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Education

[Education Issue]

Saving Nevada’s schools: How do we do it?

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No easy solutions: Solving Nevada’s education crisis will likely take the efforts of everyone involved.
Photo: Leila Navidi

How we got to this point is a matter of some debate, but the real question is what do we do about Nevada’s education system? At first glance, it appears to be an ever-encircling spiral of bad stats and underfunding. One where nearly half of students in 2008 failed a literacy test. One where graduation rates hover just slightly north of 50 percent. One where state legislators this year slashed entire programs at the university level.

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Education by the Numbers
• For the 2007-2008 school year, Nevada ranked 44th in the nation for per-pupil spending according to the U.S. Census Bureau. New York, in first place, spends more than double on each student, and the national average is nearly $2,000 higher than Nevada in per-pupil spending.
• 43.7% Students that qualify for free or reduced lunch in Clark County schools.
• 28 — Average class size for science and social studies in Clark County.
• 50% of Nevada students in grades K-8 did not meet standards of achievement for standards-based tests in science.
• Adequate Yearly Progress: These three words represent the way schools are judged each year under No Child Left Behind. In Nevada, AYP designations are based on the percentage of students tested, the percentage of tested students who score proficient or above on annual statewide tests and school attendance or graduation rates. Statewide, 55% of elementary schools and 63% of middle schools did not make adequate yearly progress for the 2009-2010 school year.

We talked to those closest to the situation to get some answers. Most differ on the specifics, but they all have one thing in common: They believe in the future of Nevada and its schools.

It’s the school’s responsibility

Edward Goldman, associate superintendent of the Clark County School District, admits there are daunting challenges to his district; in addition to being the fifth-largest district in the country with a staff around 40,000 and serving 332,000 students, there’s an ever-growing number of non-English-speaking students, poverty, truancy, homelessness and a lack of math and science teachers.

Still, Goldman isn’t ready to put the burden on the taxpayers for more funds, or on parents to get more involved. To him, the problem is one that needs to be settled internally. His solution is multifold:

1. Get truants back in class sooner. The current policy is that students with at least 10 days of unexcused absences cannot re-enter the system until the following semester, a maximum wait of 18 weeks. Goldman suggests changing to quarter credits. “You can double up classes so instead of 50 minutes it’s 100 minutes, so at the end of the calendar quarter you’re earning two quarter credits instead of one semester credit. And if something gets screwed up, you only have to wait nine weeks instead of 18.”

2. Change English Language Learners’ (ELL) delivery options. Goldman says the ideal process for non-English-speaking students is to get them in classes where they’re taught English “until they get it, then move them to other classes where they’re reading and writing.” But current models throughout the district are varied, and rarely conform to that concept. “It’s a matter of the best practices as opposed to mandated practices.”

3. Change the grading system. Goldman says the current system doesn’t make sense. “If you take two tests, and get zero on one and 100 on the other, the average is a 50, or an F.” He suggests making the system universal to be either letter grades or a system of zero to 4. “If you grade those same two tests F and A and average those two, you get a C. Same with the zero-to-four system. A lot of times, the way we grade kids ensures they never make their way out of the hole. This way, the kid can improve.”

4. Make students aware of available alternatives. Goldman believes graduation rates would be higher if students were made aware of programs such as the Academy for Individualized Study, in which they meet with teachers once a week to achieve their goals. “Even if they’ve failed a class, this option is available, but a lot of them don’t know about it.”

The community needs to get more involved

According to Patrick Gibbons, education policy analyst with the Nevada Policy Research Institute, “Public education isn’t about sending kids to a public school. It’s about the public helping provide the best education for all children.” To that end, he suggests:

1. Taxpayer-funded scholarships or vouchers. These can be either publicly funded or based on donations from businesses and individuals. Gibbons says vouchers have a dual-edged benefit: “Studies show that students who receive [vouchers] to attend private school do better than their counterparts who do not, and studies also found that schools work hard to improve their quality when faced with competition from vouchers.”

2. Charter schools. These privately run, publicly funded schools have shown to be effective at increasing graduation rates, Gibbons claims. “A federal study showed that students who received vouchers to attend these schools had graduation rates that were 21 percent higher than students who applied for the scholarships but were denied.”

3. Weed out ineffective teachers. “The most important thing that a district can control is the quality of the teacher,” Gibbons says. “Nevada has kept 99.5 percent of its teachers, with only 0.5 percent fired for incompetence or ineffectiveness. When you have such low performance from a district, it is not at all possible that 99.5 percent of teachers are satisfactory.” Gibbons suggests a review system based on objective measures, a “value-added assessment” that measures growth of student performance year to year. “If you do it over the course of three years, it allows you to know if a particular teacher is either above or below average.”

4. Emphasize available technology. Gibbons believes class size has little to do with student performance, using as an example a class of 240 students at Carpe Diem School in Arizona. In addition to having a great teacher, the class benefits from a computer lab that uses software to help identify kids that need more instruction while pairing up those of similar skill sets. “Kids are learning at their own pace, and the teacher knows where they’re struggling. Thanks to all that, this class is in the 90th percentile or higher in math, and even has a lot of ELL students.” As for reducing class sizes, Gibbons says it’s all moot if the teacher is not effective. “All you’re doing is increasing the likelihood you’re exposing more kids to bad teachers.”

Parents need to get more involved

Jeremy Aguero, principal analyst with Applied Analysis, a financial advisory and consulting firm, is a fourth-generation Las Vegan and a product of the Clark County School System. He has nothing but praise for the education he received, as well as the education his three children are receiving. In addition, his wife is a Clark County teacher.

Aguero also applauds the Obama Administration in the fact that, of the hundreds of millions given to Nevada from the stimulus package, all but $72 million of them went to education.

Still, he was blunt about the overall system: “It’s in crisis. There are a hell of a lot of great people that work there, but they’re doing C work with F funding. We have mountains of evidence to show that students are falling behind by third grade, and that they’re less likely to graduate, more likely to be more disruptive in class and more likely to be a burden to society.”

Aguero has several ideas to improve the system: “Let’s make school days longer, increase the technology in the classrooms, reduce the size of classrooms, increase the number of English-language programs that are more intensive, implement more intensive reading development—every test is a reading test.”

But there’s only one way any of that will happen, Aguero says: “It’s got to start in the home. It’s my responsibility that my kids get a good education. If they’re not getting what they need at school, it’s my responsibility to go in and demand that from the system. Things will only change when parents are fed up and won’t take it anymore. Unfortunately, we haven’t come to that yet.”

Government needs to get more involved

Congresswoman Shelley Berkley has tried doing her bit for education this year, voting to approve $10 billion for education nationwide, which will save at least 1,400 teacher positions here. That’s on top of the $640 million from the stimulus package for K-12 education in Nevada. But she’s critical of government’s track record thus far. “Long before I began serving in the Legislature, we were talking about education as a priority and providing quality education for our children. We haven’t done it. If we’re truly serious about this nation remaining a superpower, we’d better start putting our money where our mouths are.”

1. More money is needed. While Berkley agrees that throwing money at any problem is futile, in Nevada’s case she makes an exception. “Nevada has chronically underfunded its education system, even though it’s a big part of our state budget. We spend $1,000 less per student than the national average. Another reality is that education is labor intensive. Teachers have to be in place, qualified and able to teach. You can’t do that on the cheap. You get what you pay for.”

Berkley has authored, and has 235 co-sponsors for, a piece of legislation that would provide tax incentives for providing and upgrading collegiate housing. She’s also supporting a piece of legislation that would provide subsidized breakfasts for children who can’t afford it.

2. Everyone must be involved, from family to federal. “In our family, education was stressed, but if it hadn’t been for CCSD and the wonderful teachers there, not to mention the university system, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Berkley says. “Education is a collective commitment of where our priorities are and how we’re going to fund it.”

Throw money at the problem

State Senator Bob Coffin has seen first-hand the degradation of funding for Nevada’s education since taking office in the mid-’80s. “This goes all the way back to 1981, when property tax was removed as a funding source and sales tax was substituted.” He supports going back to using property tax as a path to getting education back on track. “Money never hurt,” he says. But given that the chances of that are slim, he had other ideas:

1. Pay teachers what they’re worth. Coffin, whose term is up at the end of the year because of term limits, made sure to put in a plug for teachers in the senate democratic caucus. “I said, ‘Whatever reductions you make [to education], promise to return the pay when times are better. I think teachers are pretty dedicated; they’re public servants who want to do the job, but morale is everything. To put up with those kids? You’ve got to have morale, and pay is a big part of that.”

2. Lower class sizes. “That’s absolutely critical,” says Coffin, remembering when the state began providing funds for class size reduction in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “We dedicated years to this, and now the ratios are sliding. To me this is the most important thing.”

3. Turn off the television. Coffin feels the reason for high illiteracy rates can be partly attributed to the distractions children face when they go home, from the Internet, video games and, in particular, television. “You have working families, kids are unsupervised three to four hours a day and they just watch TV. It’s a passive exercise, and kids don’t learn to speak when they’re just hearing things. I know it sounds simplistic, but I believe this to be true. Education is still what parents and children want to put into it. I don’t think that’s ever changed.”

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Weekly's associate editor, having previously served as assistant features editor at the Las Vegas Sun ...

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