With new legislation affecting Nevada’s educational system, leaders in the industry are adjusting to new funding, accountability measures and changing demographics. All agree that new efforts must be put in place to raise awareness of the value of quality education, as well as the state’s academic improvements. Recently, these leaders met at the Las Vegas offices of City National Bank to discuss challenges to the industry and new opportunities.
Connie Brennan, publisher of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. These monthly meetings are designed to bring leaders together to discuss issues relevant to their industries. Following is a condensed version of the roundtable discussion.
How have shifting demographics affected the approach to education?
BART PATTERSON: We have to look at all of the segments of the population, whether they’re English language learners, English as a second language or coming from homes where English is not the primary language. Appealing to and understanding what we need to do in order for those populations to be successful in higher education is critical to the future of the economy here. Two-thirds of our kids are the first in their family to go to college. They’re coming in not knowing that they belong. As a school district, continuing to improve the quality of graduates that are coming to us is going to help.
SPENCER STEWART: Shifting demographics are a big challenge for us in Nevada, particularly Southern Nevada. I think that’s compounded by the rapid pace of technological change and figuring our how we really embed that skill set within the K-16 curriculum. I also think it’s, perhaps, changing the mindset a little bit to [help people understand that] education is not just a four-year exercise, but a life-long exercise.
PAT SKORKOWSKY: There are numerous challenges that we face when we look at K-12 education. It’s looking at the diverse learners that are coming into our system that has changed our system significantly, and making sure that we have qualified teachers to provide that education to our students.
What are the state’s expectations for education?
DAN KLAICH: The biggest challenge all of us face is a citizenry here in Nevada that is not as educated as it needs to be. We know that’s true for the jobs we have now and the jobs we’re going to try and create. We’ve got a very clear direction from the Governor and the Legislature as to what the economic development plan of the state is. It’s very focused and they expect us to be aligned with and contributing to that economic diversification. That means more Nevadans with certificates, associates degrees, bachelors degrees and graduate degrees. We have to change the culture here in Nevada to understand and appreciate that so we can help build what the Governor refers to as “The New Nevada”. All of us understood what this last legislative session was about. It was about revenue and K-12 initiatives.
SKORKOWSKY: There were significant changes made this legislative session about the commitment to education funding, specifically looking at projects that will move the state at a much higher level. There were 23 initiatives that came down this year. Those funding sources came down through very specific categorical funds to help support specific programs. These funds are specifically identified, and cannot be used for any other spending source. It’s an amazing opportunity for us to have a very quick infusion into our district with the funding. Our goal with this last legislative session was to change and shift the funding formula.
STEWART: I know “choice” is a loaded word, but I would say choice was a big part of the last legislative session. It represents several things, but one is a new partner at the table to enhance existing capacity within the higher education system. If you look across Nevada, you have over 300,000 Nevadans that have some college, but no degree. That really is our core mission. No one single institution can handle such a large segment. It is going to take everyone around this table to serve that particular segment of the population. I also think what happened in the last legislative session is a reflection that there are many segments that have to be addressed.
What specific improvements are needed?
PAUL GREEN: The one thing that stands out for me is preparing [K-12] students so they’re ready for higher education, helping them understand what it is and the expectations and demands that come from rigorous programs.
RENEE COFFMAN: Although I do see evidence of progressive improvement, from my perspective at a graduate-level institution, we need to continue to strengthen K-16 education. That’s our feeder. I would love to be more successful at recruiting Nevada natives into our programs. That goes into preparing the students in the K-16 corridor so they’re ready, willing and able to take on the challenges of a graduate level professional education.
SKORKOWSKI: In some situations, our senior year is a disservice to some of our students. If [seniors] have met their course requirements, then they’re allowed to actually have an early out on their senior year. Some students only take three classes, and the rest of the day is supposed to be about internships and work experience. What happens is, they often don’t take a mathematics class because they’ve met their math requirements. The amount of skills that are lost just by not practicing is immense. Then they go into a remediation course because they haven’t had to deal with mathematics since their junior year. I think the senior year has to be about remediation or acceleration, but not hibernation, which is what our students are doing. It’s time for our state to look at graduation requirements for seniors and revisit that.
What are the Bright Spots in education?
PAUL STOWELL: From a business perspective, how can we promote the good things that are going on? City National Bank has taken on a partnership with Clark County School District and our advisory board is fed up with all the negative things that are being said about education. You can see a lot of positive things happening, and it’s not getting out there to the general public. We’re taking on an initiative to try and change that mindset and help drive the positive messaging into the marketplace, not just in Nevada, but throughout the country. There are people who graduate from our high schools, go to college and come back or stay here and are very prominent within the business community, but that’s never talked about. Why not highlight that? We need to get the word out and attract more non-gaming related businesses to this state to diversify our economy to increase the tax base, so we can lift everyone up.
STOWELL: If you keep saying we’re 51st, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we just keep languishing at the bottom. A lot of it is mindset.
MARC JOHNSON: We suffer from the report of averages, but we have these highlights that you need to market. We have more national merit scholars and high-end scholars coming out of Nevada high schools than we’ve ever had before. We have these opportunities for talented students to excel and develop, but the averages don’t show it.
SKORKOWSKI: What gets reported when education ranking comes out ranks us 51st in the nation and success of a child in this state. When you look at the 13 factors that compile that number, that ranking, only six of them are education-related. The rest have to do with the community that are very difficult for me to control. I can’t control the poverty level in the home. I can’t control the language that’s spoken in the home. I can’t control the amount of college degrees that are given and earned in the state. When you take out all those seven factors, we’re actually ranked 36th in the nation. But again, that’s not ever said. It’s only the 51st number. I’m not happy with 36th, but if you look at the education factors that I personally can control as the Clark County School District superintendent, 36th is a far cry different than 51st.
Let’s Talk about Accountability.
KLAICH: In higher education, we’ve shifted to a performance-based formula. Maybe we’re the only agency in the state of Nevada that is funded on performance and that’s changing our culture and changing attitudes within the system in a way that I think is pretty critical to the state of Nevada. The legislature increased the credits that it would fund for a millennium scholarship from 12 credits to 15 credits. Why is that important? Because that’s a full load and we know that students that take a full load graduate.
JOHNSON: The entire Nevada System of Higher Education has really put a lot of focus in the last four years on identifying a mission, identifying metrics against the missions, then measuring them and holding the presidents accountable for achieving growth in those. We are now encouraged by the performance-based funding. We have skin in the game here. If we don’t meet the metrics that we’re held accountable for, we will actually lose money and make it even more difficult to reach those objectives.
STOWELL: In the business world, we’re all in favor of that, because that’s how we operate. It’s performance-based. I don’t see why education should be any different. It should be performance-based and there should be accountability.
SETH AHLBORN: When we’re talking about young children in school, they don’t all start at the same place. They all start with birth, but what happens after that is very, very different. The diversity and the differentiation that needs to happen in our schools is not something that a metric is necessarily going to help with in a short period of time. When I think about return on investment in elementary education, and even into high school getting kids ready, depending on their starting point, we need to be really thoughtful about where the starting point is. There needs to be pronounced different metrics along the way, based on where they start. It’s one of the big challenges that we have. Thirty percent of kids need some kind of remediation coming into college. We have to be thoughtful about where they start and how quickly we can get them where they go. I appreciate what you’re saying as far as the monies that are available, but sometimes the metrics that are put there and comparing us to everybody across the country. We’re comparing our public school system in Nevada across the country; we don’t have much control over a lot of that.
COFFMAN: You’re bringing up a very good point about metrics. The one thing I think is a little challenging are accrediting agencies. We hire full-time people just to do those statistics for the accrediting agencies and it’s almost become ridiculous in terms of the amount that colleges and universities are spending just on that data. A lot of it is very discreet data. A lot of it is input-based. The challenge, really, is to find those metrics that measure the quality of the output. The challenge is the quality metric and how do you measure that? In business, you’ve got profit and loss. That’s a really easy thing to wrap your head around. Education is a little more subtle and a little more complex to get that quality metric and measuring that output and final product.
How can collaboration help our state?
COFFMAN: There could be some great opportunities to collaborate with the institutions of higher education in the state to create some unique programs. It’s very important for Nevada to think outside of the box and be innovative because we have limited resources. We’re now starting to get private K-12 education systems that could compliment and work with the state institutions to do some really cool things.
KLAICH: There was a long time in the state where we really failed to understand that our most natural partners were businesses. I remember going to meetings of the Chamber’s education committee that were very contentious, almost adversarial. That just should not be the relationship. Over this decade, we’ve come together understanding how important we are to each other. I think that bodes well for the future. Just look at this kind of roundtable.
GREEN: We’re in a transformation from a college operating model to help support the community needs. Are the programs and the college of social sciences or the college of business meeting the needs and demands in the community? Although enrollments have fluctuated somewhat, we’re setting ourselves up to have this strong foundation where we can come in and partner with the healthcare institute or the hospitals around and have those programs that they need to help support our community. The important groundwork that we’re doing right now will set us up for future success in how we can compliment what’s happening educationally.
JOHNSON: We have been talking about dual registration between the high schools and universities or community colleges. I think if we would really, earnestly work on the connections between higher education and K-12 education, we could find the institutional mechanisms so the students could start getting college credits at the end of their senior year.
What’s the relationship between economic development and education?
AHLBORN: We’re very interested in the economic development of the area and being an alternative rigorous program for students with families who are bringing their business, C-level folks, to the area.
JOHNSON: The biggest challenge is investing in the infrastructure from preschool through higher education in order to make these students more successful. In terms of economic development, education is fundamental to preparing an educated workforce for this diversifying industry that we have in this state. We’re not going to capture these opportunities without investment. Investing in the personnel and the physical infrastructure in this state will be critical.
STEWART: In terms of businesses looking to relocate, they’re going to do their due diligence and look at the entire pipeline, not just one segment. Looking at our August and September enrollments, we’re about 100 percent over what we initially projected, which was somewhat aggressive to begin with. That is a reflection that there is a demand for higher education in this state. It’s about thinking how we deliver that in a very innovative fashion.
GREEN: It takes everybody to build and strengthen the community. We need [a community that] will help support the intellectual capital that is needed to bring in new business. We absolutely need that from all fronts to help that support system.