Straight-Up Conversation: Outgoing New Mexico State Chief Hanna Skandera

This week, longtime New Mexico schools chief Hanna Skandera wrapped up her final day after nearly seven years in office. As one of the nation’s longest-serving state chiefs, Hanna has been in the middle of some of the fiercest debates over contemporary school reform. Given a background working in senior roles with former governors Jeb Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger and with then-U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Hanna came to the job with hard-won experience and a clear point of view on how to pursue reform. She and I recently had a chance to chat about her experience, successes, challenges, mistakes, and lessons learned.

Rick Hess: You’re wrapping up nearly seven years as state superintendent in New Mexico. When you look back at your tenure, what would you point to as the two or three accomplishments of which you’re proudest?

Hanna Skandera

Hanna Skandera: As a state, we’ve pulled together over a sustained period of time and committed to a belief system about what is possible for our students, regardless of zip code—this is the fundamental paradigm shift of which I’m most proud. We’ve confronted low expectations head-on, both in policy and in practice. This manifested in new systems—from School Grades to new College-and-Career Ready assessments, to meaningful teacher evaluation—things that we can say changed the landscape by telling the truth and putting students and families at the center of all decision-making.

But there are other things—to name a few—that come to mind that have gotten less attention than those three: Ensuring that our students from low-income communities can take as many AP exams as they want to by offering state-supported fee waivers…and then watching AP access soar. Launching Principals Pursuing Excellence in partnership with our districts and watching those 84 schools, all historically low-performing, double and triple the statewide average in math and reading growth…and seeing entire districts in the northwest corner of the state be transformed because of their local leadership embracing change.

Dramatically reducing the time spent on state assessments and thus increasing instructional time that will result in more kids being on grade-level. Rapidly expanding Pre-K—more young kids than ever before are now enrolled in an early childhood program. And forming groups like the Secretary’s Advisory Council, Teacher-Leader Network, and New Mexico Dream Team so that our teachers have new opportunities to have a substantive voice in policy and grow in their craft in new ways.

RH: What is the toughest part of the job? And, related to that, what was the most challenging change you pushed?

HS: When first arriving in New Mexico, I traveled around the state and heard from many people that our children didn’t stand a chance because they were poor and came from tough backgrounds. There was a sense of hopelessness. I knew right then and there our biggest challenge would be changing the mindset.

In order to implement real change in education, you need your communities on board. But when most everyone has been doing things a certain way for decades, the hardest part is taking a different approach to their children’s education. We needed everyone to have the fundamental belief that our kids—regardless of background, zip-code or challenge—can learn and will succeed.

Now, when I travel around the state, I’m noticing a true sea change. People see that even as we are raising the bar, our students are meeting the expectations. Overall, the conversation around education is more hopeful as people begin to realize that New Mexico is on the rise.

RH: You’d worked at the U.S. Department of Education and as a high-ranking education official in Florida and California. Given all that, did anything surprise you about becoming state chief? How is leading K-12 in New Mexico different from doing that job in those other places?

HS: When it comes to education reform—regardless of position—there is always going to be noise and distraction and people that choose to focus on the gossip and not the substance. But I wasn’t surprised by how difficult it is to challenge the status quo. Change is tough, but if you lose sight of your bottom line—which is our kids and their success—you won’t deliver.

RH: What do people fail to appreciate when it comes to pushing school improvement from the state level? And, when you think about it, how much of the job is educational expertise, how much is personality, and how much is politics?

HS: People fail to recognize that many of our systems are set up for adults—and that they have been set-up for adults, by adults, over the past century. Many of these systems have the wrong incentives, usually focusing on adult comfort or institutional tradition over student success.

Of course, educational expertise and personality matter. I always say you have to have the skill and the will, but that’s just the beginning. The average person in my role lasts 18 months; you’ve got to have the grit and courage to stick it through to get to the real conversation about our kids.

RH: What are one or two mistakes you’ve made—things you’d tackle differently if you could do them over again? I guess, put another way, what have you learned on the job?

HS: If you had asked me seven years ago if it was my job to reach teachers and principals directly, I would have said “No.” As a state chief, the chain of command typically goes through the superintendents. But I realized quickly that was the worst game of telephone, ever. There was a lot of confusion out there about what changes were taking place, and voices in the classroom were not getting back up to my office. So in order to open up those lines of communication, we decided to launch nearly 20 new teacher-leader initiatives aimed at equipping, empowering, and championing our educators. Just to give you one example, we are approaching our 2nd Teacher Summit. This year, one thousand teachers signed up in just 72 hours. These initiatives are paving avenues for our educators and leaders to engage in policy changes and have access to good information.

RH: Dozens of states have tackled teacher evaluations during the past seven years. For all the commotion, these efforts yielded little noticeable change in most states, with 97 or 98 percent of teachers still rated effective even when no one thinks that offers an accurate picture of what’s happening in classrooms. In New Mexico, though, you’ve seen much more significant changes in what’s coming out of teacher evaluation and how that’s being used. Talk a bit about your experience on this score; what did you all do differently, and why do you think your results look so different from most other places?

HS: Everyone knows that we need strong evaluation systems; it’s common sense, not controversial. The real controversy around teacher evaluation should be watching states implement half-heartedly and then back away for political reasons—and not putting students first. What did New Mexico do differently?

One, I think we were clear that measurable student academic growth would be the main measure of impact, fifty percent, and then we spent a lot of time explaining how our student-growth model works. Second, I think we anticipated the degree of cultural change that was on the horizon, and we didn’t fool ourselves into thinking that status-quo actors like our teachers unions would see the light. We weren’t surprised by their reactionary positioning and we refused to lose our singular focus amidst being mired in various challenges. Third, we worked hard to improve the quality of our principal training and credentialing, year-after-year, to ensure accuracy in classroom observations. Fourth, we immediately linked the outcomes to meaningful systems of accountability and support; we didn’t delay integration. Lastly, New Mexico has been in the bottom quartile for a long time, and so we built on a sense of urgency and crisis. Improving classroom instruction is at the core of what we needed to do in order for our students to succeed at higher-levels.

New Mexico is certainly a state with deep conviction about this, and that ability to stay the course over time is now paying off for our teachers and students. We are now able to reward some of our strongest teachers with new opportunities and compensation—and we’re now able to better support our teachers who have areas of growth that merit further coaching and development.

RH: You were one of the nation’s longest-serving state chiefs. Given that, what advice do you share with newer state chiefs about how to succeed in the role?

HS: First, wake up every morning asking, “What’s in the best interest of kids?” Never waiver. Adult comfort shouldn’t drive decision making. Second, build a great team. Your team matters way more than you do. One thing people might not expect is how diverse our senior team is in terms of background and perspective, but that’s what you need. And think about succession, in every role, at all times. For example, I’m thrilled that Christopher Ruszkowski joined us 15 months ago and is now taking the reins as Acting Secretary. You want to see everyone on your team grow into new opportunities. Third, know where you’re starting from; every state is at a different place in term of what reforms are needed. Build from there, but don’t overlook the basics at the state-level in terms of the core responsibilities that only the SEA can do.

RH: More generally, you’ve been doing this work for a while now—as an unapologetic champion of accountability, school choice, the Common Core, and much of the contemporary “reform” agenda. What have you learned in the course of fighting for and implementing these reforms? What are one or two places where you think reformers get in their own way, and what are a couple places where you’ve really seen them get it right?

HS: At times, people can get stuck on measuring stuff and never really get to the real conversation. We can’t stop at accountability; that’s only the foundation. But we can’t start without accountability either. When we get it right it’s because of the how and not the what: it’s because we obsess over the implementation details. We get in our own way when we don’t see the big tenets through over a five to ten year period, and when folks think that a bill passing is the work. It’s only the beginning of the work, usually.

This has become the most challenging and rewarding experience I’ve ever had. I truly love this state; this has become a state I call home. I am proud of how far our students have come. I’m also so thankful to Governor Martinez for standing on the line so that my team and I could stand on the line to make real changes and ensure more kids are college and career ready. I believe in our children, and I am so proud to have served this state. I have great confidence for what is ahead for our children, families, and for the state of New Mexico.

If you’d like to hear more about education reform and lessons learned in New Mexico, check out another recent conversation I had with Hanna Skandera for AEI’s Viewpoint series here.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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