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October 24, 2014

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To protect schools, chief ready to plead case with Legislature

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Justin M. Bowen

Among the myriad goals of Dwight Jones, the Clark County School superintendent, are holding teachers more accountable for their performance and knocking on doors to reach out to parents.

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Dwight Jones had his work cut out for him the instant he set foot in Las Vegas last month.

Although he is still learning the ropes, Clark County’s new school superintendent must negotiate a contract with the teachers union and others, plead with Gov. Brian Sandoval to not gut schools in the upcoming state budget and lobby the Legislature to override the governor if he does.

And he must save the struggling public schools of Clark County, where three-quarters of Nevada’s students live and whose test scores and graduation rates are among the lowest in the nation.

Those aren’t the only issues on his plate.

In an interview this week, Jones said he shared many education goals with Sandoval, including holding teachers more accountable for their performance.

He said he would keep an open mind about implementing school vouchers, which the governor favors but the School Board opposes. Such vouchers would allow parents to use public funds to send their children to private schools.

But Jones emphasized it is impossible for the district to cut its way to better results.

It has endured nearly $400 million in budget cuts in the past three years, including less money for school buses and textbooks and $37 million in givebacks by the teachers and other unions.

“There was some slack in the rope,” Jones said about the budget. “That rope is tight now.”

But he said it won’t cost as much as others have estimated to install computer database systems to track teacher accountability. The price tag will be closer to $400,000, not the $20 million some computer experts project, Jones said. Such systems, based on approaches in Colorado, will be used to direct more resources to schools and teachers and penalize inadequate teachers and schools.

Also, Jones said that when his schedule permits, he plans to knock on doors and talk to parents.

Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, the union that represents most of the county’s teachers, responded on accountability that “teachers are not afraid of being held accountable as long as the assessment is fair and takes into account all of the factors impacting student test scores. There are factors beyond the teacher’s control, including the student’s home life and adequate adult supervision.”

Jones grew up far from Las Vegas.

In the 1960s, he was one of nine siblings on a wheat farm in Kansas. His father was one of the few black farmers in rural Wallace County, which even last year numbered fewer than 1,500 people.

His parents were stoical. “They expected a lot of me,” he said. “Skin color, socioeconomic status, none of that could be an excuse.”

Now 48, with degrees from Fort Hays State and Kansas State universities, Jones was the state education commissioner in Colorado.

Last month, Jones took over the fifth-largest school district in the nation, with a $2 billion annual budget.

Some questions and answers from the interview:

Compare and contrast Colorado and Nevada.

There are 178 districts in Colorado and 17 in Nevada, with Clark County the largest. In Colorado, about 80 percent of the adult population has a college or an advanced degree and 20 percent do not. In Nevada it’s almost the reverse of that, with 20 percent having a college degree or more and 80 percent who do not. That creates different levels of expectations for how the schools should operate.

Some computer experts say it will take $20 million to develop something like that in Nevada, what is known as a “living academic history” for each student and all their teachers and schools. Do you agree?

I totally disagree. In Colorado, we used open source software. Our estimates are that the entire state could implement it for anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000. If you build in training time, it would be more, but I’m just talking about the computer tool that could go out publicly. We were able to implement it during my 3 1/2 years as commissioner in Colorado. In Clark County, I think we can do it in a year. We can determine how effective a teacher is and make critical decisions in the career of a teacher.

Hiring, firing, demotions, promotions?

I like to start with what supports teachers need, what development and training they’ve had, what have they got to have to perfect their trade. I don’t immediately go to punitive. I want to use the data to determine what I need to do to help my teachers do better.

How are you going to cope with budget cuts?

The best strategy is for us to continue to work with the Legislature. The governor will give his budget, but there are a lot of changes that are going to happen over the course of the session. My best strategy is to make sure that the governor and the Legislature clearly understand what the local challenges are in this School District.

How do you feel about Gov. Sandoval favoring school vouchers?

I want to learn more about the vouchers he’s talking about. The School Board members have said they are not supportive of vouchers. If the governor moves forward with vouchers, then ultimately I’ll have to make some determination and put together what vouchers might look like.

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  1. I'm teaching in Florida for 10 years and deciding if I want to move to Clark.

    "teachers are not afraid of being held accountable as long as the assessment is fair and takes into account all of the factors impacting student test scores. There are factors beyond the teacher's control, including the student's home life and adequate adult supervision."

    This is very accurate. Another factor a teacher cannot (or unfairly can) control is the administration support. This support (or lack of) is a political game that has little to do with teaching. I know teachers who are friends with the administration and are considered untouchable even though they just push play on the VCR everyday. Or teachers who are untouchable because they coach a sport or run a club no one wants. Again, nothing to do with TEACHING inside the room. They are considered great teachers and even given AP classes they cannot possibly teach effectively based on their talent......

    No one mentions this problem. (The increase in political play when either merit pay or jobs... how someone pays their mortgage... is on the line. A much greater power is given to the principal).

    I simply do not see a truly fair way to assess teacher effectiveness. You can't measure what is important. Who is creating positive relationships (somewhere between a friend and an authoritative boss) with the kids to make them feel ownership in their own future? You cannot put it on a scale or next to a ruler or on some spreadsheet and say.... effective!!!!!

  2. This is exactly what the Clark County School District needs at this time, a person like Dwight Jones. An outsider, no connections to special interest, calling it like he sees it, willing to make hard decisions to improve our schools system, and will take on anyone, I meam anyone, who is not part of the solution, and will discard those who are part of the problem.

    The Las Vegas School District has lack leadership from the administration for many years and this include the Teachers Union representatives.

    Many teachers and students are looking forward to this much needed change to a focus on education. We need to break away from the past practice of "who you know" and the job protection of non-productive teachers and administrators along the ethic power structure, in the school administration and the teachers union.

    Look for several early retirements and resignations from the school district administration staff, as Mr, Jones will not accept or tolerate the status quo over student improvements and holding back good teachers in the highly political Las Vegas School District.

    Idealistic? Yes indeed! Hopefully optimistic? Absolutely! Mr. Jones, we expect real change---make a difference!

  3. The change that is needed is to recall the Governor and elect Rory who was pro-education. Attitude is the answer but that doesn't diminish the need for adequate funding which Clark County schools do NOT have nor will they have it in the current cha-ching culture of Las Vegas. Good luck, Mr. Superintendent. NO to vouchers and the privileged class of the new and cleaner Gibbons clone.

  4. Just go to court and sue.

    Sandoval is going to be losing a number of lawsuits starting with the one on the health care bill. He will lose over schools, prisons, public defenders, the environment and medical care.

  5. To Doolish 1: I taught in Southern Florida for over 20 years and got out because of the emphasis on FCAT, no teacher support, low wages and the cuts to Career and Business Education. Yes, I am glad I left but came to California. Mistake!! I hae also decided to try and make a move to Clark. My research and folks I have spoken to have shown me what a progressive district Clark is but there are problems where ever you go! It is my hope that Clark will increase their Business and Career Tech offering as the economy in Nevada is a service one that depends in my field.

  6. Let the teachers teach and let the principals be principals.

    The teachers may be spending too much time 'teaching to tests' rather teaching to awaken a desire to learn. And the principles I've spoken with are tasked with too many administrative 'CYA' duties to be as effective as they could be.

    It seems as though both the CCSD and NSEA/CCEA both waste an inordinate amount of time and money worrying about the small minority of teachers or other employees who are not fit for their jobs.

    What if we empowered ALL OF OUR principles and gave them more than half a school year to get results?

    What if we let our teachers cut back on the number of 'in-service days' and the number of 'testing days' and put that precious time back into teaching?

    What if the Teacher's Unions spent more time extolling the 97% of teachers in Clark County who love their job and stopped making excuses for the tiny minority of teachers who are not cut out for the profession.

    Why do the unions continually bad-talk our teachers and students and invest time and resources to demonize anybody who challenges their status quo?

    When you take like student populations from Nevada against like student populations from other parts of the country we compare favorably.

    We instinctively know what works and we also have the data to back it up.

    The cuts in education should not happen in classroom. The only way to make that a reality is for both the CCSD and the Teachers Unions to give more autonomy, control and money to the individual school principals and the parents of those students.

  7. Thank you for your comments and support.

    I believe that Clark County is not producing college graduates and future educators and therefore must lure them in from other places. (In time their children would go to college based on family support and over a generation possibly change that.)

    As an younger outsider, I am interested in coming to Clark County. The shorter salary schedule, high top pay, and bonuses for advanced degrees, along with the housing prices and low taxes is what attracts me.

    Changing this would not attract new much needed talent to the area.

    As for fixing the system, I agree with the assemblyman when he says to worry less about the bottom 5% and concentrate on helping the other 95% of educators.

    I personally would support a government lottery system where 100% of funds would go to give children who meet certain criteria based on achievements (GPA, ACT/SAT) college scholarships to Nevada public universities.

    I would also support state wide CONTENT BASED examinations for each subject at the end of high school credit courses. If a teacher with the same level students is 20% lower than his peers on this type of exam (rather than a generic non specific reading test), there is an issue with that teacher.

    In the current system, if you make the class really easy, and do not have major behavior problems... kids do not complain, parents do not complain... GREAT TEACHER! No one is learning a damn thing but who cares... NO PARENT CALLS! And that is the ultimate goal of any (as the assemblyman put it) "CYA" administrator.

    -JD