Rotting from within
Another school year, another crisis
By Adam Pruzan
It’s time once more for Nevadans to ponder the deep and abiding problems of the Clark County School District (CCSD).
The Nevada Policy Research Institute proudly takes this opportunity to reissue Steven Miller’s engaging and detailed look at CCSD’s administrative failures, which include wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in recent years.
This is more than a local issue. CCSD is the largest employer and the largest governmental unit in the state: its problems affect all Nevadans.
And it’s more than just a “good government” issue. Taxpayers are used to government waste; we might even tolerate a certain amount of waste if CCSD did a great job.
Unfortunately, the district’s graduation rate and test scores rank near the bottom nationally. As Miller’s articles explain, CCSD’s excessive size and centralization cause both its mismanagement and its poor learning outcomes.
Our state’s leaders agree — sort of.
In 2015, Governor Sandoval signed into law the CCSD Reorganization Act. The law attempts to decentralize, giving principals more autonomy in instruction, staffing, and operations; it also gives parents a more direct voice in school management. Beginning this year, principals will create, present, and publish yearly operation plans. Each school will elect an “organization team” of teacher, staff, and parent representatives, to advise the principal on the operation plan. The team will give feedback on the principal’s performance to the school’s associate superintendent. When a new principal is needed, the team will participate in the hiring process.
The reason for the reform was simple: the status quo wasn’t working.
How We Got Here
The law is a baby step, falling far short of fixing the systemic failures Miller outlines in his articles.
As Miller makes clear, CCSD’s problems aren’t unique; they are just particular examples of a century-old curse: The Progressive Era belief in Government Bigness.
Progressives long fought for massive, centralized school systems — believing economies of scale would somehow promote both efficiency and quality. Expert administrators trained in scientific management techniques would run those systems, limiting the authority of elected trustees.
The reformed public schools, Progressives believed, would function like factories: mass-producing graduates the way Henry Ford mass-produced automobiles.
In most metropolitan areas, “Big School” came about by merging small, neighborhood-controlled districts into citywide ones; similar mergers took place in suburban areas.
Between 1930 and 2010, the U.S. lost 88% of its elected school boards, as 117,000 districts consolidated into around 13,000. Here in Clark County, bigness didn’t require consolidation. CCSD reached its present size through the sudden, explosive growth of the Las Vegas metropolitan area.
But what if bigger isn’t better?
What if, as recent experience suggests, the Progressives were simply wrong about learning, citizen leadership and the virtues of “experts?”
To fix our public schools, starting with CCSD, we need to reclaim the pre-Progressive understanding of those all those things.
Small Is Beautiful
Schools cannot function like factories. Every pupil is a unique human being, not a product. Meaningful learning starts with the relationship between a teacher and each individual pupil.
As Columbia University’s Jacques Barzun observed:
Teaching is not the application of a system, it is an exercise in perpetual discretion. One pupil, too timid, needs to be cheered along; another calmed down for the sake of concentration. Correcting faults and errors must take different forms (and words) in individual cases… Variety of tasks is indicated for some and steady plugging for others.
Good teaching therefore requires classes small enough for teachers to know each of their pupils well.
And teachers’ abilities, experience and temperaments vary as well. Teachers need supervision, support, and leadership. Thus, a school should be small enough for the principal to know every teacher well.
Likewise, good administration requires a district small enough for the superintendent to know every principal well.
Even more important, learning doesn’t happen in districts or in schools: it happens in classrooms. The state-mandated tests measure only part of that learning. Other reported data, such as attendance rates or discipline statistics, likewise cannot give a full picture of how things actually work in the classroom — the superintendent, and members of the school board, must see for themselves.
A district should be small enough for its leaders to visit most of its classrooms, on an informal basis, and actually understand what is happening within the system.
Such hands-on leadership may sound like a distant fantasy, but most districts ran that way just a few decades ago, and small districts do so even today.
In small districts, board candidates can mount credible campaigns with help only from family, friends, and neighbors.
Coming from the grassroots, trustees remain fully independent of district administrations. They receive plenty of timely, relevant, feedback directly from parents. And board members in small districts tend to have a wide range of livelihoods, giving them real breadth and depth of practical experience.
Small districts don’t often see a debacle like the one Miller describes in Part VI of his series where CCSD staffers signed multimillion dollar contracts without trustee review or approval.
The failed experiment Miller highlighted proved once more that CCSD’s excessive size invites over-reliance on “experts,” pushing out the common-sense oversight of trustees.
Effective oversight requires smaller districts and more trustees.
Compare CCSD with a jurisdiction of nearly equal size: King County, Washington. The two counties have similar populations, at roughly 2 million each. But Clark County has a single school district, with 7 trustees, while King County has 17 districts, with a total of 87 trustees.
That’s 12 times as many elected leaders providing oversight of the schools.
And size matters within King County as well. Its largest district, Seattle, lacks real oversight, since 5 of the 7 trustees are part of the professional education establishment.
In King County’s smaller districts, however, most trustees are citizen leaders, from a wide variety of fields. They have careers in medicine, aerospace, real estate, law, logistics, forest products, and e-commerce — a broad and representative cross-section of the Seattle area’s economy, as well as a formidable supply of general life experience.
Guess where the learning outcomes are best?
The CCSD board, by contrast, consists of two social workers, one educational psychologist (a 32-year employee of the district), a real estate broker, a technical writer, a travel agent, and a dental hygienist. These are women — and one man — of excellent character, and we should be grateful for their service.
We just need a lot more of them, with a wider range of experience.
Our public schools need trustees from the gaming and hospitality industries, law firms, hospitals, banks and insurance companies. Trustees should be from such mainstays of the Nevada economy as mining, transportation, retail, entertainment, construction and more.
The King County example suggests that if we had 87 trustees instead of 7, we would indeed benefit from that wider range of experience and increased citizen oversight.
Which points to the obvious solution: Break up CCSD into many smaller districts. A separate district for each high school would be even better, given the diversity of Clark County.
Doing so would mean a lot more school boards and a lot more elected trustees — which would in turn give each board a manageable district to oversee and reduce dependence on hired “experts.”
It would encourage informal give-and-take between trustees, administrators and parents, which would help leaders solve problems more quickly, less expensively and with far less bureaucratic waste and abuse.
A Half-Hearted Reform
The current CCSD reorganization is unlikely to accomplish much in the long run.
The new autonomy for principals might help, but the bureaucratic culture Miller writes about could defeat it in practice.
For example, principals will now have the authority to buy supplies and services directly, rather than going through the central office. If many of them take advantage of that freedom, will CCSD downsize the purchasing department, or will administrators use the situation as an opportunity for featherbedding?
Maybe administrators will simply find ways to pressure principals into maintaining the status quo.
And what about the organization teams? Will they provide real oversight of principals, as if they were school boards?
Except for their limited role in the hiring of new principals, the teams have no real authority — they are purely advisory. Half of the team members are teachers and support staff — people who work directly for the principal.
Subordinates cannot be expected to reliably provide honest on-the-record comments regarding their boss’s performance.
Furthermore, the system provides little accountability, since the team members serve only one-year terms. Even when a team’s recommendations are implemented, the members will often be gone by the time the results are known, creating an environment that is unlikely to hold itself accountable.
In short, the system provides political cover for principals, rather than genuine oversight of the system.
Public schools have been a crucial part of American life for almost four centuries. For most of that time, schooling was a bottom-up effort financed by the local citizens, and controlled by their elected representatives — not a top-down system run by “experts.”
The Legislature’s 2015 reform bill at least nods in the direction of local control and citizen input.
We should give it a chance to work.
If it fails meaningfully to improve things, however, we should be ready for the next, more decisive step: give up altogether on the failed Progressive idea of Bigness in education.
Whatever happens, NPRI will be watching, analyzing, and reporting.
Download the full report here.
Adam Pruzan moved to Las Vegas in 2012, to begin a second career as a high school teacher. He has helped open two successful charter schools where he taught history, literature, civics, geography and philosophy. Previously, he served as an officer in the US Navy before enjoying a 15-year career working for public policy organizations.