Education comparison critiqued

The respective education plans of Brian Sandoval and Rory Reid have come under scrutiny by the Las Vegas Sun. The Sun notes that both plans claim to be "revenue neutral" by using existing resources more effectively, and that both gubernatorial candidates are advocating more parental choice. In the end, the Sun takes a slightly more critical look at Sandoval's plan by relying on some flawed reasoning or half-thruths.

*Social promotion is based on the idea that kids learn better if they have high self-esteem and confidence.

1) Sandoval wants to ban social promotion in the third grade. If the student isn't reading at grade level, he or she is held back for some remedial education focused on reading.

What the Sun finds: "As for Sandoval's plan for third-graders, the district is already retaining hundreds of students annually. And "the sword cuts both ways," Superintendent Walt Rulffes said. "There is research that shows retained students are at a much higher risk of dropping out of school. Supplemental services are a better solution."

Why this is wrong: We have no reason to disbelieve that Nevada's public schools are retaining hundreds of students, but we have no reason to believe that retention is consistent, concentrated, goal-oriented or focused on test results rather than teacher discretion.

As for the research, Walt Rulffes claims that some research shows that retention can harm students, and indeed some research does make this claim. However, many of these studies suffer from serious methodological flaws. These studies examine the results of students retained by teacher discretion - rather than test results - making it very difficult to have an appropriate control group. Control groups (promoted students) should be as similar as possible to the treatment group (students who are held back), but with teacher discretion, students in the control group range widely in skills, from low achievers to high achievers. Thus, we do not have an apples-to-apples comparison between students who are held back and those who are promoted.

Stronger empirical analysis shows that retention strongly benefits students. Two studies on Florida's social promotion ban found that retained students improved in both mathematics and reading and that after two years, many had caught up with their peers. Those students who were socially promoted fell further and further behind.

*The Brookings Institution, a left-of-center think tank, finds that there is no difference in effectiveness for certified, uncertified and alternatively certified teachers.

2) Reid wants to tie teacher tenure and recertification to performance. This is an excellent idea. Sandoval wants more alternative teacher certification and to increase certification reciprocity with other states.

What the Sun finds: The Sun takes no qualms with Reid, as the National Council on Teacher Quality even registers Nevada as a state where tenure is "virtually automatic." The council also recommends tying teacher performance to recertification. Reid seeks both recommendations, which is great policy.

Sandoval wants to eliminate tenure and base teacher bonuses on performance. He also wants to make it easier for professionals to become teachers and expand reciprocity (accepting teacher certifications from other states). The Sun takes issue with Sandoval's plan by stating, "Nevada already has reciprocity with other states when it comes to licensing, as well as the Alternative Route to Licensure program for individuals who have a bachelor's degree and want to enter the teaching profession."

Why this is wrong: The Sun's take on Sandoval's proposal is only partially correct. Nevada does indeed have reciprocity and "alternative" teacher licensing, but Nevada's reciprocity is not granted to teachers of all states, limits teachers on how much experience they can transfer over to qualify on the pay scale, and forbids emergency, alternative, conditional, preliminary, provisional, restrictive and other licenses from other states. In fact, you pretty much need a standard certification that was earned through college coursework at an accredited four-year college or university. Obviously, Sandoval is correct: We can and should expand reciprocity.

As for alternative pathways to teacher licensures? That is a more complicated story. For several months, the Nevada Department of Education's website on teacher licensing has stated "COMING SOON!" and underneath lists dead links to information on alternative pathways to teacher certification. When I called the Nevada Department of Education to acquire more information on alternative pathways, I was immediately redirected to the Clark County School District.

CCSD's alternative program is restricted to future science, math and special-education teachers. Completing the program requires a bachelor's degree with a 2.75 GPA or above, 120-150 hours of professional development, 30 hours of in-classroom time with a veteran teacher, three to nine credit hours of additional graduate work in education, plus the successful completion of the Praxis exams. This is a very limited and time-consuming alternative.

Your other alternative is to re-enroll in your local university and earn a degree in Education, and that isn't much of an alternative. In fact, Dr. Paul Peterson of Harvard University considers Nevada to be one of the states with no "genuine" alternative route to teacher certification. Although Nevada claims to have alternative routes to teacher certification, Dr. Peterson considers these routes symbolic only.

Florida, which Sandoval wishes to emulate, allows private non-profit organizations to train and certify teachers. The American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE) is one of those organizations. The course, which can take six to 10 months to complete, costs just $1,995 and includes course materials and relevant tests. Compare that to the $2,230 (plus books) it would cost to enroll in CCSD's alternative program or the $4,836 (plus books) it might cost to get a second bachelor's degree in education (assuming the cost of Fall 2010 in-state tuition at UNLV).

*The average modern school principal

3) Both Sandoval and Reid want to hold teachers and principals accountable. Principals will get more freedom to operate, but they will be given more responsibilities as well.

The Sun finds: "Ralph Cadwallader, executive director of the Nevada Association of School Administrators, said so far no one's asked the state's principals if they want the intensive additional responsibilities that come with empowerment models."

And because Sandoval proposed tapping into bond and capital funds, "Principals say there are too many older campuses in the district that need major remodeling, and those bond dollars must be protected."

Why this is wrong: Right now principals are not much more than security guards and bureaucratic paper pushers. It sounds crude, but because principals are subjected to so much bureaucracy and central control, that is effectively what they have become. Principals in Nevada are held accountable for filling out paperwork and not much else. Principals should be given more control over how the school operates, its budget, and its teachers and then be held accountable for the results. If principals don't want the additional responsibilities that come with freedom and accountability, then they probably don't deserve the $100,000-plus salaries we've been paying them.

In regards to the bonds and capital projects, CCSD sat on $1 billion last year. For what reason? We don't need more schools (even though they did build three more). The reason schools become dilapidated and need frequent remodeling is that schools don't take good care of their buildings. This isn't a Nevada problem, it's a national problem, and it stems from the fact that building maintenance is a separate, central-office fund. They have no incentive to use buildings efficiently or take care of them because they will always have more revenue from tax dollars and bonds. If the funds were broken down by student and then awarded to schools based on student enrollment, you would likely see local schools taking better care of their facilities.

4) Sandoval and Reid want more school choice. Reid proposes public school choice and Sandoval proposes choice for kids in failing public schools and a universal voucher program.

What the Sun finds: "No Child Left Behind already requires districts to offer transportation to alternate schools for students who want to opt out of low-achieving Title I campuses (which receive extra federal funding to serve students from low-income households). But while tens of thousands of Clark County students qualify, only a few hundred take advantage of the option each year."

Why this is wrong: The Sun always points this out when the issue of school choice is brought up, but this isn't the whole story. It is true that No Child Left Behind requires students in failing schools to be given the option of a new school, but 1) the school must be considered failing two years in a row, 2) the school district gets to choose the alternative schools, 3) many districts have been criticized for inadequately advertising the fact that parents may move their children, 4) there is often a short, two-week window in which to transfer the child and 5) choice between uniform, centrally controlled public schools isn't much of a choice, and parents might recognize that fact.

Just because Nevada has a very limited, poorly advertised choice program among uniform schools that few students participate in, does not mean we should not have an expanded choice program - especially one in which schools must compete for students.

5) The conclusion

Finally, the Las Vegas Sun paraphrases Dr. David Damore, writing, "But the burden is on Sandoval to prove that school vouchers would really have a significant effect, Damore said. In other states the vouchers have proven to be of little use to parents because the monetary value isn't enough to cover the full cost of parochial or private school tuition."

Why this is wrong: The burden is not on Sandoval to prove vouchers work; it has already been proven. Nine out of 10 empirical random assignment studies show that vouchers work (nine out of 11 if you include the latest study on the D.C. voucher program, although there is the caveat that the voucher resulted in a graduation rate that was 21 points higher than the control group). Additionally, 18 out of 19 empirical studies find that public schools improve when faced with voucher competition.

Damore's conclusion that vouchers are of little use because the monetary value isn't high enough is only a partial truth. The ACLU made a similar claim this year in testimony to the Nevada Legislature, but the reasoning is bogus. It's like arguing that you shouldn't have food stamps because the food stamps don't cover the cost of all the food you might eat.

Here is the reality. Pretty much every voucher and tax-credit program in America today offers just a sliver of the funds available to traditional public schools. This is by design. When voucher opponents fail to stop the program in its tracks, they work to limit the funds available in the hopes that they can make the program less attractive. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program offered scholarships worth up to $7,500 while the district spent $28,000 per pupil. Incidentally, the average scholarship awarded in D.C. was just $6,600.

Finally, the majority of voucher programs in the U.S. are so overwhelmingly popular - despite the limited funds - that they require lotteries in order to choose which lucky kids will get the money to go to a private school. If parents didn't find vouchers to be of much use, we wouldn't need lotteries to sort out who could attend a private school with a voucher and who was stuck in the traditional public school. Additionally, maybe Dr. Damore can explain how vouchers aren't of much use to these parents and students protesting the cancelation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program:

*Other issues like privatization will be addressed at a later date. It is highly questionable whether CCSD has something resembling privatization, especially considering the fact that CCSD employs a legion of carpenters, plumbers, electricians, architects, mechanics, custodians and lawn-care laborers (you wouldn't exactly call that privatization, would you?) Furthermore, I will note that separate budgets from the general fund do not mean those other funds can not make more efficient use of available resources. Additionally, the funds themselves are merely budgetary gimmicks, as the money can be moved around.

More on Reid's and Sandoval's education plans here.

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