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April 20, 2014

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Cabinet official wants nation, Nevada to examine commitment to education

Education secretary pays daylong visit to Las Vegas

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talks with students during a visit to Walter Bracken Elementary School Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013. Duncan also took part in a roundtable discussion with various school district principals.

U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan Visits Bracken Elementary

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talks with students during a visit to Walter Bracken Elementary School Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013. Duncan also took part in a roundtable discussion with various school district principals. Launch slideshow »

Bracken Elementary School

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Wednesday during a visit to Las Vegas, urged Nevada to invest more in education.

The nation’s top education official was in town to speak at two national conferences, one for financial-aid officers and the other for career and technical schoolteachers. In between his speaking engagements, Duncan visited a local elementary school and high school. He also participated in a panel discussion and town hall about the state of education in the United States.

Duncan’s visit came a day after an international report found American students performed below counterparts in many Asian and European countries in math, reading and science. It also came several weeks after a federal report found Nevada fourth- and eighth-graders scored below the national average in reading and math.

Duncan said the international and national test results were “frankly not great” for the United States and Nevada. To raise America’s test scores, Duncan called for greater long-term investment in early childhood, K-12 and higher education. Duncan acknowledged that education spending in the Silver State was among the lowest nationally.

“I’m not political,” Duncan said. “But as a nation, we’re struggling with whether education is an investment or an expense. … Other countries are just much more committed to education.”

Since the Great Recession, school districts across the country have slashed budgets, closing schools, cutting programs and laying off teachers. In the Clark County School District — the nation’s fifth-largest school system — budget cuts have totaled hundreds of millions of dollars, according to officials.

These funding woes have made it difficult to raise student achievement, 11 local principals told Duncan during a roundtable discussion at Bracken Elementary School.

Clark County Schools Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky explained the district had held back on updating textbooks — primarily because of the transition to new academic standards but also because the district lacked the money to do so. Skorkowsky added that some of the district’s most ambitious education initiatives — such as its iPad program at nine middle schools — have been difficult to scale up because of funding.

“It’s a goal to get (1-to-1 ratio of iPads to students) in with all our schools, but it’s a challenge with funding,” Skorkowsky said.

Duncan said he sympathized with Skorkowsky’s concerns. Because of mandatory federal funding cuts called the sequester, there are 50,000 fewer children in federal HeadStart early childhood programs and fewer federal work-study jobs for struggling college students, Duncan said.

Across the country, states have proposed raising taxes as local revenues and federal funding have declined. However, many such tax initiatives, such as Clark County’s 2012 Question 2 proposal to modernize old schools and build new ones, have failed.

“No one likes higher taxes,” Duncan said. “But without community support, we in education won’t win this battle by ourselves.”

Funding isn’t the only answer to Nevada’s education woes, Duncan said. Nevada, and the United States in general, must raise academic standards to prepare students for college and 21st-century careers, he said.

“What worries me is that our children are just as smart (as students from other countries), but we’re asking less of them,” Duncan said. “We’re doing them a big disservice. ... The fifth-graders I visited today aren’t competing for jobs in this community or even this state. They’re competing against kids in South Korea and Singapore.”

Nevada is one of 46 states that has adopted the Common Core State Standards, a new set of more rigorous academic benchmarks for students at every grade level. The Silver State is in the middle of putting in place these new standards and exams, and many Nevada officials are worried about the standards’ rollout.

“This transition is difficult. Changing standards by definition is hard because it’s challenging the status quo,” Duncan said. “But we need to do it. … Our children get only one chance to get a great education.”

Duncan asked principals whether teachers were feeling supported or overwhelmed with the new curriculum changes.

“It’s a challenge, but teachers will rise up to the challenge,” Sedway Middle School Principal Zachary Robbins answered. “Once we have a target, it’s easier to hit it.”

In addition to the new Common Core standards, teachers are worried about Nevada’s new evaluation system for educators, principals told Duncan. Under the new system being piloted this year, students’ test scores will account for half of a teacher’s evaluation.

“I think teachers have some anxiety,” Martinez Elementary School Principal Tim Adams said. “But whatever the mechanism, tool or rubric, if you’re doing it right and with fidelity, it’ll work.”

Duncan said these new evaluation systems would work if teachers received proper feedback and mentoring to become better educators. To that end, principals — who often excel at school budgets and managerial skills — must become better instructional coaches, Duncan said. The Education Department is asking Congress for more funding to train principals to become better mentors for teachers and leaders for children.

“We haven’t invested enough in principal leadership,” Duncan said. “We also need to do a better job of supporting teachers. We need to do more to recognize and reward our best teachers.”

The federal government must do more to attract its best and brightest students to enter the teaching profession, Duncan added. Moreover, the government must do a better job of enticing teachers to teach the most disadvantaged students attending some of the most challenging schools in the country, he said.

Duncan pointed to Native American reservations that imported teachers from foreign countries because they couldn’t fill their classrooms with American teachers willing to relocate there.

“Children who need the most often get the least,” Duncan said. “If you don’t close the opportunity gap, you will not close the achievement gap.”

Despite Nevada’s poor showing on education ratings, Duncan said his visit reaffirmed his belief that education reform efforts will yield better student outcomes. He pointed to Bracken Elementary School, which was transformed from one of the district’s lowest-performing schools to a “Blue Ribbon” award-winning school, because of the high expectations set by its principal, Katie Decker.

“This school has raised standards in a very profound way,” Duncan said. “I’m very hopeful. This state has an opportunity to make incredible progress.”

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