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July 28, 2014

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School District testing new technology to track academic, operational performance

Dwight Jones

Dwight Jones

Carolyn Edwards

Carolyn Edwards

The Clark County School District unveiled prototypes of websites to measure academic achievement and operational efficiency during a meeting with School Board members on Thursday.

Ken Turner, special adviser to Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones, has been looking at similar systems used in other districts. Jones said he is pushing for new ways to track how dollars are spent in the School District to better understand how much “return on investment” the district — and taxpayers — are getting.

Thursday’s meeting was the first of many this year to see how the cash-strapped but reform-minded district can best implement new technology.

Turner unveiled a prototype for a new school-ranking system that would help educators determine how their schools are performing academically in relation to one another.

Using the system, 30 elementary and middle schools were analyzed, ranked by numerical scores and color coded. Green illustrated positive growth; red showed stagnant growth.

There were three criteria that went into the proposed school rankings: achievement (test score results), growth (how much students are improving) and gaps (if achievement gaps between white and minority students are narrowing).

“This is not just a status story,” Turner said. “If schools are growing, if gaps are closing, that’s good.”

The results of the test run surprised many educators, because they shattered preconceived notions about schools based on student demographics and geographic location, Turner said.

For example, Turner looked at Thurman White and Hank and Barbara Greenspun middle schools. Greenspun has a reputation for better student achievement, Turner said.

The proposed ranking system, however, shows White — which has a larger minority population than Greenspun — is doing better at closing the achievement gap than Greenspun. Under the new ranking system, White would be ranked higher than Greenspun, Turner said.

That surprised Jeff Horn, the principal at Green Valley High School, which gets students from both schools.

“This is eye-opening to me. For 20 years, our teachers had the preconceived idea that White students weren’t as prepared as Greenspun students,” he said. “Right or wrong, sometimes your prejudices would be there. This is the tool to destroy that.”

Jones agreed: “It eliminates the excuse that (minority or poor) students can’t make it. They can learn at equally high rates. Greenspun is doing well, but not so with some populations.”

Other factors, such as a school’s fiscal health, safety record, attendance, and parental and student involvement may also be considered in the development of the ranking, Jones said.

Administrators plan to share the system with principals, teachers and parents over the next few months to gauge their opinions. Turner said he hopes to bring a more finalized proposal to the School Board in December.

Turner also demonstrated a new digital data dashboard that would let the School District see at a glance how it fares in operational efficiency. The interactive website would allow department leaders to see operational measures, such as how much it costs each school to clean up vandalism, the ratio of students to networked computers at each school and the average time it takes the district to fulfill a work order at each school.

“We’re working with teachers on the academic side, but we also have to be accountable on the operational side,” Jones said. “Academics matter, but so does a clean building, buses running on time and things getting fixed on time.”

The program, however, could be a sticky issue for the district, which came under fire from its support staff union last month when a district-commissioned study listed outsourcing of custodians and bus drivers as a possible way to cut millions of dollars in operational costs.

School Board President Carolyn Edwards echoed the union’s concerns.

The study found that employing custodians cost the School District more than contracting out the service, but the in-house crews maintain more square footage than the industry standard.

“If we’re paying more and they’re doing more, it may be fine,” Edwards said.

“Also, all of these functions happen around children, and it’s our obligation to keep them safe. We do screenings some (outside) employee groups don’t do.”

School Board member John Cole said he favored the operational dashboard, adding he used similar financial dashboards in business. However, he said he is worried the public might become confused with all the data from the new digital tools.

“It’s excitement balanced with fear that we’re going to inundate our public with too much information,” he said.

The School District already is applying new technology to track individual student achievement.

The district launched a website in August that uses a new growth model to follow a student’s academic performance over a period of time rather than by an annual test score. Nevada is one of 18 states using the growth model.

By measuring how much students grow academically over the year, schools will no longer face penalties under the federal No Child Left Behind act, which rates schools based on annual standardized test scores. Nevada plans to submit a waiver to the controversial law in February, proposing to replace the act’s stringent annual yearly progress measure with the growth model.

Under the new growth model, a school may be rewarded if its students are improving academically, even if they are still not proficient. Conversely, a school whose students are proficient but aren’t improving may face scrutiny.

School Board member Lorraine Alderman said she is glad to see the district moving away from No Child Left Behind, which hold schools to increasingly higher — and eventually unattainable — standards.

“There are so many schools with a bad rap that don’t deserve it,” she said. “Unfortunately, the whole No Child Left Behind became a punitive measure.”

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  1. The schools with the best attendance and most parental and student involvement will ALWAYS have the best scores or achieve more.

    None of that takes more money. It just takes personal responsibility on the part of the parents and students.

  2. More money spent on untested theories. There is absolutely NO evidence that the "growth model" is viable.