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Published in Print: September 13, 2006, as New Mexico

New Mexico

The Baldrige continuous-improvement program is prescribed by the state as a cure for troubled schools.

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Catherine Thomas knows teaching grammar is not her greatest strength. But she’s gifted at helping her students comprehend what they’re reading.

The 4th grade teacher at Armijo Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M., didn’t reach those conclusions on her own, however. It was only after examining student-achievement trends—using a school improvement strategy mandated by the state—that her strengths and weaknesses in the classroom became clear.

“When the data is in your face, it’s hard to argue with,” she says of what is known as the Baldrige model of “continuous improvement,” popular in the business world.

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Teachers at the 450-student school, which until last school year was not able to make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, aren’t the only ones “drilling down” into the scores to see where they need to improve. Students in the high-poverty school are also setting their own goals and changing their attitudes toward learning, Thomas says.

“They are taking on responsibility, and their self-esteem is incredible,” she says, adding that many of her students’ parents have low educational levels. “They’re like, ‘We’re smart after all.’ ”

Students are learning to follow the Baldrige model’s steps of “plan, do, study, act,” Thomas says. And throughout the year, they do a quick check that involves reviewing individual and classroom goals and what needs to be done to get there.

Other schools categorized for their low achievement as “priority schools” by the New Mexico Department of Public Education are having similar success using Baldrige principles. Of the 13 schools that came off the list of priority schools in 2005, nine were Baldrige schools, says Sally Wilkinson, the director of the Priority Schools Bureau, which focuses on schools in need of improvement.

The model draws inspiration from the criteria for the prestigious Baldrige Award. Named after the late Malcolm Baldrige, a U.S. secretary of commerce during the Reagan administration, the award was originally given to companies in the 1980s to encourage excellence in an increasingly competitive world market. More recently, its criteria—in areas such as leadership; strategic planning; and measurement, analysis, and knowledge management—have been applied to schools and other nonprofit organizations as well.

“The reception from those who have tried it and stayed with it has been very positive,” says Laurel Moore, the director of Strengthening Quality in Schools, an Albuquerque-based initiative launched in 1992 that provides training in the Baldrige model.

“The kids are so engaged in their learning,” she says. “I’ve had 1st graders look at where a graph went down and say, ‘This is not acceptable.’ ”

Wider Interest

New Mexico’s interest in the Baldrige model dates back to 1991, when then-Gov. Bruce King established a business advisory group to spread the message of “continuous improvement” to the state’s schools.

But interest in the model has increased significantly in recent years as the number of schools listed as being “in need of improvement” under state and federal rules has grown.

Now, schools on New Mexico’s priority list don’t get to choose which method they’ll use to work toward meeting goals for adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

Seal of the State of New Mexico

“If we’re paying for it, and you’re on my radar, you don’t get a choice on that one,” says Wilkinson, the former principal of a school that used the model.

Schools required to participate aren’t the only ones interested in the Baldrige approach, however. There are about 100 schools on the list that will receive the training this fall and next spring. But last school year, more than 1,500 people from across the state took advantage of regional leadership training based on the Baldrige model, Wilkinson says.

By bringing school improvement success stories to the attention of key policymakers in the state, Wilkinson was also instrumental in helping to see that $8.4 million was included in the fiscal 2007 state budget for school improvement activities—the first time such programs have received state funding. Over the past two years, her office has evolved from a small initiative to a larger technical-assistance department that offers resources and provides “coaches” who actually become adjunct staff members at schools they are trying to help.

Rewarding Improvement

At Santo Domingo School, a combined elementary and middle school, implementing the Baldrige process kick-started additional improvements that are transforming the school community, according to Bryan Garcia and Richard Torralba, who serve as co-principals of the school.

Located on Pueblo land north of Albuquerque, the schools are leased to the 3,400-student Bernalillo school district by the tribe and serve an almost totally Native American population. The elementary school was required to begin using the Baldrige method in the 2004-05 school year.

The two principals decided that working as a team—and drawing from each other’s strengths—could bring greater collaboration among members of the staff and continue the improvements made at the elementary level into the middle grades. Before, a kindergarten teacher would have had little knowledge of what an 8th grade teacher was doing.

“Now they know each other’s role in the school, and that’s a helpful link to student achievement,” Garcia says.

While most of the achievement gains have been in mathematics, students are hitting their reading and writing targets too, he adds.

After just two years, the elementary school has “gone from ‘in need of improvement’ to a designation of ‘none’ [for not missing AYP], which is a good thing,” says Garcia.

Because evaluating data is a critical focus of the Baldrige approach, the principals created what they call their “war room,” where all the school’s achievement data are displayed on the walls. Teachers meet there to discuss areas that need attention and plan intervention strategies.

Students, who make graphs showing their own scores, are also rewarded for improvement through an incentive program in which they earn “school dollars” to spend in the school store. But Garcia and Torralba agree that their students received the greatest boost from an assembly in which every student was given a gold medal because Santo Domingo was named a “school on the rise” by the state education department.

Garcia contrasts that event with a somber rally held three years ago in which the school community tried to persuade state officials not to take control of the district because of low achievement.

Benalillo Superintendent Barbara Vigil-Lowder—who thinks what Garcia and Torralba have done serves as a model for other schools—says she also notices a difference in the students.

“Three years ago, the students would walk with their heads down. They would misbehave. They didn’t think they could do it,” she says.

Vol. 26, Issue 03, Pages s16,s18

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