Teachers and Teaching Conditions in Rural New Mexico

Last Updated: June 01, 2004

Teachers and Teaching Conditions in Rural New Mexico

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By Lorna Jimerson


New Mexico is one of the poorest and most rural states in the country.

Over one-third of all schools in New Mexico are located in rural areas. And 58% of all students in New Mexico are eligible for free and reduced lunch. In rural areas, the percent of students in poverty is even higher (67%). New Mexico is tied with Arizona as having the greatest percentage of rural children living below poverty levels.

In addition, New Mexico is an extremely diverse state. White students are a minority. Students of color comprise 66% of the total student population. Almost 52% of all New Mexican students are Hispanic and over 11% are American Indians.

New Mexico is second in the nation in the percent of students of color in rural schools (Hawaii is first). Over 70% of rural students are non-white. Many of these students do not speak English as their primary language. These factors add another layer of challenge for rural schools.

With such a significant rural, poor and diverse population, it is crucial that education reform efforts recognize and focus on the unique challenges in rural New Mexico schools. This report is designed to aid that process by identifying factors related to teachers and teaching conditions that can be improved, when necessary, by thoughtful policies.

We looked at over 100 indicators covering the characteristics of rural students, teachers, and principals in rural schools and teacher professional development practices. In this report, we selectively present data that indicates a potential area of concern.

A Caution
Since much of data used in this report is from the School and Staffing Surveys (SASS), 1999-2000, it is several years old. In the rapidly changing field of K-12 education, this alone is a reason to interpret this data with caution.

We also know that in the past few years, New Mexico has embarked on a focused campaign to improve education for rural students. This includes the establishment of a Rural School Division within the Department of Education. In addition, we know that New Mexico is committed to improving Indian education. Any impact from these recent initiatives is not reflected in this report, except for some of the latest teacher data.

Summary of Key Findings

  1. Rural schools in New Mexico serve children with high needs who require additional resources, special programs, and expert teachers to be successful learners.
  2. There is evidence that rural schools are "hard-to-staff" with highly qualified teachers. Rural schools tend to have high rates of teacher turnover and out-of-field teaching assignments. Rural schools frequently use substitutes to fill vacancies or assign out-of-field teachers. Neither practice places a qualified teacher in each classroom. Also, there is evidence that teachers in predominantly Hispanic and American Indian rural schools are less educated than state averages.
  3. Professional development offered existing teachers is frequently not aligned with their professional needs. There is a mismatch between the perceived usefulness of professional development and the content of professional development that teachers are offered. In addition, a low percent of rural districts provide incentives to pursue professional development, such as offering stipends, increased pay, or re-certification credit.
  4. Class size in rural New Mexico is above average for rural schools nationally. For the youngest grades and for students with special needs, a class size of 20 may prevent students from obtaining the individual attention they need.
  5. The ethnicity gap between students and their educators is large. The gap may impede students from exposure to teachers with relevant cultural sensitivity and knowledge of their own native languages, and who serve as appropriate role models. The ethnicity gap between teachers and students in predominantly American Indian rural schools is extremely pronounced. In predominantly Hispanic and American Indian schools, the ethnicity gap is very high between principals and students.
  6. Salaries for teachers are very equal across districts in New Mexico, but apparently not good enough to attract and retain enough highly qualified teachers in the most difficult-to-staff rural places. Also, salaries for principals are slightly lower than other locales and may be a barrier to attracting enough competent school leaders to rural schools.
Policy Options to Improve Conditions in Rural New Mexico Schools

Based on our investigation, we offer the following policy suggestions:
  1. Increase the number and types of programs to increase recruitment and retention of highly qualified teachers for rural poor schools, including schools with predominantly Hispanic and American Indian populations.
  2. Offer substantial pay increases to teachers who accept positions in "difficult-to-staff" rural places.
  3. Provide additional state aid to districts in difficult-to-staff locations to raise salaries for administrators.
  4. Fully align ongoing professional development with actual needs of rural teachers.
  5. Audit the support services and staff available in rural schools, especially in predominantly American Indian and Hispanic schools, to ensure that students' needs are being met by professional staff.
  6. Consider reducing class size for the youngest grades below the present mandate of 20, especially in schools with high percentages of children with special needs such as high poverty, and high percentages of English language learners.
  7. Fully implement and fund technology infrastructure programs, especially for predominantly American Indian schools.
  8. Make the incentives for National Board certification permanent.