We pour far more money per student into the public schools than our grandparents did — even corrected for inflation.
A small number of bright, hard-working kids, encouraged by parents who put an emphasis on achievement, continue to do well.
Our trade and career high schools are often another bright spot.
But at most government-run Las Vegas schools, as in most of urban America, results range from mildly disappointing to deplorable. Too many high-school kids can’t read at anything beyond a fourth or fifth grade level. They can’t count change; they can’t spell; they can’t file things in alphabetical order. You don’t need an advanced degree to figure out such kids aren’t ever likely to master chemistry, trigonometry, or the finer points of American history.
And we wonder why our political debates degenerate into feel-good sound bites?
Any good manager knows that before you can draft a solution, you need good measurement tools to figure out where things are going wrong. Given how easily classroom grades can be inflated, that means standardized testing.
School reformers often talk of “raising the bar.” It’s a metaphor borrowed from track & field. Give the young high-jumper confidence by showing him or her how to get over a five-foot bar. Then work on technique and strength training till the athlete can jump the six-foot bar. Keep raising it.
That was the idea behind the federal education reform called “No Child Left Behind.”
When the program first went into effect, the bar was low: Only one third of elementary kids needed to score at grade level in math for a school to “meet standards” in 2002-03. But then the bar was raised: Requirements gradually increased, until the standards call for 100 percent of students to demonstrate proficiency in math, reading and English by 2013-14.
It didn’t work. Remember that part that says “Work on technique and strength training”? Who exactly was going to do that part?
Without that — if you don’t do anything but raise the bar — eventually you reach the point where most of the kids just knock down the bar. At that point, you’ve established what? The point at which kids without any change in tutoring procedures will knock down the bar — a piece of information you already had, 10 years ago.
After a decade of easy stuff, “No Child Left Behind” was finally supposed to start paying off next year. And like the football coach who starts a five-year re-building program and delivers nothing but four losing seasons, the program has now packed its van and is on its way out of town.
Less than a third of Clark County schools made the grade under No Child Left Behind in the 2011-12 academic year, marking a new low for the country’s fifth-largest district.
Because the standards were raised every year, results simply got worse every year.
In 2008-09, 190 schools passed No Child Left Behind. It was 151 schools the next year, then 139 schools. Now, 118 out of 385 schools, including charters, “made it over the federal bar.”
“For that reason, it’s not a surprise,” says School Board President Linda Young, who ranks academic achievement well down her lists of what schools are supposed to accomplish, anyway.
(The requirement that 100 percent of students demonstrate proficiency in math, reading and English? No school can achieve that, says Ms. Young, a former school psychologist, Director of Special Education, and Director of Equity and Diversity Education who told me in her first school board endorsement interview here at the paper, a few years back, that “making sure a child is well clothed, well-fed, and knows he’s loved” are three more important tasks for the schools than “academic achievement.” Another former teacher, now running for the state Board of Education, told us last week that Clark County schools with high ratios of poor students have now instituted what she called “wraparound social services,” including not only free food and free haircuts, but also free Christmas presents. She believes those services should be retained.)
At ant rate, our educrats have now come up with a whole new way to measure student achievement in Nevada.
Starting this school year, Nevada and 32 other states have been issued a waiver from those “can’t-be-met” federal standards, and will instead grade schools using their own systems approved by the U.S. Department of Education.
Nevada’s new requirements use a 100-point “index” system for measuring student performance, and will award schools with one to five stars — a scheme the Clark County School District initiated last school year.
The 100-point index will be based on students’ academic growth (If your ninth grader was reading at a third grade level, and by tenth grade he’s reading at a fifth grade level, everybody gets a prize); number of students achieving at grade level; reductions in gaps between commonly struggling students (including those living in poverty and those who speak English as a second language), and “student engagement.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls the waiver “a big step in the right direction” for Nevada in implementing more rigorous standards.
Really. He really said that a system that awards points for “student engagement” is “more rigorous.”
The new system does parallel No Child Left Behind in one way: The state has “set a new bar” that requires the percentage of students with grade-level skills to increase from 50 percent to 90 percent by the 2016-17 school year. To get there, it has adopted a new curriculum, called “Common Core Standards,” used by all but a few states.
That means Nevada will abandon its current standardized tests — the primary indicator in No Child Left Behind — for new tests based on the Common Core Standards, tests to be “piloted” in 2013-14 and implemented in 2014-2015.
Whoopee! Another “new curriculum”! How many is this, since we started replacing the old 1930s and 1940s curriculum that made ours one of the best school systems in the world?
The process was certainly well underway by the time I was in the 10th Grade, back in the 1960s. Parents who would have known instantly whether their kids were as far along as they ought to be in classes with names like “trigonometry” were suddenly told, “No, no, Junior is now taking something called ‘Math IV’ or ‘Math V.’” You think that sudden wall of opacity, that generational disconnect, was a coincidence? How about dropping all ancient and modern foreign language instruction, about a decade later? Designed to make our graduates more competitive in the world market?
At any rate, Nevada parents may now wait at least two-and-a-half more years before hoping for a fresh report on what’s being accomplished with their tax money … and the innocent cannon fodder they entrust to the school bus each morning.
In the meantime, we’re supposed to believe that — the old 12-year “No Child” plan having been scrapped because after 10 years everyone can see it’s accomplished virtually nothing — the BRAND NEW plan will SURELY result in an 80 percent improvement in kids meeting the pathetically watered-down standard described as “grade-level performance” … in just five-and-a-half years.
Now, the bonus question: If the results of this latest “impose a new set of tests and standards, that’ll fix it!” shell game are supposed to be seen by the spring of 2017, what is the year by which we can expect current Clark County School Superintendent Dwight Jones and current Clark County School Board President Linda Young to have “moved on,” for all the world like the Duke and the Dauphin slipping out of town just before curtain time for their third night’s performance?
I’m going to set the morning line for the summer of 2016. This being Las Vegas, you may of course bet the “over” or the “under.” Choose correctly, and you, too, may end up hiring or supporting a “high school graduate” who can’t count change, spell, or file things in alphabetical order.
All at a cost to you, the taxpayer, of a mere $145,000 over 12 years — more than you’d pay in tuition at many a private school. (http://www.npri.org/publications/confusion-is-the-plan)