Monday, April 25, 2011 | 3:05 a.m.
There’s an intersection just west of Summerlin Hospital, where Hualapai Way crosses Crestdale Lane. On one corner sits a park where children play soccer and lacrosse. Several hundred yards away is Bonner Elementary School, one of the better performing elementary schools in the Las Vegas Valley.
The crosswalk has stop signs, no traffic signals and young children warily attempt to cross five days a week on their way to and from Bonner. Drivers race through the intersection without stopping for kids. You can spot the skittishness in the body language of many of the youngsters, but somehow those hurried drivers don’t see it or care to look. You can’t help but wonder, if we’re not willing to stop long enough for 7-, 8- and 9-year-old children as they enter those crosswalks, why would we ever do enough to educate them?
More education stories
- UNLV’s overture to business execs includes a campus tour (4-21-2011)
- Superintendent: Budget cuts mean 'significant sacrifices' for district (4-20-2011)
- Teachers take fight over education funding to streets (4-13-2011)
- Higher ed system responds to lawmakers, details impact of budget cuts (4-5-2011)
- Neal Smatresk: The UNLV president fights back over budget cuts (4-4-2011)
- UNLV president presents cuts, says they are “a tragic loss and a giant step backward for Nevada” (3-8-2011)
- Assembly passes bill to use reserves for school construction (3-3-2011)
- Democrats say Sandoval budget has $325 million hole (2-24-2011)
- UNLV president’s somber warning on budget cuts moves faculty to tears (2-16-2011)
- Regent says it’s time that K-12 shares in budget sacriﬁce (2-8-2011)
- Higher education officials say Sandoval budget cuts a ‘death sentence’ (2-4-2011)
- Education in forefront of upcoming budget battle (1-30-2011)
- Chancellor: University tuition would have to go up 73 percent to cover Sandoval budget gap (1-27-2011)
- School officials warn of jobs cuts, larger classes under proposed budget (1-26-2011)
- A steep climb for Nevadans (1-26-2011)
- Soft words during State of the State hide Nevada in pain (1-25-2011)
- Teachers not pleased with most of Sandoval’s speech (1-25-2011)
- In response, Democrats say taxes might be part of budget solution (1-24-2011)
Our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and neighbors did just that for many of us, but those were generations raised during an era of hardship and shortage—the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War II. They understood self-sacrifice, the need to forgo a meal and a cup of milk so their children or younger brothers and sisters could survive, let alone thrive. They were the beneficiaries of a multitude of New Deal-inspired programs and attitudes that provided a future. A larger percentage were educated by a nationwide network of public schools, which linked students, parents, teachers, administrators and the broader community.
Those of us raised during and since the Reagan years were taught to believe that government is the problem, not the answer, and taxes are not the dues of an enlightened society but rather the wages of an insatiable behemoth. We find reason upon reason to tear at the foundation of our public school system, which contributed to the economic boom of the 20th century. But now we look the other way. Stop for those kids in the intersection? They’ll be OK. We roll through and don’t bother to look back.
It’s a commonly held belief: We have an education crisis in Southern Nevada. Our high school graduation rates are among the worst in the country. So too are our standardized test scores. Per-pupil classroom spending is among the lowest levels in the nation and continues to fall amid state budget cutting. Too many of our children can’t read, write or synthesize concepts at acceptable levels. The popular refrain: We’re atop the worst rankings and buried at the bottom of the best. Everyone seems to have an answer for what ails the Clark County School District: More money. Less money. Community control. Deconsolidation. Fewer administrators. Financial incentives for teachers. Tougher tenure requirements. More bilingual classes. What’s certain is this: Nothing is certain.
We sit at the nexus of the multiple challenges that face public education throughout the country. “You wake up every morning and you know that kids are getting a really crappy education right now,” then-Washington, D.C., schools Superintendent Michelle Rhee says in Davis Guggenheim’s and 2010’s most-acclaimed documentary, "Waiting for Superman." Political leaders, business executives and the parents of current and future students demand more from Clark County schools. Talk of economic diversification often begins with the plight of our public schools. We hear stories of businesses that had considered moving here but didn’t because of the quality of our public schools and the graduates they produce. Few want to send their kids to those schools.
Politicians, business executives, editorial writers and think-tank researchers have become makeshift education experts. Many are well-intentioned, with research solutions for what ail us. We have empowerment, magnet and charter schools. There are year-round calendars, early-morning, evening and weekend classes. Federal, state and local government agencies, 14,000 local school boards plus legislative bodies set educational policies, establish new initiatives—No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top. All embrace the cloak of education reformers.
We hired as many as 2,000 teachers a year in the Clark County School District during the boom. Many were good; others, not so good. Hire 2,000 of anything and it’s inevitable that you’ll recruit some who are stellar, others who are incompetent and a large percentage who are simply mediocre. The doubling of our student population to nearly 310,000 overwhelmed much of the system. Tens of thousands of children disappear from school between their freshman and senior years.
The School District places the high school graduation rate at about 70 percent. Johns Hopkins University says it’s closer to 50 percent. The number you cite depends upon the assumptions you make about the students who disappear from the system. Did they drop out or simply move away? Are they done with high school or planning to return for their GEDs?
Johns Hopkins professor Bob Balfanz has dubbed them dropout factories: public high schools that graduate fewer than 60 percent of the students who were enrolled in ninth grade. Since 2000, Balfanz has produced a series of reports listing the states with the largest percentage of dropout factories. Nevada has routinely appeared atop the list. The work is funded by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma. The general was raised in the Bronx and is a product of New York City public schools.
Balfanz’s most recent study was released in November, and what it revealed was especially troubling for Nevadans. The number of dropout factories fell by 261 nationwide from a high of 2,007 in 2002 to 1,746 in 2008, the most recent year for which figures were available. “This 13 percent decline is important, given that these schools produce half of the nation’s dropouts every year,” according to the report. Tennessee and New York led the nation in boosting high school graduation rates, with gains of 15 and 10 percentage points, respectively. Ten other states had increases ranging from 4 to 7 percentage points. More than half of the nation’s states, 29 in all, had rising high school graduation rates. In 18 states, figures remained flat. Just three experienced noticeable declines: Arizona, Utah and Nevada.
“There’s hopeful news in this struggle,” reads the report. “Both Clark County and Washoe County received grants from the High School Graduation Initiative in the fall of 2010 for dropout prevention and re-entry programs in high school, with dropout rates higher than their state average. Additionally, other states—Florida, for one—coping with similar issues have been able to make gains in their high school graduation rates.”
Nevada wasn’t built emphasizing education. Raw minerals, gambling, hotels, prostitution, transportation, agriculture, construction and the military have been and continue to be the foundations of our economy. Although segments of each require highly educated workers, the success of each sector was built upon the skills of blue-collar workers who had traditional training in reading, writing and arithmetic and required little in the way of advanced education.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval has taken public hits from critics of his proposed cuts to K-12 and the state’s colleges and universities, a result of his vow to not support tax increases. Nevada State Education Association President Lynn Warne said during a recent legislative hearing: “We feel an assault on education in this state.” UNLV President Neal Smatresk said at a recent town-hall meeting: “It’s a very, very serious moment in Nevada history. It’s unimaginable. It’s unimaginable if you believe we’re important to Nevada.” The worst-case scenarios of Sandoval’s cutting: 315 jobs and 33 degree programs lost at UNLV and almost 2,500 jobs in the Clark County School District.
Members of the Sandoval administration are privately frustrated by some of the more vocal comments from Smatresk. They view new Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones as having been more measured, less over-the-top in his approach. “We’ve come here at a time when there is no money for any public services,” says Sandoval’s senior adviser Dale Erquiaga, the former No. 2 lobbyist for the School District. “We can’t extract more tax dollars from the economy without extracting harm. From our perspective, you have to change the system. Simply adding money or taking money [from the state’s public schools] hasn’t worked at all. That’s our challenge.”
Education activist Maureen Peckman, executive director of the Council for a Better Nevada, adopted a similar mantra five years ago during the search for a School District superintendent. The council sought to hire Eric Nadelstern, a reformer from the New York City public school system, to replace Carlos Garcia, who left his job in December 2005 to work in the private sector. Nadelstern was viewed as “an agent of change,” someone who would push for greater accountability in pursuit of higher high school graduation rates and improved student test scores. Despite the support of Peckman and a group of 25 high-profile business and community leaders, Nadelstern withdrew from the process, saying the Clark County School Board didn’t fully support his candidacy. He feared that if he took the job, a split board wouldn’t support the reforms that he and the council sought, among them a push for greater accountability and neighborhood control of schools.
Peckman says School Board members were “in cahoots” with district administrators at the time to prevent Nadelstern from transforming the district. She characterized that dynamic as “one of the most dysfunctional aspects of our society,” school board members who raise $10,000 apiece to be elected to one of seven seats that determine education policy. “We’re getting the school district we deserve.”
Longtime district administrator Walt Rulffes was the other finalist for the position, which he took in early 2006. The amiable longtime educator is credited with introducing the School District’s Empowerment Program, which has given principals, teachers and parents greater control over budgeting and hiring decisions at 30 schools. Yet, Peckman laments that concerns remain from the Garcia era. “I think you just need to start being honest with people, even if the news isn’t good,” she says. “People can handle really bad news. What they can’t handle is hopelessness. That’s when people stop showing up. That’s when students stop trying, and that’s when teachers stop teaching.”
The Peckman-led Council for a Better Nevada includes her husband, Phil, the former top executive of American Nevada Company, a sister company of Greenspun Media Group, owner of VEGAS INC and the Las Vegas Sun. Other key players are MGM Resorts International Chairman and CEO Jim Murren; developers Robert Lewis, Peter Thomas, Duncan Lee, John Ritter and Michael Saltman; NV Energy Chairman and CEO Michael Yackira; Nevada State AFL-CIO Executive Secretary-Treasurer Danny Thompson; longtime bank executive Bill Martin; and wholesale wine and liquor distributor Larry Ruvo, founder of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, where Maureen Peckman serves as chief emerging business officer.
She’s not shy about leaning on School District administrators and acknowledges that district officials take her calls because anyone of her group’s members could hold a news conference on a moment’s notice. Peckman pushed for Jones’ hiring. She says his commitment to education reform is needed in Southern Nevada. “We haven’t paid attention, the school board, the federal government. It goes back to thinking these kids can’t learn,” she says. “We haven’t kept the contract. We let you drop out. We said, ‘Go get a GED’. We don’t follow up. We’ve completely let down on that contract. It’s what George Bush called the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Peckman looks to the Empowerment Schools as a model that works, one that pecks away at the power of the bureaucracy and provides control and oversight where it will be wielded the best. The Empowerment Program is headed by Jeremy Hauser, a 48-year-old former principal who has led three elementary schools in neighborhoods ranging from low income to upper middle class.
Hauser, a soft-spoken native of Illinois, is the son of a Lutheran minister who would leave the Sunday dinner table to “minister to his flock.” Hauser sees his role as a similar calling, one in which he must mesh schools with their neighborhoods. “You can’t allow yourself to believe anything other than ‘we are the key’,” he says. “On the other hand, we’re trying to define the most important unit, the neighborhood. Our goal is to bring people together.”
A decade ago, Harvard professor Robert Putnam wrote of the isolation experienced by so many of us. Our failure to vote, participate in public meetings, show up for church, join community groups has paralyzed community life, Putnam wrote in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. We have become self-contained beings who choose to bowl alone rather than participate in leagues with others. We have chosen to isolate ourselves in a way that has torn at the connective tissue of our communities. It’s telling that Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book: It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us, was considered a social statement for an era. The then-first lady turned to an old African proverb for an allegory designed to reframe the norms of daily life in this country. Somehow, we had seemingly forgotten that we all share the responsibility of raising and educating our young.
The Empowerment Program, Hauser says, gives parents, teachers and principals at the 30 schools real decision-making authority to hire the mix of teachers needed in each building. Some may place a greater emphasis on math, others on reading, but he warns that “you can never become more neighborhood-oriented than academically oriented.”
Hauser notes that four of the 12 Clark County elementary, middle and high schools identified as “high achieving” under federal No Child Left Behind testing are empowerment schools. He says the schools reduced the achievement gap for children who study English as a second language, and the three empowerment high schools—Moapa, Chaparral and Cheyenne—have increased graduation rates while decreasing dropout rates by single-digit amounts. Good figures but not much to brag about, he says.
Yet, Chaparral High School was recently placed on a watch list for failing to meet its Annual Yearly Progress goals under No Child Left Behind. The school’s principal and as much as 80 percent of its staff are being replaced as a result. Other empowerment schools struggle with students’ academic performance. Hauser says the failings can often be attributed to not finding “the right solutions” for a school’s community as well as having “the wrong personnel” in a building. When asked whether both reflect upon him, Hauser readily acknowledges that they do. “The results are what move it up to my level of responsibility,” he says.
The empowerment schools budget is expected to decrease to $100 million next school year from $115 million, with a decline in state and local support and the expiration of a three-year, $13.5 million grant from billionaire Kirk Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation. Per-pupil spending in middle and high schools hovers at $3,600. But Hauser says it’s not all about money. Much like his father, the Lutheran minister, Hauser preaches the faith of gospel and commitment. He says neighborhood control is the future of education, demanded by the people who matter most—students and their parents—and he’s convinced that Jones is equally committed to the concept. The key is leadership—charismatic, dynamic principals. “I’d like to hire a few of those,” he says. “You can change the energy of a school building immediately. Trying to find a Superman, that’s probably the idea. Actually, we can use multiple Supermen.”
Steve Hill is a key player in a local concrete business and one of the state’s most active business voices for education reform. He’s not seeking a superhero to reform the system. Rather, he has engrossed himself in the minutiae of classroom performance, teacher incentives, school district budgeting and their effects on the regional economy. During the go-go days before the economic crash, Hill found it difficult to find young employees, particularly Clark County schools graduates, who were able to synthesize algebraic and geometric concepts, or read and think at higher levels, the sort of analytical approach needed on many construction jobs. It’s a sentiment echoed by UNLV and College of Southern Nevada administrators. Hill’s become an outspoken champion of education reform through the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.
In recent weeks he has been in Carson City meeting with top figures in the Legislature and the governor’s office. They’re attempting to lay the foundation for an economic development and diversification effort. They’re seeking a full inventory of the state’s economic base, one that analyzes the number and types of employers, the quantitative and qualitative makeup of our workforce and an analysis of what the nation’s job market will look like over the coming decades. Hill’s convinced that a thoughtful, strategic approach could broaden the employment base for years to come. Meanwhile, he’s not worried about finding qualified workers in today’s job market. “There are so many smart, qualified people out there looking for work,” he says. “That wasn’t the case five years ago.” He frets that it won’t be the case five years from now when the economy finally rebounds.
Parents may find it difficult to articulate, but they sense that something is different. Many worry about their children’s futures, not in the way that parents of an earlier generation did. Sure, our parents and grandparents prayed that we’d grow to be happy, successful in life and work, find meaning, own a home, raise a family and earn money. But there was a sense that if you worked hard enough, opportunity would be there, the embodiment of the American dream. But something has changed. The dream has been globalized, and now our children and grandchildren are competing in a world we never imagined.
The kids who a generation ago would’ve been cast as downtrodden extras in a Hollywood serial or a dime-store novel are competing with our youngsters. No longer are billions of children in India, China, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Africa and Eastern Europe sentenced to lives of Third World poverty and hopelessness. They’ve developed their own variation of the dream, and that’s created intense pressure on our youngsters to compete, pressure that’s been transferred to our classrooms, especially our teachers and school administrators, as well as the politicians who oversee their budgets. Meanwhile, jobs that once employed our students who might not have performed well in math, science or English have been exported to countries where labor and other production expenses are cheaper.
What often remains for our youngsters is a 20th century curriculum designed for a 21st century world. Forty years ago, a kid who struggled with reading or algebra had a shot at earning a good wage on the factory floor, the teen who failed in the sciences could still excel as a machinist. Those jobs are gone, often replaced by work that demands the ability to write, think, reason, explain, calculate, divide and comprehend. Workbooks, textbooks and worksheets have little place in the new era of higher thought, and yet the liberalization of American society over the past seven decades has contributed to the inability of our public schools to cope with the demands of the global market.
Before women had the right to vote; before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate was not equal; before Jews were allowed to live in the same neighborhoods as Christians, our public schools were filled with first-rate teachers who were unable to find opportunity outside the classroom. Many were brilliant mathematicians, historians, writers and thinkers whose only hope for fulfilling, meaningful work that challenged their intellectual abilities was in a public or private elementary school, middle school or high school. Public school graduates from the post-World War II era recall first-rate teachers who today may be a CEO, CFO, doctor or lawyer, but America of the 1940s and ’50s wasn’t that open-minded. The classroom was one of the few settings where they were allowed to shine. Then came the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, affirmative action and many of our best and brightest who might have ended up as lifelong teachers had gained the opportunity to shine in different arenas. That’s not to say there aren’t first-rate educators in today’s classrooms. The problem is that the talent pool is simply thinner.
Talk privately with top-notch teachers and first-rate school administrators, and in their most honest moments, they’ll speak of colleagues and employees who’ve gone into the teaching profession for the summer vacations, the periodic breaks throughout the school year, the health insurance and retirement benefits, the chance to work in a school that their kids attend, the 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. work schedule. What they often fail to see before taking the job are the real demands of the profession, the late nights, early mornings and weekends spent grading papers, preparing classroom plans, communicating with parents, completing government-mandated paperwork; attending before- and after-school meetings with co-workers and school administrators. Many fail to realize that they’re about to become surrogate parents and grandparents to their students, de facto counselors to their students’ parents. They’re often treated like babysitters or the operators of day-care centers, with little parental regard for the educational achievements required to take the job. Meanwhile, many Las Vegas parents, politicians, think-tank researchers and journalists are convinced that they could do that job. After all, they all spent much of their lives in classrooms. They figure they know what it takes.
What many fail to remember is that their children sit in classrooms in a city and state that challenge the souls of the most mature adults. Nevada has some of the highest rates of adult suicide, depression, substance abuse and other addictions in the country. We live in a three-shift town where two parents often aren’t home at the same time if both are lucky enough to have jobs or if the family unit is intact. Four of every 10 students in our public school system are Hispanic. Many come from homes where English is not spoken.
Our region’s elevation to iconic pop culture status finds many of us placing a greater emphasis on the ephemeral, the sexual, the short-term rather than the ethereal, the intellectual, the long-term. It’s what makes this place Las Vegas, but in our heart of hearts many of us realize this isn’t the healthiest environment to raise children. To be certain, there are safety nets—churches, synagogues, mosques, community groups, neighborhood schools and extended families. Yet, the same challenges that tear at our sense of community, rip at the core of our public schools. They’re all linked, but somehow we expect our public schools to fill the void.
In "Waiting for Superman," Guggenheim paints a portrait of a broken U.S. public school system. “In wanting to believe in our schools,” he says, “we take a leap of faith.” Guggenheim cites numbers: Education spending per student in 1970 was $4,300; today it’s $9,000 per student. In Clark County, that figure is $5,036. Guggenheim doesn’t note whether that accounts for inflation. During that same period, the results are flat from standardized reading and math tests. Guggenheim asks: If you could, would you send your kids to a private school? A good question; one that thousands of Nevada parents consider every year. They look to the Meadows School, Bishop Gorman, Faith Lutheran, the Adelson School. They see the promise of a better future. It’s what "Waiting for Superman" star and New York educator Geoffrey Canada has called “a level playing field” for all of America’s children.
Yet, as you watch "Superman" you can’t help but wonder whether a child’s academic success comes from attendance at an expensive private school or from the committed, disciplined parents who place a high priority on educating their children and are financially able and emotionally and intellectually willing to send their children to a private school. In business there’s an old saying: Never give away something for free; charge something for your product. Without that price tag, it lacks a perceived value. As taxpayers, we help fund our public schools, but they’re still viewed as free. At a cost of $12,000 to $20,000 a year, the Meadows School has to be better, doesn’t it?
Dwight Jones has been on the job for three months, and he still doesn’t know the numbers. A former Colorado commissioner of education, Jones taught and was a school administrator in Kansas. Raised by a low-income, single mom in inner-city Baltimore, Jones grasps the enormity of the challenge. No one’s certain how long he’s here or where he’s headed, but he’s viewed by community business leaders as a potential savior for what ails the Clark County School District. Anyone familiar with the workings of the massive district recognizes that there’s been a long-running dispute over its graduation rate. During the past decade, administrators routinely said it ranged from 60 to 70 percent, but critics, think tanks and academics who study such things have put the rate closer to 50 percent at best. A 2010 study by Johns Hopkins University placed the district’s graduation rate at 51.3 percent for 2008, down from 71.9 percent in 2002.
In his first months in office, Jones has met with business, political and community leaders.
What often emerges from those conversations is that the 48-year-old Jones is a true reformer, someone who’s willing to experiment and try things that others in the district have been reluctant to embrace. Where longtime officials view the district’s five-year-old Empowerment Program as something of an insurgent effort, Jones says he “might want to see” all 352 schools work on some form of the empowerment model. “I think this model has tremendous potential in the district. I like the model, whatever it is, I think it’s a lot of things.”
Jones has worked in rural Kansas and inner-city
charter schools in his native Maryland, and he’s a realist. He recognizes that as society is plagued by increasingly intense challenges—hunger, illness, gang violence, bullying, teen sex—more pressure is placed upon our public schools. “I’m not an excuse maker,” he says several times, noting that he willingly took the district’s top job, and he’s not shying away from what needs to be done. But education, Jones says, is about the basics. “I still say the main thing is the main thing. We have to educate the populace. Reading, writing and math matter a lot, and then the other piece is that folks have to have a sense of what our society is about—free enterprise, the political process. Schools have to maintain this American way of life, and you have to be able to read.”
During a recent conversation, Jones was told of the frustrations that many in this community have with the methodology used to determine high school graduation numbers. For years we’ve heard from high-level district officials that we live in a transient community, a place where families routinely move from neighborhood to neighborhood and often move out of state. We’re told that thousands of high school students are lost that way, many drop out, many more to attend school elsewhere. They return to California or Mexico or points beyond. Officials in the School
District’s central office say they don’t have the resources to track departed students. In the age of passports with individual computer chips, GPS technology in our cellphones and student records that are routinely transferred with students, the district doesn’t have the ability to determine why a third to half of this year’s freshman class will possibly disappear? Seriously? When asked about those numbers, Jones didn’t shy away. He says he told district officials he wants “data transparency.”
“I’ve been on the job three months, and I still don’t know the numbers around the graduation rate.” He wants to know whether it’s 70 percent, 50 percent or something else. He wants a handle on when students disappear and where they go. “I think the community understands we have some significant challenges. They’ll embrace and work with us, but not until we’re honest—right now we have a trust problem with our community. Until you tell the truth, you can’t get the community to embrace it and fix it.”
Eric Hanushek appears in Guggenheim’s "Waiting for Superman," and utters the memorable line: “A bad teacher covers just 50 percent of the curriculum during the school year; a good teacher covers 150 percent of the curriculum.” An MIT-trained economist and fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, Hanushek has spent 40 years studying education, and he’s convinced that our nation’s public school districts have no economic incentives for teachers. Zero. Not in the form of student test scores, graduation rates, individual growth levels. Nothing. Why? “This is the economist’s answer, but we haven’t emphasized performance in our schools,” he says. “We don’t reward success in most ways, and we don’t punish failure.”
Don’t principals write up bad teachers, place them on management plans and give them classrooms or students they don’t want? Yes. But Hanushek looks to something more fundamental: the pay scale at most school districts. Teachers move up and across the numerical matrix based upon some combination of district seniority and the number and level of degrees obtained. But teacher and student performance aren’t reflected anywhere on the page. “It’s terribly flawed. There’s no relationship between degrees and effectiveness in the classroom, and experience and effectiveness. This attitude is converging among the economists. I don’t think there’s anybody I know who would support the current single-salary structure for teachers.”
Your students might have aced standardized tests, you may have produced top-notch students at their grade levels, but none of that will be reflected in your paycheck. “And that’s why I don’t think teaching is a profession,” Hanushek says. A true profession has a wage-and-benefits structure that offers real performance packages, the sort that incentivize workers to push harder and achieve greater levels of success. But teachers unions traditionally have stood in the way of anything that would break from a one-size-fits-all pay package. “The teachers unions keep their power by suggesting that if we get rid of the union, yes, we’ll get rid of one crappy teacher, but they’ll be after you next.”
No matter how great a teacher you might be, you’re out of luck. And after a couple of years—research shows it often happens after three or four years—teachers, particularly young ones, decide enough is enough. We’re raised in a competitive society, one rewarded with good grades for good performance. We receive trophies in youth sports, but now that you’re a teacher, individual results are largely irrelevant. “If you walked into any school in the country, you’d know who the bottom two or three teachers are who are harming kids. Everybody points to the same two or three teachers that are harming kids.” So what does Hanushek suggest we do?
“My ideal pay-benefit system would pay the worst nothing; i.e., move them to other employment. This would permit paying significant amounts more to the effective teachers. I think the top teachers should easily be making six-figure salaries. My separate estimates of the economic value of good teachers indicate that these salaries would be supported based on their contribution to the economy. But there are also other rewards for good teachers—less monetary, more recognition or things teachers value like conference and seminar activities, etc. We should do like most firms do and look for a portfolio of rewards, and we should give larger rewards to those who contribute more. The usual sticking point is having a good evaluation system. I think we’re learning a lot about that—such as the system in Washington, D.C. We need to push more in that direction.”
This much is certain: If we’re to have a strong economic future in Las Vegas and Nevada, we must invest in the education of our children. Investment can take the form of multiple changes—greater local control, teacher pay for performance, changes in teacher tenure. We could pay more in taxes, whether it’s on individuals, corporations or both, although neither appears likely in the current political environment, and either could require a state constitutional amendment. No matter, our children are in serious trouble. Many are not receiving the education they need to succeed as adults in an increasingly complex world. They’re falling behind their counterparts elsewhere in this country and overseas. This is an emergency, people. A real one.
The Southern Nevada culture creates a mix of challenges that are found to some degree in many communities throughout this country but not necessarily to the extent they’re here. The valley’s three-shift nature, the lack of extended families, the high unemployment and underemployment rates, the influx of new and inexperienced teachers in a school district that doubled in size within a decade, are all contributors. We know the results: One of the highest dropout rates in the country, the production of students who require high rates of remediation in math and English and employers who are rightfully frustrated with many of the students produced by the Clark County School District. Yet, much like the motorists racing through that intersection near Bonner Elementary School, far too many of us are racing through the warning signs without considering the children. If more of us did, we’d actually stop, get out of our vehicles and help those kids get to where they’re headed.