It’s been eight years since the Nevada Legislature passed what was hailed as “historic” education reform legislation aimed at getting students better educated during their 12-year stay in public schools. And lawmakers in Carson City are still asking what can be done to make our schools better and turn our slow progress into real academic gains for students and the businesses who will employ them one day.
First, let’s consider the good news of the past eight years.
Nevada has a statewide code of academic standards to create consistency in the curriculum and ensure that all students are being taught all of the material as required.
Efforts to provide teachers the training and support they need to succeed in the classroom have gained some funding.
School districts have brought their curriculum and teacher training efforts in line with state standards and now the goals outlined in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Clark and Washoe counties have taken steps to go beyond the minimum standard, requiring students to take higher-level math as a condition of graduation.
At the same time, however, dropouts continue to be a problem as districts struggle to provide options for non-college bound students. And for those who do go on to college, a greater number are in need of remedial math and English courses to make them college ready.
Nevada lawmakers through the 1997 legislation put the pieces in place to provide a top quality education to students. Our state has set the standard and mandated everyone meet it. So what’s the problem?
Our state’s stalled progress in education reform is the result of our failure to reach a critical realization. Attempting a new approach in the same old structure and environment is a recipe for failure. If we are going to ask schools, teachers, students and parents to do more and do it better than before, we have to make some changes in how we operate our schools.
First, we must consider lengthening the school year. Visit www.doe.nv.gov and click on the Standards link. This will take you to the academic standards list for all students in grades kindergarten through 12 including English, math, science, arts, computer education, health, social studies, physical education and foreign language.
Take a few minutes and read through the standards. And then ask yourself how a teacher can properly cover all of this material in depth within the framework of a 180-day school year where the average school day is from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. While the school year should probably be lengthened by several weeks, even a few more days would result in higher achievement.
Second, we need to review the school calendar. While many of our schools have gone year-round to deal with overcrowding, there are academic benefits to be had from year-round schools. Though parents often resist the idea at first, many find that shorter breaks throughout the year result in better comprehension and retention than one long break during the summer.
Finally, we have to look at teachers. We must look at ways to get the best minds teaching in our classrooms and key among that is salary. What motivation does a mathematician have to teach when the private sector pays two or three times as much? The value our society places on the work you do is reflected in your paycheck. If we are going to continue to undervalue teachers, we’re going to continue to pay the price in less than desired outcomes.
There are many educators in our state doing an outstanding job under difficult circumstances, and the reforms begun eight years ago have resulted in change for the better. But for everyone to get to where we want to be, more drastic changes are needed. Hopefully, the Nevada Legislature is ready to take those daring steps.