Blame-free at CCSD

Karen Gray

All too often, in just about any education poll, survey or study, Nevada ranks somewhere near the bottom. It appears 2010 will continue that tradition.

In a recent Education Week report, Nevada earned a D for its overall grade. For a second year, Education Week ranked Nevada 50th in the nation for its quality of public K-12 education in the Quality Counts report.

Many educators argue that Nevada's public schooling problems exist because Nevada spends too little on education. Others blame Nevada's high transiency and rapidly increasing English-language-learner population. And still others argue that parents don't work with their children and just don't care about education. The Clark County School District, which accounts for 72 percent of Nevada's student population, regularly claims all of these as reasons for its poor performance.

However, in reality, K-12 education in Nevada receives 40 percent of the state General Fund budget, and that doesn't include the additional billions of dollars committed locally for capital improvement programs. Clark County's transiency rate, according to the state website, has dropped 4.5 percent since the 2004-05 school year. And, according to the district's own data, its ELL population has in that same time period fluctuated between 18 and 20 percent. As for those uncommitted, uninvolved parents, just this month CCSD Superintendent Walt Rulffes observed, "I've come to the conclusion that most parents do the best they can under the conditions that exist."

Earlier this month, district trustees theorized that a crusade to "promote public education and promote parents pushing their kids to finish school" is what is needed in Clark County — and the nation — to get education on track. According to the school board, CCSD's poor student performance is a community issue, and the community needs to come together to address the low graduation rates, the slow progress in reducing drop-out rates and the chronically underperforming schools. And so, trustees are talking up a campaign to get community leaders to raise an estimated $500,000 to be used toward reshaping Southern Nevada attitudes.

However, if trustees are truly serious, shouldn't they first address their own problematic attitudes?

Nationally and locally, public education has become a culture where the existing incentives often reward poor performance and outright failure. It seems that the worse a school or district performs, the more federal grant money it qualifies for, even without improvement. Just scoring poorly or having certain subgroups of student population will earn you extra money.

The culture rewarding underachievement is evident even within public education's own professional associations. Although the Clark County School District has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country, did not make AYP, and ranks at the bottom in just about every survey, poll or study performed, Superintendent Rulffes is one of four finalists in the running for the honor of "Superintendent of the Year" from the American Association of School Administrators.

Given such a culture, it's not surprising that under the process CCSD trustees adopted to evaluate Rulffes' performance, the superintendent gets a passing grade and praise for a job well done for a success rate of just 51 percent — on a scale of objectives, data and timeframe he himself selects.

This evaluation process is part of the district's often-bizarre "Policy Governance®" regime and was adopted by trustees in 2006. Thus, when Rulffes was hired, he determined what achievement indicators he would be assessed on and the criteria by which the progress of the district would be measured. To reach those targets, the superintendent gave himself three school years, with the 2008-09 school year being the target year.

According to the district's own 2009 Academic Achievement Monitoring Report, after three years of working on his targets, Rulffes met just 51 percent of the criteria he chose. Fortunately for the superintendent, he wasn't required to meet the same standards that district students are held to, where 51 percent — indeed, anything under 59 percent — gets an F.

Even were the board to give Rulffes another 10 percent — or one full letter grade — extra credit for having maintained or shown some growth in 28 percent of his targets, that would still, under normal grading practices, earn an unsatisfactory notice and a "barely pass" D-minus.

None of this is to deny that Superintendent Rulffes exerts himself diligently in the performance of his duties.

Rather, it is to point out the real nature of the primary obstacle to public school improvement — a culture so comfortable with mediocre performance that even trustees cannot recognize their own role in ensuring that it continues, unabated.

Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.