New Mexico ain’t Lake Wobegon

New Mexico ain’t Lake Wobegon by Peter Burrows 7/23/20 elburropete@gmail.com – silvercityburro.com 

For over thirty years, one of the most popular shows on NPR was “A Prairie Home Companion,” broadcast Sundays from St. Paul, Minnesota, and hosted by creator Garrison Keillor.  He always had a skit or two, some folk music, and a little home-spun wisdom embodied in his weekly News from Lake Wobegon:  

“The latest news and views from the little town where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” 

It was a great show but, unfortunately, Garrison was a bit of a lech and the show came to an ignominious end, proving once again that -– sigh –- nobody’s perfect. (Although I know somebody who is ALMOST perfect.) 

I was reminded of Lake Wobegon recently when a New Mexico district judge denied a motion to dismiss a 2018 court order against the state for failing to provide an adequate education for New Mexican children. It seems the judge wanted – GASP! — proof that the steps taken had actually improved educational outcomes.  

The state’s attorney argued that the state had met the court’s April 2019 deadline “to improve the public education system, which is what the court required.”  He argued that “there’s been a significant increase in funding and specific changes in programs” and that there was no evidence that the state had failed to meet the requirements of the 2018 ruling.  

Last year the plaintiffs in that 2018 ruling filed a motion for “additional discovery” to track the state’s compliance progress, a motion the state opposed.  The judge ruled with the plaintiffs that additional evidence is needed to prove compliance, rejecting the argument that more money and good intentions are better than silly things like improved test scores or higher graduation rates. 

In that 2018 lawsuit, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico, plaintiffs charged that the state was not meeting its constitutional requirement to provide “a sufficient and uniform system of education,” especially for low income, Native American, English language learner and special needs students, the “at risk” students. 

Judge Sarah Singleton agreed and ruled that all New Mexico students have a “right” to be college and career ready and that the state was failing to meet this obligation.  As evidence, she cited New Mexico’s lowest-in-the-nation graduation rate of 70 percent, matched by the 70 percent of New Mexico students who cannot read or do math at grade level. 

She stated that the state had “failed to provide verifiable evidence” that existing programs “lauded” by the public Education Department were, in fact, working.  

She gave the state until Apri 15, 2019, to take remedial steps, noting that lack of funds was not an excuse. She ruled the state must provide the necessary funding and oversight for the needed programs, e.g. Pre-K, extended learning, small class sizes, teacher training, whatever. She helpfully listed 11 sources of additional funds the legislators could tap.  

She rejected the state’s claim that more money would NOT improve the achievement level of at-risk students, and she also rejected the argument that poor educational outcomes are the result of implacable socioeconomic factors, asserting that steps can be taken by the educational system to overcome the adverse impacts of a student’s background.   

Judge Stapleton, a liberal appointed by Governor Richardson, had her liberal bona fides on full display in her decision. She conjured up a “right” out of thin air and then proceeded to require the government to fulfill that right regardless of cost because, as all good liberals know, the government can solve any problem if it spends enough money on it. 

Where she deviated from liberal orthodoxy is by insisting on EVIDENCE that New Mexico’s educational programs are actually providing a sufficient education for all of New Mexico’s children.  Ironically the state argued that more money wouldn’t help educate at-risk students, and, for that matter, the state could have also argued that more money won’t help educate NON-at-risk students.   

Judge Stapleton passed away last year at the age of 70, so she didn’t live to see her intentions upheld in the recent court decision, and she won’t be around to witness what could be a clash of intentions versus reality.  

About now you’re thinking, “OK, Burro, what does all this have to do with Lake Wobegon?”  

Well, in the utopian city of Lake Wobegon, all the children are above average, while in the dystopian state of New Mexico a large percentage of the children, perhaps over fifty percent, are BELOW average.  What is worse, there may be nothing that the educational system can do about it. We may be stuck with that worst-in-the-nation 70 percent who don’t graduate and who can’t read or do math at grade level. 

Now before you teachers out there get your knickers all knotted up, this is not your fault.  It’s long been known that when it comes to educating children, the classroom experience is not nearly as important as the home environment.  The child that comes from a single-parent household is one strike down, is “oh and one,” in baseball parlance, before opening the classroom door.  

New Mexico suffers one of the highest out-of-wedlock birth rates in the nation: 51 percent. I do not know how many of those kids will be raised by just their moms, and I don’t know how many of those moms will be conscientious and caring, like Dr. Ben Carson’s mom was. There’s no doubt that a loving, caring single parent is better than two irresponsible parents. Unfortunately, Ben Carson’s mother was an all-too-rare exception. The typical kid raised by a single mom in New Mexico, or anywhere else, is not apt to be that lucky.  Botton line for that kid:  

Strike One!  

Add to that, research over the last decade or so has shown that proper prenatal care is important not just for the mom-to-be, but can have a profound effect on child development, including “higher attained school grades.”  I do not know to what extent the ‘proper’ prenatal care correlates with the income of the parents, but here in New Mexico, 20 percent of the population is below the poverty line and a whopping 71 percent of the births are paid for by Medicaid. The average prenatal visit on Medicaid: 15 minutes.  

Sorry kid: Strike TWO! 

As if that weren’t enough, research has shown that the fetus can be negatively affected by the mother’s mental health: “Maternal stress has been associated with increased rates of infant mortality, low birthweight and preterm birth, all of which may have long term consequences for health and development throughout childhood to adulthood.” 

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0171299

(Also: https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/706-vol-34-no-4-prenatal-influences-on-child-development  and https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/706-vol-34-no-4-prenatal-influences-on-child-development ) 

The poor, unmarried, uneducated and pregnant teenager is probably not going to be a picture of serenity, even with a supportive family.  Ironically, the more conscientious she is, the more apt she is to be worried about her future, to suffer “maternal stress.”  

Sorry kid: Strike THREE!  

Katherine Stevens, a Resident Scholar in early childhood at the American Enterprise Institute, was recently on a podcast with Paul Gessing of The Rio Grande Foundation, where they discussed New Mexico’s lousy education results.  In her opinion, trying to fix education with pre-kindergarten programs, what she called “a fourteenth grade,” is “a waste of money.” 

https://errorsofenchantment.com/tipping-point-nm-episode-214-katharine-stevens-improving-outcomes-for-new-mexico-children/ 40 minutes 

She described “the too-young mother problem” as “huge.”  It’s a problem that incorporates single parenthood, lousy prenatal care, and a stressful pregnancy, the trifecta that dooms the new-born child. Thinking that early education is going to fix all that is irresponsible nonsense. 

This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to help these kids, it’s just that trying to do so through the educational system is the wrong way.  She said that studies that show pre-k programs are effective are measuring the wrong variable. Since these programs are voluntary, their apparent success is really a function of more conscientious parenting.  

She expanded on the problem of confusing statistical significance with real world significance in a just released report published by the Rio Grande Foundation, “Why Expanding New Mexico State Pre-K Won’t help the Children Who Need Help the Most:  

New RGF brief debunks LFC report on pre-K: Why Expanding New Mexico State Pre-K Won’t Help the Children Who Need Help the Most

On a different podcast on the AEI website, Ms. Stevens noted that work of Dr. James Heckman, often used to justify pre-k programs, consisted of only two studies, done in the 1960’s, one of which was a full-day, birth to age five program targeted at poor kids, hardly what is being proposed today. Dr. Heckman recently said that he has never supported UNIVERSAL pre-school, and that “the benefits of public pre-school programs are the greatest for the most disadvantaged children.” 

https://www.aei.org/multimedia/is-universal-child-care-universally-beneficial/  17 minutes 

https://medium.com/@ArchbridgeInst/nobel-prize-winning-economist-dr-5550da1df5c3

He did not describe the specific programs that helped, but they are almost certainly NOT those being proposed in New Mexico today. Regardless, using the educational system will not solve a problem Ms. Stevens describes as mostly medical, i.e., meeting the physical and emotional needs of pregnant, at- risk women will do more to improve far-off graduation rates than hiring hundreds of new pre-k teachers and Public Education Department experts. 

Ms. Stevens did identify a specific program for the at-risk child, one she says has had “extraordinary results.”  It involves group therapy and is called CenteringPregnancy. From the web site of The Centering Healthcare Institute:  

“How It Works: Centering group prenatal care follows the recommended schedule of 10 prenatal visits, but each visit is 90 minutes to two hours long – giving women 10x more time with their provider. Moms engage in their care by taking their own weight and blood pressure and recording their own health data with private time with their provider for belly check. Once health assessments are complete, the provider and support staff “circle-up” with moms and support people. They lead facilitative discussion and interactive activities –Centering materials help moms and providers ensure that everything from nutrition, common discomforts, stress management, labor and delivery, breastfeeding, and infant care are covered in group. 

“— CenteringPregnancy brings 8-10 women all due at the same time together for their care. Providing care in this way allows moms and providers to relax and get to know each other on a much deeper and meaningful level. Members of the group form lasting friendships and are connected in ways not possible in traditional care. Centering groups comprised of women of different ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds see those differences diminish in importance as they share the common experience of pregnancy, birth, and family care. Many continue on for family centered well-child care through the first two years in CenteringParenting.”    

https://www.centeringhealthcare.org/what-we-do/centering-pregnancy

It would also appear that this program would be much more cost effective than trying to comply with a court order that simply cannot be complied with, given the sad reality of so many New Mexican children. Shoe-horning those kids into a fourteenth grade, having smaller classes, home visits, extended teaching year, etc., all sounds good but I’m afraid it won’t be very effective, if at all. 

Since the state has acknowledged that more money spent on education won’t help the at-risk child, and since the at-risk child is precisely the child CenteringPregnancy is designed to help, one would hope that New Mexico would at least experiment with the CenteringPregnancy model.  One problem is that it will take a few years to see any measurable results, if there are any, but the same is true for all the other programs.  

The one very encouraging take-away from the recent court ruling is that it appears to require just that: measurable results, POSITIVE results, before letting the politicians and bureaucrats off the hook.   At long last, somebody wants proof that a government program is working. One can hope that this will also expose government programs that AREN’T working, but that may be a bridge too far.  

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