The Root of the Problem

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, February 2, 2004

Often in the news over the last several years has been the high proportion of Nevada high school graduates who, on entering college, are found to lack basic reading and math skills.

Depending on the Nevada college or university, the number runs from 30-40 percent. Even included are 30 percent of the state’s so-called Millennium Scholars—a grim index of state schools’ actual quality.

The natural question, of course, is why.

To answer it, the Nevada Policy Research Institute funded and is now releasing a unique study. For the first time, a select group of experts were surveyed: the remedial educators who every day work with the Silver State’s skill-deficient freshmen. For various reasons, the perspective of these professors and instructors rarely gets communicated to parents, policymakers or even K-12 educators. Yet of all Nevadans they have the greatest first-hand knowledge on this issue.

And what do they say? That our students are finding themselves in college remedial classes because they lack very basic skills and study habits that should have been learned in elementary school.

For decades and still today, Nevada’s government-monopoly K-12 system has promoted hundreds of thousands of kids from grade to grade even though they have not learned the most basic math and literacy skills.

For example, as of last year, according to the nation’s most widely used report card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 48 percent of Nevada's 4th graders were below basic in reading. That’s even worse than 2002, when “only” 46 percent were below basic. And all “basic” means on the Assessment scale is “partial mastery” of fourth-grade reading skills!

What percentage of fourth graders actually demonstrated competency in reading at a fourth grade level? Twenty percent—one out of five.

By and large, the odds are that if a Nevada boy or girl leaves the fourth grade without fundamental reading or math skills, he or she still won’t have them by time to enter high school.

No doubt this helps explain why only 60 percent of Nevada’s ninth-graders actually graduate from high school four years later. And when that high dropout rate is linked with the fact that only 50 percent of the state’s high school graduates then go on to college, it becomes clear that only about 30 percent of the total number of Nevada youngsters are going to college: 50% times 60% = 30%.

Yet this 30 percent is made up of the state’s most academically oriented segment: After all, they are the ones who choose higher education. But if 38-40 percent of this group, once it enters college, is found to lack basic skills, what must be the educational condition of the other 70 percent of our kids?

The educational carnage among them must be horrendous. Which, indeed, is what Nevada businesses—searching for good new employees—report.

Are there solutions to Nevada’s education problems? Absolutely. But there are also massive political and financial interests in this state insisting that we just keep doing what we’ve been doing for decades: raising taxes and evading the real problems. Chief among these interests are government-school administrators and the bosses of the Nevada State Education Association teacher union.

A good example regarding the latter is the hundreds of millions of dollars Nevada has wasted over the last 14 years on the union’s cherished class-size reduction program. Everything else equal, it is true that—for kindergarten, first grade and second grade—smaller classes are somewhat preferable. Unfortunately, however, everything else is NOT equal: The impact of teacher quality is some 20 times the impact of class-size.

Yet Nevada—because of the political stranglehold of the NSEA—only has a large and wasteful class-size reduction program; it has NO program focused on identifying and rewarding the good teachers and weeding out the bad. Thus, each year more new teachers are hired than required by state population growth merely because such a policy means big bucks for the teacher union in the form of dues which it uses to advance its leftist political agenda.

The much better alternative—a pay-for-performance system—has never even been seriously considered by the Nevada Legislature. Why? Because that would largely move the teacher union to the sidelines. Teacher pay would then would mainly be determined by tracking the impact of individual teachers on the children who come under their care.

Nevada’s children would benefit greatly, as would dedicated teachers. But because the teacher union bosses would not, the ongoing disaster of Nevada public education must, apparently, continue.

Steven B. Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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