Las Vegas Sun

July 31, 2014

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Who is really ‘worst’ in education?

A child who grows up in Nevada has less chance for adult success than a child growing up anywhere else in the United States.

Let that sink in for a moment. Of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the average (actually median) child whose family has chosen to live in Nevada has less chance of future success than the child of a family living anywhere else in the country — less chance than a child in Mississippi or Alabama or inner city Washington, D.C.

Of 51 places in the country to raise a child, Nevada comes in at 51st. This is the conclusion of “Quality Counts,” a national study conducted by Education Week and released recently. Just after the Sun printed its piece on the report, headlined “Report says Nevada schools again worst in nation for giving children a chance for success” (Jan. 9), I began receiving questions from disturbed educators, policymakers, parents, journalists and others about the study. How bad must the quality of education in Nevada really be? What should CCSD do to improve these horrible results? What could the College of Education do to address the poor chances of success for Nevada’s children? Most cogently: What does the report really tell us and what needs to be done?

To that final and most fundamental question, my response is twofold and straightforward.

One, the report is a damning indictment of the extent of Nevada’s commitment to its children and of the level of support we provide them to achieve adult success.

Two, and despite the headline of the article, the results of the report present a comparatively and surprisingly positive picture of the quality and impact of public education and educators in the state.

Before the accusations of heresy begin, let me explain. “Quality Counts” is one of only a tiny handful of national reports that examine multiple factors associated not only with success in school but also success as an adult. These factors include academic achievement as a key contributor. But they also include data on a wide range of other variables that research over the past half century has consistently shown to be strongly related to both academic success and, more important, success in the decades of life following formal schooling.

Of the six general categories in which these factors are organized in the study, only two categories include measures of school effectiveness. In fact, of 17 specific measures compared in the study, only six are of academic achievement. Even if Nevada educators and schools were the worst in the country, it couldn’t result in a total ranking of last unless all or most of the other factors were also well below the national average.

Let’s look more closely at the findings.

To the point made by the Sun’s headline, the report indicates that Nevada’s children do not do as well as the national average in terms of K-12 achievement. In terms of basic academic achievement of students, the report puts Nevada at an average rank of 43rd, and our graduation rate ranks at 48th — abysmal, without a doubt. However, Nevada was well above the national average in terms of the extent to which it promoted equitable educational outcomes for all students and among the top 10 states in achievement growth. Across all measures in the category of “K-12 Academic Achievement,” Nevada ranked 36th. Bottom line: Nevada is clearly below the national average in the academic achievement of its children. But it is actually nearer the middle of the states than the bottom in this domain.

What about the comparative quality and accountability of Nevada educators? The study examined three indicators of the quality of the teaching profession in the states. On these, Nevada ranked above the national average on two. Our state has clearly established standards for assessing accountability and quality of teaching, and Nevada has in place processes for allocating incentives for educator effectiveness. Where we rank poorly is in supporting the ongoing professional development and advancement of education professionals. In the general category entitled “Efforts to Improve Teaching,” Nevada ranked 28th. Again, below the median of the states (which would be 26th) but far from worst.

Clearly it took poor rankings, apparently very poor rankings, on the other factors examined in the study for Nevada to establish itself as the U.S. state in which a child has the least chance of adult success — 51st of 51.

Of the remaining 11 factors included in the study, none were measures of the quality of schools or education. On these, Nevada was below the national average on 10. For example, we’re ranked dead last in the educational attainment of parents. We’re also 51st in the proportion of children participating in preschool. We’re next to last in the proportion of young adults participating in any kind of postsecondary education, next to last in terms of participation in postsecondary education, 49th in the proportion of parents who are fluent in English, and 48th in adult educational attainment.

Among our highest ratings, Nevada is sixth in terms of equality of educational funding. Unfortunately, this high ranking indicates that per pupil funding ($8,454) in Nevada is distributed in ways that are virtually unrelated to students’ educational needs or community characteristics (the correlation reported is, essentially, zero). Further, we rank 49th in regionally adjusted per-pupil expenditure (the national average is $11,864) and are in the bottom 10 states in every other indicator of investment in education. Nevada’s rank in the broader category of “School Finance Indicators” is 48th out of 51. We don’t invest very much in educating our children, and what we do invest is spent with no distinction among students, schools or communities of greater or lesser need.

What does all of this mean? Fundamentally, it can be summed up relatively simply. We are among the very worst performing states in addressing nonschool factors that are highly related to student achievement and adult success, and we provide little support to schools and to educators compared with most states. In contrast, we have comparatively highly ranked accountability and incentive measures in place for our schools and teachers, and the student achievement growth that our schools produce is in the top 10.

In a recent meeting with community leaders, there was vocal agreement when a member avowed, “In a community like Las Vegas, with all that we have available, we should expect the top level of everything, and we should accept nothing less.” The report’s findings highlight that we are not at the top level and that we have, perhaps, accepted less.

Is the academic achievement of children in Nevada sufficient? Absolutely and unequivocally it is not, particularly in terms of ensuring that students successfully complete high school. But the results of this report highlight that we invest far, far less than nearly any other state in almost every area associated with our citizen’s academic and future adult success.

As the headline noted, we are “worst” in the nation “for giving children a chance for success.” But responsibility for this is about far more than our schools and our teachers. In fact, we may actually be getting a surprisingly high (though far less than “top level”) rate of return given the size of our investment.

Kim Metcalf is the dean of UNLV’s College of Education.

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