Season 3, Episode 2: Fighting for Kids – A Look into Education Advocacy in New Mexico

Join Amanda Aragon of NMKidsCAN and Jim Cowen of the Collaborative for Student Success for a discussion on how they fought for strong student supports during the pandemic and improved instruction and academic opportunities as federal recovery dollars wind down.


Jim Cowen: Hey everyone! This is Jim Cowen from the Collaborative for Student Success, and this is the Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery podcast. Each episode, we travel the country on a kind of road trip to talk about the ways public education is evolving and moving forward, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. Along the way, we’ll hold up the best examples with the hope that those practices are repeated in other schools.

Our guest today is Amanda Aragon, executive director of NewMexicoKidsCAN. So, Amanda, I was looking at your bio and you began your career in the private sector—the energy sector, to be specific — before you actually entered the field of public education where you saw the light clearly and accepted a strategic outreach position in New Mexico’s public education department.

That work must have definitely ignited a fire in you because you never turned back and ultimately you developed NewMexicoKidsCAN, which has done and continues to do some really great work to help students, teachers and parents in New Mexico. Thank you for joining us today for our Route K-12 podcast.

Amanda Aragon: Thanks for having me. I guess we could call it seeing the light. I think my parents would disagree, but I’m very honored to be doing the work that I get to do every day.

Jim Cowen: That’s awesome. To start off with, I’m just curious to hear more about why you entered the field in general. It takes a lot to start something like NewMexicoKidsCAN, so I’m just curious, like was it your experience at New Mexico’s public education department that got you going?

Amanda Aragon: Yeah, it was, but I mean, honestly, it was a little bit before that. One, you know, I’m a native New Mexican, so I experienced New Mexico public schools and in ways that I think a lot of families in America can relate to in that, you know. I’m very blessed to be around a huge family here in Albuquerque on both sides. I was born in the part of town that my paternal grandparents live in and, you know, all of my cousins on that side went to the same schools that their dads went to. We moved kind of west in Albuquerque, like “the better schools” are further to the west side. So, my mom was pretty adamant that we moved towards the west side when we started school. I did a little bit of school hopping as we moved. Then ultimately, this new school district opened. It was brand new. It was great. And so, we lied about our address for a little while and then ultimately bought a house in Rio Rancho and I graduated from one of the best public high schools in New Mexico.

When I left for college, I was like, “Woo. I got this, I’m ready. Like let’s do it.” Five freshmen from New Mexico at the University of Tulsa, which is where I went, and all of us like really struggled. I think we all realized that when you graduate from even the best schools in a state that is, at the time, probably between 47th, 48th, 49th, 50th, like there is a real impact there.

So that stuck with me as I like went into my private sector role and then in the private sector, I got to do a lot of education grant-making and just felt like we weren’t moving forward as a state. And at that time, we were still in that wave of like 2010 governors that were doing like incredible stuff. So locally, it was Governor Martinez and the politics around education in my home state, like I didn’t understand them. I had never seen such an ugly reaction from New Mexicans. And in this case, it was all directed toward Secretary Hanna Skandera. So, I did a program called Leadership New Mexico, where we got to hear from the public education department and I was like, “This makes no sense to me because what they’re saying resonates with me as a student of New Mexico public schools. We have to do things differently, but everyone hates them.” That disconnect of “what is going on here?” is what drew me into the work. That’s what got me to go work at the public education department. I mean, that’s really where I went from, “okay, I got to figure this out,” and then once I was in it was like, “Oh, this is a mess.”

I can’t imagine anything that would be more worthwhile than trying to improve education in my home state for all of the kids in New Mexico and like my family is still here. My brother’s five children are in public schools in New Mexico and so I want to have children here. So…long answer.

Jim Cowen: That’s a great answer. And I, looking at your website, I love the picture of you with your grandparents; with all four of your grandparents getting ready for graduation. So, I think that’s an awesome thing. And if you hadn’t mentioned your grandparents, I was going to ping you on that going, “No, no, no, no, no. We need to hear about the grandparents.”

Amanda Aragon: Yeah, I mean, oh man. I think it’s so fascinating. The story of my grandparents, the story of family, the story that I think is common in some places in America, but not everywhere. Like New Mexico’s a very generational state, families have been here for generations and so it plays a role into everything we do. I think New Mexico is about to restart school accountability for the first time in four years, thank goodness.

But when you identify a school as low performing, I think the thing that we underestimated when I was at the department, that we try and be very careful about now, is there’s a real toll that comes with that for a family because it’s not just, “Hey, this school that you sent your child to for the last few years is struggling.” It’s like, “The school that you sent your child to, the school that you went to, the school that your parents went to, has now been identified and probably has been this challenged for a long time.” Asking a family to reconcile decades and generations of being underserved, I think we took that too lightly and I think they need more support to navigate what that means for them, what the impact their family has been and how to move through it and past it.

Their future generation, something better, which I’m grateful for my grandparents always emphasizing how important education was and like doing everything they could to make sure we got what we needed.

Jim Cowen: Those are just in your mind, like kind of a lack of trust. Like how do you regain trust in a bureaucracy, in a system that’s supposed to help all kids?

Amanda Aragon: Maybe we’ll do this on our podcast, but I thought about like bringing in a psychologist, right? Because there’s a psychology there that we’re asking people to work through, and I think some of that pushback that we get, what I would call like the “fear pushback,” I think there’s people that are opposed to school accountability no matter what. Like those people I will probably never agree with. I think that’s a very small amount of people, but then I think there’s a group of people that just doesn’t know how to get past that emotional response, right? Like, “How do I reconcile this?” that like, this is a choice I made for my child or the impact of, again, like a family generationally, like how do you make that up? And so, I think sometimes when you don’t have the tools to absorb that and process it, it’s easier to just be like, “No, that can’t be right. That school cannot be that bad.” And I think that middle ground of diving into the nuance of that conversation, helping people understand it and how we can transform it, is really what I think NewMexicoKidsCAN strives to do, but we could all, I think, do a better job at.

Jim Cowen: How does your chapter or what do I call it, a campaign?

Amanda Aragon: Yeah, we call them campaigns.

Jim Cowen: How does it interact with kind of the larger 50CAN? How terrible is it to work with someone like Derrell Bradford?

Amanda Aragon: Oh man, Derrell. It’s such an honor, you know, the 50CAN network is a gift in so many ways. And it’s a gift that I don’t talk about often because I think when you’re doing state advocacy work, the last thing people want to hear is that you’re a part of a national network. And I think the reason that that is true is because very few national networks operate the way that 50CAN does, and so 50CAN, our tagline is: locally led, nationally supported. And when we say it, we mean it.

So as the executive director in New Mexico, I call the shots for New Mexico. I decide what policies make sense for us to work on. I decide all of the day-to-day, like the actual work. On the backend, we have tremendous support from the national office in terms of, I mean, they do all the stuff I don’t want to do. So, like our audits and our accounting and our HR like that. I get to do the work that I care about, and they make all the other work a lot easier.

And then we have incredible thought partners like Derrell, like Mark, like Jonathan Nikkila, that when we need help, we can call our other EDs, we can call the national team and be like, “Hey, can you help me think through this?” Or “How’s your state thinking through this?” And because we’re also politically diverse, we can have really rich discussion about some of these political intersections that I think not every network gets to dive into because maybe they align to one political leaning over another or a set of policies over another where we just have such a diversity in the network that we get to have really great conversations.

Jim Cowen: Yeah. You mentioned the policy side of this, so let’s talk about the policy side in New Mexico a little bit. I’m curious of your—I asked you just to give me the take on the state of education into New Mexico right now. Like, what are the things that are the bright spots? What are the things that you are challenged by?

Amanda Aragon:  Yeah…

Jim Cowen: What would you say, and I’m sorry to interrupt you, but like what are students feeling? What are teachers feeling? What are parents feeling right now?

Amanda Aragon: I’m a very optimistic person, so I struggle with this a lot because there are some good things happening and I will get to the good things, but I think it is always really important to be very clear about where New Mexico is, and that is 50th overall. So last in the country, state by state. And when you look at fourth grade, eighth grade reading and math, we are last in every single one of those categories. And when we released all of our releases around the NAEP data this last cycle, we went back 20 years. And there has been times, there have been times when New Mexico has been 50th for sure, but there has not been a time where New Mexico is 50th overall and 50th in all four categories at the same time.

And that is where we are today. And so it is, I think, one of the most challenging times for education in New Mexico in my lifetime. I unfortunately think there is a resonant resistance to admit that, which is why I feel it’s so important to just say it out the gate, like this is where we are. And there are some good things that are starting to happen. A legislator, one of the senators, recently said, “It feels like we’re getting back to normal.” And she’s not talking COVID normal. She’s talking about normal from 2018, 2019, which, I mentioned this earlier, we’re about to start school accountability again. We have not run our school accountability system in four years.

So how do parents feel like? They don’t know what to feel. They have gotten no information from our system in four years about their students’ performance, about their school’s performance. Many people have heard me talk about this before; of course, we didn’t test in 2020, like a lot of states, but we tested less than 10% of kids in 2021. So, we had no usable data coming out of 2021. It wasn’t until last academic year that we got our first glimpse of data. So, those systems are just coming back online, which is deeply frustrating and also I’m grateful for it. So, you know, like both and.

And then we’re funding education at greater levels than we ever have. For reference, there’s 330,000 public school students in New Mexico. We’ve put a billion new dollars in the system over the last four years. The money is there. Our funding formula is incredible; it’s very equitable. It’s not property tax based. We have a state equalization funding formula. So the components are there. Now, it’s like, “Okay, are we going to do right by our kids and take all these systemic components and layer them on to give our kids what we know they deserve in every classroom across the state?”

Jim Cowen: You guys set some really big policy goals, some ambitious goals, and I know the legislative session really just ended. I love how you guys set up Daniel Macy from your team. You did a really great job in writing up these blogs on sort of the policy goals that you have all set. And then how did the legislative system end for you all and where are you? And you were really honest in here, too, about how you talked through them.

So one, I love how you were extremely explicit about what you were going after and then the results at the end of the session. I think you guys have a lot to be proud of like right out of the gate. I noted that you guys had the changing in your funding formula, right? So, there’s more money going to kids who need it more. There’s an increase of attention on instructional time in the classroom—that’s fantastic. And then the literacy bill is huge. So, I mean, I know that was your number one policy goal. What does it feel like to pass that and what’s next? Like now that you’ve got it, what does it mean and what’s next on the literacy bill?

Amanda Aragon: So, the literacy bill is—our comms guy, Ned, at 50CAN, is going to hate everything I’m about to say but— the literacy bill is the perfect example of policy being so important and such a challenge at the same time, right? To be very transparent with everyone, we got our literacy bill passed, but we did not get money for it. So now we’re in this really interesting place where we passed a bill that says that the state will pay for any district that wants to adopt early literacy materials aligned with the science of reading at no cost to the district—at any point in the adoption cycle. They don’t have to wait for the next, you know, four more years for the next ELA adoption. They can do it now and the state will pay for it. That’s what the law says. But we need the money to go into the bucket to then pay for it. And so, we’re trying to get that money now through like some transfers or philanthropic gifts, if anyone is listening and just has millions of dollars that they want to give us for that, that would be great.

And so, it’s like, it’s so good, right? Because you’ve got to move forward in some way, but sometimes you can’t get everything at once. And this was a story of they wanted the language before they gave the money. It sets you back a year in a really frustrating way on a thing that everyone kind of agrees on and that’s frustrating. So, what we’re moving towards now is creating a swell of support from the ground up, so that that pressure is created for districts to adopt so when the money is there, they’re ready to go.

What that means is really giving parents the information they need to ask the questions that we think are the most important in terms of “what materials are being used in my child’s classroom to teach reading.” And honestly, I love this podcast. I’m proud of our podcast, but I think we all just want to be Emily Hanford. Sold a Story is just the best thing to ever come to podcasts ever.

Jim Cowen: It is fantastic.

Amanda Aragon: One of the things that we’re doing is like, we can’t tell that story better than Emily Hanford, so one of our literacy action steps right now is just trying to get parents to go listen to Sold a Story. When you listen to it, you get it in a way that I could talk to you for 30 minutes and you’re probably not going to get it the way you will if you listen to those six podcast episodes. So really trying to use the storytelling power of Sold a Story to get parents engaged and then we come behind and say like, “Okay, here’s the questions you can ask. Here’s an email you can send to your child’s principal. Here’s how we can help you organize to attend the next school board meeting when we figure out what changes need to be made.”

Jim Cowen: It’s a great approach and I completely agree. You’ve also mentioned your New Mexico Literacy Action Center. How is that going to work?

Amanda Aragon: It’s interesting because I think policy organizations like ours…oftentimes, action centers are about contacting your elected officials and we are explicitly using our action center in a way that I think is a little different. What we’re trying to do is get people to come on a journey with us, right? I think about my own learning around early literacy best practice and the science of reading and I remember—and I’ll say this because I think it’s an important tribute to something that happened. The one year anniversary was just a few weeks ago—I had been reading all the New York Times stuff; I had been listening to and reading the audio documentaries from Emily Hanford pre-Sold a Story and was just feeling very overwhelmed by this notion that if we as a society are arguing about the most basic thing about how we’re going to teach our children to read, and this has become political and divisive, it makes all of the other work feel exceedingly overwhelming. Like, what are we doing? If we can’t figure this out, if we can’t do this right… I was just feeling really overwhelmed and it was actually the day of the Uvalde shooting that I had this like long Twitter thread that I was just getting ready to push that kind of crystallized my feelings and my thoughts around this, “what are we doing?” And, obviously, when that tragedy happened, everything else kind of fell away and we as a country had to sit with another horrific school tragedy.

But I think about like, I didn’t just get here overnight, right? Our New Mexico Literacy Center is really trying to help parents have that journey on their own, or community leaders or whoever people are that are interested to know. You’re not going to read something one day and then suddenly be like, “I’m ready to go.” So, what are all the things that we need to give people the opportunity to do and the time to do? And how do we keep them engaged along that cycle so that they can come on this journey with us? The first step is signing our literacy petition and then we ask you to listen to the six regular episodes of Sold a Story. And then the next step is listening to the four audio documentaries that came before Sold a Story, and then our podcast episode with a local teacher about how she uses science of reading in her classroom and how she came to terms with doing it the wrong way in her own classroom for 14 years. It’s just like kind of breadcrumbs to tell people like, “Hey, you don’t have to eat the whole thing at once, just do a step at a time with us,” knowing that this is going to take some time. But if people don’t understand what the policy arguments are about, they’re going to opt out of the conversation.

So we have to help them understand both sides. I want them to have a clear understanding of what critics of science reading are saying. I want them to go in with a full knowledge and understanding of what we’re asking our schools and teachers to do moving forward.

Jim Cowen: I think it’s really a smart way to approach it, too. We have had conversations with people from Mississippi and Ohio around, you know, their journey on science of reading and that reconciliation moment with teachers who have realized they just they didn’t know. They’re doing what they thought was the right thing.

It’s a real sensitive thing to handle from a career standpoint for a teacher to keep them engaged and wanting to do the right thing and not feeling guilty about, you know, what had happened and how the classroom instruction went before.

Amanda Aragon: Yeah, it truly breaks my heart. That’s another moment very similar to our conversation previously about school accountability, where you’re asking people to take on a pretty heavy emotional burden; and if you’re not supporting them through that to say, “Listen, you did the best you knew to do and it isn’t productive to sit in that shame or sit in that sadness, but how can we help you acknowledge that and move through it in a productive way?” If you don’t have that, it’s easier to just be like, “That can’t be true. What I’ve been doing in my classroom can’t be that bad for years and now I’m thinking of hundreds of students whose names I probably remember.” It’s easier to just turn away from it. And so, I think we need to be, to your point, very thoughtful and very compassionate about this conversation, especially for teachers because they have more of an emotional burden. I think them and parents, you know, really have the biggest emotional burden in this conversation.

Jim Cowen: I just got back from doing a long hike with my wife in Spain, and a woman that we came across from Indiana, of all places, on this hike. We struck up a conversation, we’re talking about what we each do and she says, “Oh, you’re in education.” She goes, “You don’t advocate for like sight reading and things like that?” I’m like, “No.” She goes, “Because I did that. That was the way I was taught and I had to reverse years of my education to get back on track.” And I thought it was so random, you know, that this came up kind of emphasize that point.

Amanda Aragon: That is super random. I will say I’m driving my friends crazy, my friends and family that have young kids. I am like, “You guys have to listen to this because you need to know.” This is what’s hard about it, right? If you’re a parent, you need to know what it sounds like for your child to be getting appropriate early literacy instruction and you need to know what it sounds like when they’re getting balanced literacy. The only way to do that, I think, is to really expose them and, again, shout out to Sold a Story, when you hear children doing those things…or one of the other parts of our action center that we’re going to add is watching the Purple Challenge, which is a two part YouTube video that shows a mom this is what balanced literacy looks like; this is how your kids might be tackling books at home, so that if a parent sees that, they’re like, “Oh, I need to have a conversation with my child’s teacher.” Otherwise, it looks like they’re reading fine. You wouldn’t know there’s a problem.

Jim Cowen: One other thing I wanted to ask you about on your policy is on use of stimulus funds, and that’s obviously a big thing that we have been pushing. We are trying to hold up the best examples and I’ll just say I appreciate the wording you had in here, too. I know that, you know, you all were raising the urgency of this and really encouraging the state to spend down those last ESSER funds. There’s only like 14 months left to use them and they should be going towards things that are really improving outcomes. There should be some accountability for this. Do you have any thoughts on that as far as what you would hope for in the future? Earlier you were sort of alluding to like, “just glad we got accountability back on the table,” right?

Amanda Aragon: It’s interesting because when you ask that, the first thing that comes to my mind is I have a lot of PTSD from those hearings still. You know, I think that these conversations around ESSER funds are really important because I think anytime you have an orientation towards what you and I are trying to do—which is like document how the money is being spent, look at what worked and what didn’t so that we can learn from it—a lot of people perceive that as us trying to “get you.” I’m actually less interested in sitting around and being like, “what a poor use of funds.” I get it. Things were hectic. People were doing the best they can. We’re more interested in like, “what can we learn from this?”

This was so much money, there’s so many things we can learn. I’m not trying to make people feel bad for the choices they make. I’m trying to make sure that when we spend all of this money, we have some information about what worked for kids so that we can do more of that. I think so much of this conversation and particularly in that bill hearing gets lost in the, “you just want to make us feel bad,” but that is not it. So that accountability side for the purpose of doing what you guys are doing, which is lifting up the best practices both in your own state and in other places to say what worked, like which vendors delivered? Which programs worked? What was the structure?

Tutoring is one thing, but then when you look at all the ways that people did tutoring in school: out of school, virtual, you couldn’t see the camera, you could see the camera. We could spend years researching all of the tutoring and one-on-one interventions we did, but we can’t do any of that if we’re not gathering information about it both locally and nationally. Our goal is very much to try and continue to work with the department even though we didn’t get our bill passed to say, “Can we do some gathering of information to share out what worked?”

Jim Cowen: Yeah. Well, we would love to continue working with you all. I know you’ve been a friend of the Collaborative’s for a long time, and we have appreciated promoting the great stuff that you’re all doing. So hopefully we can continue to keep pressing on that for sure.

Amanda Aragon: Well, likewise, I’m always happy to be a friend of the Collaborative, but I want to say like I’m a fan of the Collaborative, right?

I think we have to be honest about like some of the things that you and I like to talk about, people are just not as interested in talking about anymore.

Jim Cowen: I know it’s kind of the nerdy side of policy.

Amanda Aragon: But it matters, like these foundational parts of the system allow all the cool stuff to happen on top. The cool stuff doesn’t come if you don’t have the foundational parts down. And so, it’s always an honor to be in the work with partners like you that are happy to talk about the “not sexy” foundational parts of the system that need to stay in tip-top shape so we can innovate on top.

Jim Cowen: Well, thank you. So, I’m going to give you the last word. Anything else you want to offer on the way out of this episode?

Amanda Aragon: Yeah. I think, and maybe this is a good circle back to like where we started; I started in this work because I realized when I was traveling the country that in a lot of other states, people in general are much more engaged in education than we were in New Mexico. That we were leaving it up to just state policymakers and assuming, “Hey, the Secretary of Education is going to take care of that. The legislature is going to take care of that. The governor’s going to take care of that.”

I would just say to everyone listening to this podcast like, we all have a role to play in education. Like everyone, whether you’re a business leader, a parent, an educator, a taxpayer; the system will only get better wherever you are if you are invested in it, if you’re paying attention and using your voice and using your abilities to help lift the system up. So, I would just encourage people to take a step this week or next week that does something to improve your local school, your local district, your state, whatever it might be. There’s a role for us all to play, and we all need to be actively engaged in that work.

Jim Cowen: Here, here. Amanda Aragon, executive director at NewMexicoKidsCAN. Thanks for joining us.

Amanda Aragon: Thank you so much for having me.

Jim Cowen: This is Jim Cowan from the Collaborative for Student Success. Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery, where we showcase ways public education is evolving by talking to the people doing the hard work to educate America’s kids. Reach out to us at or follow us on Twitter at our handle @StudentSuccess.

About Jim Cowen



Jim is the the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit organization that defends strong K-12 policies that benefit all students.

About the Author

Chad Aldeman is a nationally recognized expert on education policy, including school finance; teacher preparation, evaluation, and compensation; and state standards, assessment, and accountability. Keep up with Chad on the EduProgess: Unpacked blog.