers still fall 26 and 36 hours below the new proposed minimum.
Some stakeholders appreciate the proposed increase.
Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan Santa Fe-based think tank, initially sought legislation increasing instructional hours to 1,170, said Mandi Torrez, a former New Mexico Teacher of the Year who serves as Think New Mexico’s education reform director.
The think tank also proposed excluding home visits, parent teacher conferences, professional development and other programs from being counted among instructional hours.
After some compromising, Torrez said, the organization is pleased with the plan.
“We’re good with 1,140,” she said. “We’re happy just to see that it’s going up because we know that’s what our students need, and we know that can help move the needle.”
The New Mexico affiliate of the National Education Association, meanwhile, has received mixed reviews from teachers, union President Mary Parr-Sanchez said.
While some educators think the additional time will be helpful, others said they’d rather have policymakers focus on other, often underfunded, priorities that could better support students, such as reducing class sizes, Parr-Sanchez said.
Some districts are already close to, at or above the 1,140-hour threshold legislators are considering, she added.
“We really don’t believe that [the state] has got a one-size-fits-all solution to what our schools need,” she said.
Instead of a statewide hourly mandate, NEA New Mexico supports an educator- and community-driven approach, in which districts decide for themselves how many hours students should spend in the classroom, Parr-Sanchez said.
Both policy experts and practitioners agree the quality of education available to New Mexico students — not just the quantity — must improve to truly boost student outcomes.
“If you’re just extending the school year ... then you take a risk of widening the achievement gap between those who are always going to be on pace — no matter if it’s a shorter school year or longer — with those who are not engaged in their learning,” Chavez said.
To move the elusive needle of student achievement, he recommended a heavier focus on efforts to increase attendance and retention, ensuring students are present for as much of the school year as possible.
In a state with hundreds of teacher vacancies, Parr-Sanchez said the focus has to be on expanding and maintaining New Mexico’s network of educators.
This means increasing educator pay, which the state did during the 2022 legislative session, and paying educator health care premiums in full, which Lujan Grisham asked legislators to do during her inaugural address Jan. 1.
The governor included funding for 4% raises and health insurance coverage in her proposed spending plan.
While an annual report on teacher vacancies by New Mexico State University cited about 690 at the start of the current school year — down from more than 1,000 at the start of 2021-22 — Lujan Grisham said Tuesday districts hired about 350 more teachers in the fall, further decreasing the vacancy rate.
Parr-Sanchez said hiring and retaining quality teachers creates a stable school environment for kids and will help advance student learning.
“If we really want to solve the enigma of high-quality education, it has to start with quality time — and that means attention from a highly qualified and trained person,” she said.
Torrez advocated for offering more enrichment activities — such as cooking, science and visual and performing arts programs — which she said allow students to apply core skills learned in the classroom and keep kids excited about coming to school.
Support staff for teachers such as counselors, social workers, volunteers and math and reading interventionists also are essential, she said, because they free up teachers’ time to plan lessons or work with students in small groups.
“When you say extra time, it also has to be extra time in front of a quality teacher,” Torrez said. “We don’t want to just add extra time; we want to make sure that it’s quality time and that we’re doing things that kids need.”