Industry Focus: Education

The Nevada education system has overcome a multitude of hurdles in recent years. Even so, the system still has a long way to go.

Left to right: Elaine Wynn, Nevada State Board of EducationKevin Page, Nevada System of Higher Education Board of RegentsDr. Michael Harter, Touro UniversityDan Klaich, Nevada System of Higher EducationSusan Waters, Beacon Academy of NevadaDr. Michael Richards, College of Southern NevadaJudith Steele, The Public Education FoundationTom Skancke, Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance; Stephanie Stallworth, Cox CommunicationsRenee Coffman, Roseman UniversitySteve Buuck, Faith LutheranJulie Williamson, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical UniversitySteve Hill, Governor’s Office of Economic DevelopmentLori Bryant, DeVry UniversityPat Skorkowsky, Clark County School DistrictGeoffrey Lawrence, Nevada Policy Research InstitutePedro Martinez, Washoe County School DistrictDal Sohi, Alexander Dawson School

From kindergarten to college graduation, Nevada’s education system has overcome a multitude of hurdles in recent years. Even so, the system still has a long way to go. Coming together to discuss issues Nevada faces in regards to education, a combination of business leaders, economic development resources and leaders in education recently met at the Las Vegas offices of Cox Communications. Connie Brennan, publisher and CEO of Nevada Business Magazine served as moderator for the event. These monthly roundtables are designed to bring together leaders to discuss issues relevant to their industries. Following is a condensed version of the roundtable discussion.

What challenges does education face?

Pedro Martinez: The biggest issue we face as a state is changing our results, changing our data. Everyone knows what our data looks like and I think it shows up the same in K-12 and higher education. It’s really changing our data statewide and boosting graduation rates and having children learn more.

Judith Steele: From my point of view, the biggest challenge in the state is execution. We have great ideas; we have great talent. It’s taking ideas and scaling them up across systems [and showing] that we have these pockets of excellence across the state. It’s how you execute something to another level and scale it up so it’s sustainable.

Susan Waters: Our greatest challenge is to improve the data and improve the results. From my standpoint in dealing with many of the students that we have, which are very much high risk and at risk, that one of the many missing pieces to this puzzle is a strong connection between community business and education, whether it’s public or private education. Just looking at some of the results that came out recently from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, in terms of the stats for Nevada, they are very telling. We can look long and hard at the results or lack of results in many ways in our public education system but I think what’s missing for us is to look beyond those results to the fundamental reasons that may be impacting that achievement or lack of achievement. That’s critical for us as we move forward.

Renee Coffman: We would like to see more Nevada-based feeders coming into our programs. Our programs are all, with the exception of one, at the Masters level or the professional doctoral level. Unfortunately we don’t see a whole lot of candidates prepared to go in at that level and bring into our programs in the health sciences.

Julie Williamson: We serve a majority of military population but I would echo the same thing in that it’s difficult finding qualified applicants, specifically in science, math and technology. Their skills are extremely weak. We’ve had to, I hate to use the word “dumb” down the courses but start at lower level mathematic courses than we’ve had to in the past and we’re seeing that trend. Probably what we need to do collaboratively in Las Vegas is begin to support each other and support undergraduate, lower-level initiatives to help funnel them through and bring them up to the standards that we need them at the college level.

Steve Buuck: Data, execution, accountability – certainly statewide: those would be the key issues. Selfishly, from Faith Lutheran’s standpoint, it’s finances. We’re the largest private school in Nevada with 1,466 kids but we have a master plan to grow to 2,700 kids. The delicate balance is how much to charge. You want to be affordable for all of God’s kids.

Dan Klaich: It’s pretty clear that one of the greatest needs in the state is for a more highly educated populous whether they’re at the professional level or certificate levels. That’s kind of a given. We need to create a culture that values education in this state. That is, by and large, sorely missing. And we’ve got to address the adequacy issue of funding education in this state. I do not believe – and I’ll only speak for higher education – that we’re adequately funded to do the job that we’re expected to do and, as a state, we’re going to have to face up to that.

Dal Sohi: When we talk about improving education, we’re really talking about improving the ability of the teachers. They’re standing in front of those kids every day; they need to be able to deliver what those kids need. The biggest challenge that exists for us is to continue supporting and growing the teachers that are in front of the kids every day. When you talk about things that you bring into your school only two things appreciate in value: the teachers and the students. Our challenge, whether you’re in a public environment or independent environment, is to grow those individuals as teachers.

Lori Bryant: There seems to be an overwhelming fear of teachers – that they’re not empowered, that “No Child Left Behind” has been taken too far or perhaps misinterpreted in that when a child is not ready to move on [the teacher’s] hands are tied and they’re moved on anyway. That’s what’s leading to this issue so we need to look a little bit deeper about empowering our teachers to be able to make these choices based on results. You talk about accountability but if you tie their hands you’re not empowering them to be accountable.

Pat Skorkowsky: There are several issues. Achievement overall is an issue. We have to increase our achievement. I agree with Superintendent Martinez; he and I are very much aligned in our thinking in that things need to be changed. The second [issue] is, we have to look at the people that we hire. The community, and the system itself, does not always attract the best and brightest. That’s a challenge for me, especially when I’m hiring 1,900 teachers a year. The third is results. We have to look at the ROI of the programs currently in place to see if they’re working efficiently. If they’re not, then we need to change something. We need to look at educational opportunity, and all means all – not just by zip code. That means every student in every classroom. Two more pieces we really need to focus in on are the opportunity for innovation and having the freedom for schools and teachers to take that next step to get to better results. Funding is a piece we’re not going to be able to challenge much and change. The last piece is parent engagement. [We need to] get our parents involved in their own child’s education so that it is not just the school that’s responsible for that child. So [the parents] don’t just drop them off at school and expect that we do everything; it is a partnership. Those are our challenges.

Klaich: We haven’t addressed English language learners at all. If we talk about the challenges that we all face in higher education, that’s a huge problem that we’ve got to deal with. And it’s great opportunity for this state.

Elaine Wynn: The biggest challenge for me is, how to stop the drop in American education? Your math teacher was right – algebra matters, common core standards are vital, too. Let’s raise the bar in American schools. Nevada is a common core standard state. If I were to go to any meeting with friends of mine and business people and say, please raise your hand if you know what common core standards are, I promise you maybe one in 10 would. This is our challenge, as always: communicating the new super-imposed model that we hope will bring us all to the hallowed ground. For me, that’s what keeps me up at night, how are we going to be able to communicate this extraordinary work that’s going on now as a result of over a decade of work by states across the country, including us, to do what we want, which is to improve student achievement.

Michael Harter: My world is primarily healthcare and medicine and the challenge always has been to graduate a sufficient number of healthcare professionals who accommodate the needs of our community. We are facing a tremendous challenge beyond the normal challenges we’ve had in producing healthcare professionals. Currently we rank 46th in terms of physicians per 100,000 population. Probably a statistic most of you have experienced if not heard. What has happened is the majority of our Touro graduates and the majority of the Reno graduates have left the state for their residency programs. About 70 percent of physicians practice in the state where they do their residency. We’re encouraging hospitals, we’ve talked to the county commissioners and we’ve talked to legislators about increasing the number of residency programs in the state in order to address the horrific shortage that we have now, but we’re going to be facing in greater detail later on.

How big of an issue is accountability?

Geoffrey Lawrence: We need an increase in accountability at the school level, teacher level and the student level. One of the philosophies we have is that public education is very important, but there are many different delivery vehicles we can choose for it. Having a monopoly on education is just one of those vehicles. Some of the most progressive nations in the world have a kind of organic splinter system that works. We may have a universal voucher system, for instance. We think that could add a lot of value to Nevada. We think that teachers need increased accountability and that could be achieved through a longitudinal data tracking system for students so we can see which teachers are the most effective and reward them significantly so they stay in the system. Create an incentive for other talented professionals to enter the classroom as well. For those teachers that aren’t doing well, we can identify who they are and give them the help they need to improve or, if they just don’t have the talent, there’s no reason to penalize our children by keeping them in the classroom. Teachers that are failing need to be shown the door.

Wynn: Everybody is now wanting accountability and, despite the challenge of that, there is a fairness issue as well. We understand that in view of this public/private trust issue, if we don’t make our communities aware and sensitive to the business of education we will have a system where we come up with a variety of wonderful ideas but never have total buy-in. Hopefully, to that end, [the goal is] to create this culture that will value education. We know that resources are difficult – they’re not only difficult here, they’re difficult everywhere. That’s an ongoing, moving target which requires greater efficiency, and that’s a constant given that we have. When our teachers get paid more and it becomes more competitive we’ll get perhaps better teachers. This is not to say that we don’t have magnificent teachers as a part of the workforce who have taken the vow of poverty and they show up because their hearts are so big. And, the parents, naturally, have the single most important role to play because they are the ultimate people who hold us all accountable.

Is increased funding a possibility?

Kevin Page: Unfortunately, the reality is, we’re not going to have increased funding. It’s going to be a new day and it’d be nice to get it but I think we’re going to have to do more with less. When people come from outside Nevada, the reputation is that we don’t care about education. But, I think, when they get here they realize people in education really care about it. We need more outreach to the business community and we’re doing a lot of things much better than people think. We have an inferiority complex and, if you give us time things will be much better.

Mike Richards: Our obligation is to work past resources because the resources we have will be the resources we have. We’ve got to reach out more to the community, to the business and industry and to the school district, one of our close partners. [We need to] create the workforce that Southern Nevada needs for the future and that’s our primary obligation and challenge.

How is economic development impacted by education?

Steve Hill: There needs to be a diverse set of job opportunities for the graduates of all these programs whether that’s at the high school level or the community college level or a private institution or an advanced degree. The community has always provided that and often the education system is a reflection of what the community needs. That’s changing. The gaming industry has led the economy, particularly in Southern Nevada, for a long time. It will continue to be the biggest part of our economy but our growth needs to come in a more diverse way. We concentrate on providing those opportunities or helping to provide those opportunities for graduates; give them something that they can look at for the work that they have to do.

Tom Skancke: I’ve been in this position for 11 and a half months, I’ve lived in this community for 25 years. Every meeting I go to people look at me and they say what are you going to about education and I say I’m in the economic development business. They say well what’re you going to do about education, and I say I’m in the economic development business. Then, after I play that game for about 20 minutes and I realize that I’m losing, I just say I don’t know. Here’s what I do know: this community is starving for leadership in this arena. If we’re going to attract new businesses and continue to expand our economy and attract new industries from around the world, the biggest issue we run into here is K-12 and higher education. That’s not just funding, that’s coordination, cooperation and identifying these problems. We, in many cases, don’t have an educated workforce for those types of business that we are trying to attract. We can find them, but it takes time.

Wynn: The interesting news is that if we were in New Jersey or Arizona or Texas, the same roundtable discussion would be occurring. These things are not unique. What is interesting to observe is that the focus now on education has broadened to where we discuss things from cradle to career. A lot of the things that have been mentioned today cover the span of lifetimes, and we’re very mindful of that. Most of you know we’ve been engaged in our own education reform. It’s resulted in a lot of legislative activity in the last two sessions that have adjusted the governance and expectations. Naturally, the whole key to everything we do is to increase student achievement. And we want to do it with an execution that has equity and is fair. These can certainly and should include elements of choice, because portfolios and a market driven economy are always preferable to single methodology.