Nevada’s government schools have honorable intentions. Unfortunately, these intentions seldom generate meaningful results. For example, Nevada’s children are not able to read as well as they should. According to the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 21 percent of the Silver State’s fourth graders can read at or above grade level. Nevada has educational standards for reading and other key subjects—standards are not where the state is falling short. Rather, Nevada’s curriculum, testing measures and quality of teaching force all need to improve. Promising remedies to the state’s education woes include holding teachers and principals accountable for results, using accurate testing and assessment tools earlier and more frequently and harnessing the power of the market. These tools have worked in other states, and they will work in Nevada—if legislators can muster the courage to use them.
More Teacher Accountability
Although some vague concept of accountability usually litters discourse on education reform, the instruments to measure accountability are rarely implemented. In The Quest for Better Teachers: Grading the States, a recent report by the Thomas P. Fordham Foundation, Nevada earned a D-. The report stated that “Nevada has done little to raise the quality of its teaching force.” Incompetent teachers are protected by tenure and union agreements while quality teachers are hindered from receiving the pay, recognition and advancement they are due. This can be attributed chiefly to the disconnected management of school-district staff, which removes personnel decisions from the individual school level and places these decisions in the power of school-district bureaucrats. If schools are to be held accountable, they must gain increased autonomy in hiring and firing decisions. A teacher’s job is to facilitate learning. It is entirely reasonable to measure a teacher’s performance by the measured results he or she produces in students.
Access Market Forces
For too long, education policy has denied teachers the benefit of competing in a market-based environment. The teaching profession is still seen by many as an altruistic endeavor, and this belief props up the idea that market forces are inappropriate in the world of education. This is a ridiculous notion. Competition does not corrupt; it motivates and spurs participants to find new and creative ways to achieve the results that conditions demand. Competition is not evil. It leads to increased quality of teachers and improved student results. The key to successful students is quality teachers. The good news is that many states are beginning to implement effective programs and reforms that utilize market forces to raise the quality of their education systems. The bad news is that Nevada isn’t one of them. Some current reform movements include pay-for-performance, differential pay schedules and financial incentives. Another accountability tool garnering attention lately is value-added assessment, which uses a statistical method to measure how much a given student has learned with a given teacher over the course of a particular year. Arizona, Tennessee, Dallas and North Carolina have all implemented this tool to make teachers and administrators accountable for the results that come out of their classrooms and schools. Nevada needs to enact legislation that will establish incentive programs in which teachers are rewarded and promoted on the basis of results achieved, instead of seniority. Competent teachers will embrace this challenge as an opportunity for advancement. In Las Vegas, the Nevada Community Foundation is rewarding math and science teachers in Title I schools whose students show improvement in those subjects on the Terra Nova exam. Eighteen math teachers and 19 science teachers volunteered this past year to be eligible for the $2,500 bonus. The promise and potential of such programs, whether funded by public monies or through private funds, offers motivation for teachers and better results for students.
Test Early and Often
Implementing assessment measures is another crucial element in making sure that Nevada students are at least performing at grade level. Assessment results provide a useful measure of student achievement and progress. Not only will testing earlier and more often help keep Nevada’s children up to speed in a subject as fundamental as reading, but it will provide data to be used in value-added assessments of teachers. The Terra Nova test, which Nevada students take in the fourth, eighth, and tenth grades, is a norm reference test (NRT), and currently there is no statewide NRT or criterion reference test (CRT) for the lower grades. This is a problem because the inability of many students to read is not discovered until their first Terra Nova scores. By then, the child is often far behind the appropriate achievement level for the fourth grade. A viable solution to this problem, which some Nevada counties are already exploring, would be to administer a reading CRT to Nevada students in the first and second grades. Testing students earlier and more often will obtain a measure of their progress in attaining state standards, and also an indication of the efficacy of the teacher’s methods. Plus, teachers and parents will be alerted—before it is too late—to children who need extra help to achieve reading objectives. This same model could be applied to a variety of subjects, but reading must be targeted first, since it is fundamental to learning so many other subjects.
Luckily for Nevada, the tools and reforms needed to bring its education system up to par are already being used in other states. If Nevadans wish to settle for mediocre achievement results from the state’s government schools, then they need not take action. If Nevadans decide that mediocrity is not what they want, then concerned citizens must let state legislators, education administrators and teachers know that more is expected and new measures are called for. It’s time for accountability in Nevada’s government schools. It’s time to use market forces to boost educational quality in the Silver State. It’s time for assessment measures to ensure that Nevada’s kids are learning. In short, it’s time to make excellence the goal for education in Nevada.
Courtney Miller is a research associate with the Nevada Policy Research Institute. She can be contacted through NPRI’s website, www.npri.org.