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October 31, 2014

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Sun Editorial:

A new conversation

Negative reports on schools should change the education debate

Nevada’s education system recently received a double whammy of negative attention that shouldn’t be lost in the midst of summer vacation.

As Paul Takahashi reported last week in the Sun, Las Vegas was at the top of Parenting Magazine’s list of the 10 worst cities in the nation for education, and if that wasn’t enough, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count report ranked Nevada’s schools 50th in the nation.

These may be new lows — Las Vegas, an international city, is worse than Jackson, Miss., and Mobile, Ala.? — but the reports shouldn’t be a surprise. Nevada’s education system has routinely fared poorly in national rankings, and these reports sadly reaffirm what Nevadans have known for years: The fact is that test scores are too low and dropout rates are too high.

Unfortunately, the state’s leaders haven’t taken significant steps to change education in a way that will significantly benefit students. The political debate has been caught up in finger-pointing (there is no shortage of reasons for the problems) and petty fights over money.

Some politicians argue that the state doesn’t put enough money into education. Other politicians complain that there’s enough or too much money and say that there need to be “reforms.”

Let’s be clear: Money is a real issue. The state hasn’t made a significant investment in education. Certainly, there’s a discussion to be had about what the money goes toward in education, but budgets have been tight for years — even during the boom times.

School critics like to try to steer the debate away from budgets. They say changes in policy are the answer, but some of the “reforms” they pursue in the name of education have become crusades against education unions that have tarred teachers and their work. Such efforts have seemed designed to try to exploit the state’s budget crisis to pursue a political ideology that is apparently intent on dismantling public education.

As a result, the state has been locked in a fruitless debate over education: more money or “reforms.” Teachers and schools: good or bad. It’s ugly and misses the point. The either-or aspect of the debate has stifled innovation and improvement.

There is plenty of middle ground to find, should a coalition of politicians be open enough to seek it. More money is needed, but it isn’t the sole answer. Neither is changing policy. There is no single magic bullet. It’s going to take a combination of efforts to change the education system, including more money to do things such as reduce class sizes and policies that provide more accountability in education.

The real question is whether politicians are ready to have a real conversation rather than falling back into the debate we’ve seen for years.

Nevada should be embarrassed by such negative reports and ashamed that the state has remained at the bottom of the national rankings for so many years. At what point do political leaders put aside their ideologies and work to find real ways to improve the schools?

The negative reports, as unwelcome as they are, should spur a more serious conversation toward improving education. We don’t do our children justice with our education system. It’s beyond time for that to change.

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  1. When you can convince folks that there is "a future," and education is vital to that future, then you will begin to see a shift in academic performance.

    With the downturn of the American economy, folks are faced with the problem of working hard and being determined, not being enough anymore to secure and maintain a job/career. Many have become disillusioned, have fallen into hopelessness, as businesses shut down, and opportunities for employment become more scarce. So the whole concept of "working hard" no longer applies for many, and they begin to check out, and give up.

    The "conversation" needs to address this. Without promise of a future job/career, all we are doing is just going through the motions. The despair we are witnessing will dispell when LAWMAKERS do their job, instead of kicking the political can down the road. Citizens need hope, and need to be cared about. And when THAT is not being done at the HOME level, nothing is going to "fall into place" and work as it should.

    There is a saying, "Without a vision, the People perish." This wasting away is due to the lack folks experience. How can you give hope when you don't have it yourself? Our children need to have hope and vision in order to move forward effectively and positively into the future.

    Blessings and Peace,
    Star

  2. Nothing will change as long as people blame unions, the administration and teachers. It's easier to point fingers than solving the problems of a declining educational system in these United States.

  3. Not one US Presidential Candidate has come out with their exact plan for EDUCATION in the USA, nor specifically, ailing states as Nevada. ZERO. Where is the "conversation" from our nation's top?

    Commenter Tanker1975 brings up some valid points:
    "By Tanker1975
    Aug. 5, 2012
    9:09 a.m.
    The "education reforms" pushed by the Legislature are a smoke screen to try to fool the public that our elected officials care about education. They don't.

    Why have we heard no discussion about changing the length of the school year or changing the calendar? Why do our students get three months off when no other country in the world does that? Our calendar dates from the 1850's when student were needed to work in the farm fields. Ask any teacher how much review they have to do after summer vacation.

    Why have we heard no discussion about increasing the length of the school day? Most other countries ahead of us have a longer day.

    Why have we not heard about improving teacher selection and retention? About 50% of teachers leave within 5 years. What other profession has that attrition rate? Dr. James Guthrie, the state superintendent of education, has advocated improving teacher pay.

    Why have we not talked about looking at other successful education systems around the world to see what they do and more importantly if it can be used here.

    Can somebody explain to me how changing the teacher evaluation system is education reform? Can somebody explain to me how changing the seniority system is education refrom?

    We have an opportunity to change the old education system into a new system that will allow our children and grandchildren to compete against the rest of the world in the 21st Century. Until we start to have those discussions and debates, we are not "reforming education"."

    Blessings and Peace,
    Star

  4. A "new conversation" between the Clark County School District and the local teachers' union was well underway in the form of "interest-based bargaining" until Dwight Jones, a proponent of the adversarial approach to bargaining contracts with employees, appeared to take over leadership of the school district. Prior to this change in command, the union had acknowledged the need to find solutions to problems associated with lagging student achievement, and steps had been taken to address the problem. The teachers' union (CCEA) and CCSD had agreed to work together on common goals with the understanding that each group had specific target goals of its own that had to be met. News of the success of this partnership spread, and former superintendent Walt Rulffes and CCEA president Ruben Murillo were invited to share the progress being made with school leaders and union officials in other cities. They were also invited to Washington, DC to be recognized for their successful collaborative efforts.

    Then, enter Dwight Jones, claiming he'd never heard of interest-based bargaining, and setting an agenda that included making the union an adversary. The district came to the bargaining table with a list of demands that had nothing to do with school improvement, but a lot to do with weakening the union and its ability to represent its members. Demands went far beyond such things as salary, benefits, and seniority rights, though certain media outlets made an all out effort to convince the public that money was the only issue in dispute. Once impasse in negotiations was declared, and all-or-nothing, binding arbitration was in play, the union was forced to decide between protecting the salary schedule and important contract language that had taken decades to secure, or giving it all up so that the district could avoid laying off new teachers.

    Kudos to the union, because despite the school district's predictions of doom and gloom, complete with a barrage of threatening pop-up messages via the district's email system intended to persuade teachers to take the district's side and urge them to tell the union to abandon its position, the teachers who received pink slip have, by and large, been recalled. Now, bent out of shape over losing the arbitration, the district is pursuing an even harder line with regard to negotiations for the 2012-2013 school year, and Superintendent Jones has made it clear that he intends to lobby the legislature to weaken the teachers' union through changes to Nevada's collective bargaining laws. Clearly, Mr. Jones has no intention of working collaboratively with the union to solve the district's problems, and that is a shame, because in the end, the real losers with this kind of approach to problem solving are the students. Working together, the CCSD and CCEA could be a powerful force in Carson City in 2013 to help tackle the budgetary woes of school districts all over Nevada.

  5. For upwards of $12,000 per kid per year they can't teach them to read and write in grade school? Arizona gets graduates who can read and write for $1,000 less per kid per year. We're overpaying and not getting the results.

  6. Part of the conversation is to look at what has a proven track record of working and seeing how we might fit that into Nevada educational reforms. Nevada does not have the money, time, nor luxury of reinventing the wheel constantly. Each and every one of us are participants in this conversation, because we experience the benefits and the losses collectively.

    There are challenges having some of these "conversations" in the classroom. Some believe that their education should immediately reap high yield rewards without the effort of having to learn or practice skills. When teachers remind students that the skills they are learning today they will be using as workers in the future, it is important to learn them and be proficient, some view those reminders as being "negative messages". Somehow, the message of growing up to be productive, working citizens needs to be sugar-coated as warm-fuzzy, up-beat, and positive. It is hard to imagine that some students consider these reminders as "threats" and that the consequences of not being ready and proficient in job-related skills as being "too harsh". Oddly, some parents state to educators that their kids will learn about the real world soon enough when they graduate, that their child will learn about life after high school. Again, everyone needs to be on board and a part of the conversation.

    As Tanker1975 expounded in his posts Parts 2,3, and 4, part of the conversation is about values and what we do about those values. Nevada drastically grew in the last few decades, bringing in people from all walks, and values, in life. People didn't take the time to think and converse,let alone get to know their neighbors, but instead, reacted, and gave "quick fix" solutions to local and state problems, trusting those elected to deal with civic issues.

    Life has been on speed dial and sound bytes. We cannot survive as a community or state operating as we have. None of our Lawmakers want to risk their political careers to make the hard choices that WE elected them to do.

    Somehow, our communications have resulted in us "talking to the hand," or the wall, or just to ourselves. In order for the conversation to work, all parties need to be willing to be active listeners and participants so that things can change.

    Blessings and Peace,
    Star

  7. Money is NOT the answer. LEADERSHIP is.

    Somehow, in all the hullaballoo, we have forgotten why schools were established. We (the adults) focused on politics, money, affiliations, AYP, and everything else except the children. We are afflicted with the illness called THWADI (That's How We Always Do It). Oh, reforms have been made, but it's the same recipe - dressed up a little bit.

    For real reforms to happen, leaders must involve (really - as opposed to lip-service) those people who are going to implement them. Changes have a better chance of taking root when all those who implement them are involved in their design.

    Top-down directives for change get compliance, but the heart is not involved. Teaching IS a work of the heart. That equation is never weaved into the fabric of reforms.

    Put in a TRUE LEADER - one who is not beholden to anyone except children - and education will see some meaningful changes. We can argue until we turn blue, but without true leadership, we will still be making this conversation decades from now.

  8. "Can somebody explain to me how changing the teacher evaluation system is education reform? Can somebody explain to me how changing the seniority system is education reform?" - Star

    Star, effectively and accurately evaluating performance is central to many essential decisions. (Can you tell I'm an HR guy?)

    First, what is the main result we want from teachers? This seems easy - how much do their kids learn. Once the desired result is clearly defined, a lot of good things become possible. You can identify what works best and help share those ideas with other teachers. You can compensate the best teachers more than teachers who don't perform as well, and the opportunity to earn more may help the profession attract/retain more excellent teachers. Teachers who don't perform well can be coached and, if needed, replaced based on a fair evaluation of their performance.

    Which brings us to your question about seniority. There is a very clear question which has always been answered in favor of teachers over kids, because teachers are organized and kids are not. If there is a poor teacher - and let's be honest, there are some poor teachers - would you rather have your child spend a year with them or with a good teacher? The unions protect the poor teachers, which is their job, but who is there to protect all the kids who have to spend a year with a poor teacher? While there is value in protecting people's jobs, I think the value of our kids reaching their potential is greater than protecting the job of someone who isn't teaching effectively.

    Let me add that I have two close family members who are/were teachers for many years. I have heard the arguments for not holding teachers accountable for what their kids learn. I think there are relatively easy ways to take into account that some teachers have very large classes, some have lots of kids who don't speak English well or at all, and some have high numbers of kids who come and go during the school year. But if you don't establish clear measurements of success and establish some accountability for performance, it just means that you don't think the job is very important, which is the underlying reason for the education problem in this country.

  9. "First, what is the main result we want from teachers? This seems easy - how much do their kids learn."

    While this seems straight forward, how is this effectively measured? Do multiple choice tests given on a one time basis accurately show how much a student has learned?

    "Once the desired result is clearly defined, a lot of good things become possible."

    This, of course, assumes that the "how" is fair and effective.

    "You can identify what works best and help share those ideas with other teachers."

    And this is already done on a consistent basis. Teachers are right now sitting in summer training classes.

    "You can compensate the best teachers more than teachers who don't perform as well, and the opportunity to earn more may help the profession attract/retain more excellent teachers."

    And what does the research say about merit pay?

    "Teachers who don't perform well can be coached and, if needed, replaced based on a fair evaluation of their performance."

    This already happens as part of a teacher's contract. The tricky part is the "fair evaluation" as well as site administrators actually doing the documentation that shows a teacher received coaching and still didn't improve. Once that is done, and done properly, teachers can (and are) removed from the classroom.

    The unions don't want bad teachers in the classroom anymore than good teachers want them there. It's not the unions job to protect or fire teachers. It's the site administrator. The unions's job is to make sure the evaluation system that is in place is followed and applied equally to all. The union supports the removal of "bad" teachers, or rather teachers who when given multiple opportunities to improve and given loads of coaching and help, don't improve or change their ways.

    The problem comes with the "clear measurements of success and accountability". How is a PE teacher to be evaluated? How about a HS computer teacher? They aren't tested subjects. How is it fair and clear to use state tests for me, but not for them? How do they show growth? We are all teachers, therefore we are to be evaluated the same. Categorize teachers by degree/subject/grade level then? How do you say my degree is more important than a HS history teacher? Is it so because mine is a tested grade/subject and theirs isn't? (that's baloney in my opinion).

    Your post sounds all well and good. However, it breaks down when you start to analyze the buzz words; clear, fair, accountable, good performance....

  10. Mr. Newton:

    You are right of course. Evaluation is most important to gauge teacher efficacy. That much we agree on, however it is in its implementation that reforms are required. Teacher observations must be done regularly (a few times a week at least) to see how a teacher implements the components of an effective lesson including classroom management and assessments. In addition, an administrator's perspective must not be the ONLY basis for teachers evaluation. Other teachers, district teaching specialists, parents, and students must also be allowed input.

    As it is now, administrators are pulled every which way and evaluations can sometimes be based on very little facts from very few observations, and only from the perspective of one administrator. That is hardly fair. Administrative biases and prejudices do exist, greatly influencing teachers' evaluation.

    Also, as it is now, very few administrators offer any real assistance to teachers who are struggling. Regular observations can identify problem areas, help design interventions, and offer a more 'humane' approach compared to an immediate condemnation of being a 'bad' teacher based on few observations. Regular observations can also help administrators identify those who have no business being teachers and it makes firing those teachers easier.

    There are those who are born to be teachers; there are those who just need a little help; and, of course there are those who should have never gone into teaching.

    A true leader requires excellent cognitive and affective skills to identify teacher quality and sustain teacher efficacy. Sadly, they are a rare specie.

  11. Melissa, if you don't want to measure how much students learn by testing, you need to come up with another, better alternative.

    While testing is not perfect, it's the best way anyone has come up with, which is why it's been used for years for education at many levels and for professional certifications.

    If you don't have an objective way of measuring how much kids learn, how do you identify and share what works best? You don't really know for sure.

    I'm not aware of merit pay being based on performance (student learning) in school systems, so I'm curious about what it says. My understanding is that teacher pay is typically based on years of experience and level of education. You may point out the problems with testing as a measurement of performance, but you are OK with these as measures of teacher performance?

    Sorry, but my impression is that there is a strong resistance to change and to accountability and the ones who suffer most are the kids in LV public schools.

  12. "While testing is not perfect, it's the best way anyone has come up with, which is why it's been used for years for education at many levels and for professional certifications."

    WRONG!!!! Sorry David, but your HR mentality has failed you. Many of the top schools, both public and private, use Portfolio based assessment to judge how much students have learned. Examples of student work, including tests, projects, daily work, essays and other benchmark items, are gathered and recorded, in order to gauge just how much a student has learned. If a student has an art class, examples of artwork are included; if they have music, recordings of their performances are included. THIS has been deemed an "Outstanding method of student growth measurement," and is the model in most countries which are ahead of the United States.

    Someone always wants to re-hash the idea of bringing people from leading countries in education over to observe our methods, and tell us how to make improvements. Guess what? IT HAS BEEN DONE SO MANY TIMES, But the public doesn't want to hear the hard truth. Heard at a lecture on American Education reform, by a team from Finland (#1 in the World):

    1. The biggest obstacle to education in America is POVERTY!! When children living under to poverty line are removed from the rankings, the US is #1 in ALL categories.

    2. Many of the practiced used in Japan, Finland, et. al. ARE being used in American classrooms. Collaborative planning, new teaching methodologies, and reflective assessment of teaching strategies, have been used well into our third decade. The main problem is RESOURCES. When a class in the US wants to learn about trees, the students read books, search the internet, draw pictures, and write reports. In Finland, if a class wants to study trees, THEY GET ON A BUS AND GO VISIT THE FREAKIN' TREES!! They put their hands on them, they climb them, they collet bark and leaves, they smell the trees, listen to the leaves rustle in the wind, see the relationship between trees and other life in the ecosystem - They study the tree, not some book - because they have the funding and resources to do so.

  13. 3. Teachers in America are treated like Dog Leavings (my words); In Japan and other countries, teachers are on the same level as surgeons, lawyers, and engineers. They are recruited, trained in not only education practices and their field, but also psychology and child development. They know how the brain works, and how children learn. They learn why they behave the way they do and how to manage that behavior. Here in the states, "anyone can teach - It's so easy." Teachers are thought of as lazy, not wanting to get a "real job" or "Not the brightest." We make education a second-tier occupation - a "Fall back" position. Districts bring in "Anyone with a degree" from any profession, give them a minimal amount of training and let them into the classroom. These people might have some subject knowledge, but they have little clue how to teach a class of hormonal 8th graders. The reason teacher turnover is high is related to how little many new teachers are prepared to handle the classroom.

    4. Education in the US has become all about "spending as little as possible," to get results. In this time of worldwide recession, the countries which are cutting education funding are seeing their student performance drop rapidly, while countries such as Japan, China, South Korea, Sweden and many others are increasing their education spending exponentially. They are investing in their future generations, while we are doing the best to starve ours.

    5. Teachers in other countries are treated like professionals. Teachers are evaluated by master educators IN THEIR subject on a regular basis, and evaluations are not designed to bludgeon the teacher, but honestly point what they need to improve upon, or what they can mentor others on. Teachers who have weaknesses, pair up with a mentor, while strong teachers are asked to become mentors or evaluators. Admin and teachers are not adversaries, they are collaborators.

    Finally, PARENTS ARE EXPECTED TO SEND KIDS TO SCHOOL PREPARED TO LEARN!! That means, rested, disciplined, and focused. Parents are called on the carpet for the behavior of their children at school, and can face fines for poor attendance, chronic behavior problems, or non-involvement in their child's education.

    So, the truth is out there, the question is, Can Nevadans handle the ugly truth, or will they continually settle for the pretty lie?

  14. Patrick, portfolio based assessment sounds interesting, but ultimately it's still subjective. If it has been found to be highly effective, why isn't it used in Las Vegas? Is it a resource issue? Who is supporting it? Who's fighting it? Why? I'm curious to learn more about this. It's seems like a step in the right direction toward arriving at a better way to evaluate teacher performance, but if it's such an excellent approach, why hasn't it been adopted here?

    I don't think you need to have subjective evaluations (which seems likely to lead to complaints about unfair evaluations from those given poor reviews) for many subjects. It seems that testing is a fair and objective way to evaluate progress in key areas like math, science, and reading. I realize some kids don't take tests well, but when you aggregate the data for many kids for a given teacher, it seems like a reasonable way to measure how much the kids have learned. If a teacher constantly has kids who show less progress than other teachers, it seems unlikely that it's because this teacher always has a lot of bad test takers.

    My original point was that you need to develop a fair and objective way to evaluate teacher performance - both for fairness and better compensation for teachers and because kids deserve quality teachers. There's a lot of haggling over why other methods aren't perfect, and we end up keeping the current ineffective system.

    I totally agree with you on the cultural issues related to our perceptions of teachers and totally agree with you on enhancing the prestige and support given to the profession. But one of the issues related to giving resources is the feeling that additional resources won't be used to solve the underlying problems. I think greater accountability is a step toward improving the perceived value of the profession because if there's greater accountability people may be willing to invest greater resources. It's hard to convince people to invest more if they don't feel the additional money will lead to an improvement in results. If you look at most well-paid professions there is a very high degree of accountability.

    I also agree that there are a lot of people who don't value education and don't do as much as they could as parents, but those are cultural issues that are outside the control of educators, so complaining about them probably doesn't accomplish much. Better to focus on what's in your control.

    Thanks for your comment. It was interesting and a good learning experience for me!

  15. Home schooling is the answer to Nevada's education system failures. No unions, no politicians, no school boards. No superintendents. No nonsense. Just good old fashioned learning.

    CarmineD

  16. For Mr.Newton who stated, ""Can somebody explain to me how changing the teacher evaluation system is education reform? Can somebody explain to me how changing the seniority system is education reform?" - Star

    Star, effectively and accurately evaluating performance is central to many essential decisions. (Can you tell I'm an HR guy?)"

    First, please permit me to state that what you quoted and attributed to me, actually was Tanker1975's words, I simply copied them to put them in the "Trusted Comments" because many readers might not have access to the other comments as his. I value his opinions, and usually agree with much of what he says.

    You are welcome to visit our public Nevada schools, especially during the first month of the school year, when much of what a teacher does is about benchmark assessments. This will provide a transparent and wholistic experience of accountability on several levels. Many students do not practice skills learned over the year during summer break months, and it shows when you assess these students when they return to school.

    Even though teachers are to officially report August 22nd here in Clark County, there are school parking lots with the cars of teachers already preparing for the upcoming year (without compensation). Throughout the year, teachers attend professional development and embrace innovative changes that improve student performance.

    There should be some distinction between teachers who have specifically been educated, trained, and attended graduate school for their credentials versus those who simply earned a degree in a subject area, intern, and are hired to teach in a classroom. There has not been much, if any, dialog about this phenomena, which does have an impact on students.

    Blessings and Peace,
    Star

  17. It should NOT take 24/7 from all of us to teach kids to read and write. It's not rocket science. We've been doing the reading, writing thing for more than a century. Classrooms of 35-40 kids and one teacher got it done. We cannot afford all this run around and talk around. If "educators" can't figure out best practices GO BACK TO THE BASICS.

  18. Time to junk K-12. Maybe try some pilot grants to churches, monastaries, non-profits to teach reading and writing. If not, home school with online K-12 and award the parently 1/2 the dsa for each kid they keep out of public K-12.

  19. "GO BACK TO THE BASICS."

    Yes, Let's go back to the days when parents valued education. Let's return to the time when physical education was a daily mandate, fine arts was compulsory, schools had libraries, kids had recess twice daily, teachers had the authority to teach and deal with misbehaving kids, where principals and teachers told parents how things were going to be' and not the other way around.... and education was fully funded...

  20. End public schools. End Medicaid. Expel the illegal students, almost 40% of the cost of K-12.

  21. Patrick, THROUGHOUT history, a percentage of parents have neglected to abused their kids. Mind did. Yet 5 out of 5 kids learned to read and write without ANY parental involvement. Actually, I was punished for doing well in school--cause my brother didn't. Right now we / CCSD are paying about $76 K a year for the average teacher compensation up to about $96K a year for each teacher PER 20 or fewer kids in grades 1-4--that's the "new" higher ratio with the budget constraints. Yet many of these teachers are FAILING to teach our kids to read. If they can't read by 4th grade, there is little to no chance of recovering that student into an average kid. So, for whatever reasons, we MUST put these teachers into YEAR ROUND SCHEDULES so the young kids get the basics down--not just whatever "exposure" each teacher comes up with. Any kid not up to grade, in 1-4, must do extra time until s/he can read and write at grade level. There is NO POINT in any other funding unless the little kids get it right.