Las Vegas Sun

July 29, 2014

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EDUCATION:

K-12 reform could leave Nevada behind

Dina Titus

Dina Titus

The past year brought a shift in the way the federal government funds schools — away from automatically allocating dollars based on enrollment and toward competitive grants like the new “Race to the Top” program.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., says that is a troubling sign for Nevada. “When you’re already near the bottom it’s very hard to ‘Race to the Top,’ ” Titus said.

Congress is reviewing the No Child Left Behind law, looking for ways to improve the landmark federal legislation that uses standardized tests to judge schools’ progress. Specifics are still in flux, but Race to the Top, which required states to compete for a piece of $4.4 billion, and other grant programs announced by the U.S. Education Department signal the direction the Obama administration is headed.

Titus, who serves on the House committee reviewing the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, argues that if Nevada must fight for dollars for English-language learners and other students in need of special assistance, “There’s a fear we’re going to fall further behind.”

That concern is one of many raised about No Child Left Behind during round-tables Titus has held to gather input from parents, educators and community leaders on proposed changes to the law.

No Child Left Behind, which mandates 100 percent of all public school students demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics by the 2013-14 academic year, was controversial from the start.

It requires campuses to meet bench marks for overall performance and participation as well as by subgroups broken down by ethnicity, special education status, limited English proficiency and socioeconomic measures. Schools that fail face sanctions, ranging from having to offer students transfers to more successful schools to replacing key staff.

In discussing ways to improve the law, a common theme emerged: No Child Left Behind has done a good job holding schools accountable, ensuring underperforming students get noticed. But there’s too much emphasis on sanctions and punishment, and not enough recognition of progress in the face of often-dramatic obstacles to achievement.

States were given some leeway in determining their paths to its goal. Some, like Nevada, opted for steady increases in minimum scores on standardized tests. Others opted for a lower bar, intending to raise it sharply just before the 100 percent requirement took effect.

“They said, ‘We’re not going to do anything until the very end because the law’s going to be repealed anyway,’ ” Titus said. “Nevada tried to do the right thing, within the spirit of the law, and we’ve been penalized for it.”

Indeed, the feds have acknowledged the 100 percent goal will likely not be met, and it’s expected to be dropped during the reauthorization process. It could be replaced with a goal of college and workforce readiness for all students by 2020.

Additionally, several key components — including requiring students at failing schools be offered transportation to more successful campuses — have not had a measurable effect on achievement, and face elimination.

In Clark County, only a few hundred students — out of the tens of thousands eligible — opt to transfer to better campuses each year.

“People would really rather stay in their neighborhood,” Titus said. “What we have to do is bring up the school, which also brings up the neighborhood, rather than send them somewhere else.”

Educators also want a mechanism for recognizing improvement, even if the statewide achievement bench marks are not met. That’s something Nevada tried and failed to include in its first blueprint to comply with the federal education law nearly a decade ago.

Since he took over as education secretary last year, Arne Duncan has indicated a willingness to grant greater flexibility in how states define — and measure — student achievement.

“We need a new model for measuring success,” Titus said. “There are some excellent schools out there getting labeled failures because they fall down in just one category, and that’s a real source of frustration to people.”

Karen Taycher, executive director of Nevada PEP, an advocacy group that helps special education students and their families, understands the frustration. But she also knows that too often it’s aimed at the wrong target.

There have been numerous occasions over the years in which a school met all achievement requirements except for its special education students. That puts an unfair spotlight on a vulnerable group, Taycher said.

Jim LaBuda, an education professor at Nevada State College who spent 24 years as a Clark County educator, including 11 as principal, said No Child Left Behind took a lot of the joy out of teaching with its heavy emphasis on standardized test results.

“There isn’t anyone who doesn’t admire the lofty goal of No Child Left Behind,” said LaBuda, who also took part in Titus’ round-table. “We just have to find a way to actually move toward using the data to improve education, instead of turning our schools into testing mills.”

Titus has set up a link on her Web site for people to leave comments and suggestions regarding No Child Left Behind. Go to titus.house.gov.

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