The $200,000-a-year classroom teacher

A new paradigm to rescue Nevada public education

By Dr. James W. Guthrie
  • Monday, April 29, 2013

Executive Summary

Public education in Nevada is in a downward spiral. The system is effectively on hold and has become too inwardly focused and encrusted in custom to benefit from timid and tiny ideas. Public schooling — an idealistic system that has served Nevada well for more than a century — is at risk of losing public support. Something dramatic is needed to jar the system loose, to dissipate despair and break schools free from the status quo.

Paying excellent teachers more, enormously more, is a lever that could change everything else about schooling in Nevada. Paying teachers $200,000 a year is a silver bullet.

Almost everyone desires that Nevada’s public schools improve. While pockets of promise exist in selected charter schools throughout the state and in the state’s smaller districts, virtually every macro measure of Nevada school performance is headed in the wrong direction. When compared to other states and nations, Nevada’s academic achievement is unacceptably low, dropout numbers are staggeringly high, going to college is dismayingly unattractive to most Nevada high school graduates and postsecondary remedial course-taking is scandalously high.

Despite such dismal public schooling outcomes, those who want change cannot agree on priorities, preferred practices or promising political paths. Indecision regarding what will work best — incremental changes to the existing system or a household choice and competition strategy — motivates elected officials to play it politically safe and seek a little of both. The cautious route is to try a small additional program here and a little more competition there. Nevada is creating a two-hump camel when it needs a powerful stallion.

Lack of agreement on a clear route to improved schooling contributes to petty partisan gamesmanship, a cautious and lowest-common-denominator education reform mentality and cliché-driven incrementalism. Such a timid and lackluster approach is not serving Nevada students well.

Education advocates want more money for schools, smaller classes, more professional development for teachers and add-on programs for improving reading, English language proficiency and dropout prevention.

Those more skeptical regarding the capacity of the present public-school model to improve advocate instead for choice and competition, charter school expansion, opportunity scholarships, use of more instructional technology, early college admission and more acceptance of home schooling.

Regardless of their political predisposition, however, proponents of wholesale reform repeatedly suffer setbacks. The reason is that powerful protectors of the status quo can quickly mobilize political allies sufficient to quash almost any disruptively innovative idea. Moreover, the collective influence of reform advocates is frequently squandered through a splintered pursuit of an overly broad spectrum of reform ideas.

Goldilocks-style support for porridge of the “just right” temperature will not save Nevada public schools. What are needed are a clear strategy and a bold approach to change. When conditions are as troubling as is evident in many Nevada schools, it is time to do something dramatically different. Nevada needs an overarching idea that provides promise of accruing widespread political support while simultaneously leveraging significant school improvement.

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