Improving education in the Silver State has long been a priority for Nevadans. Recently, leaders in education met at the Las Vegas office of City National Bank to discuss opportunities on the horizon to elevate Nevada’s education rankings.
Connie Brennan, CEO, and 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.
What are some challenges facing education?
BART PATTERSON: The biggest challenge in improving the education system is continuing to increase the number and quality of teachers that are available to the K-12 system. That’s the number one focus of Nevada State College and it will be during my remaining tenure. We intend to work with the K-12 system, particularly the Clark County School District (CCSD), but also with public charters. We’re reaching down into the school districts and early identifying the student who wants to go into education and identifying duel credit opportunities in teaching education, mentoring and scholarship opportunities.
MAHEBA MERHI: That is our focus here, as well, is preparing an increasing qualified educator for the Nevada school system, namely Clark County School District. We’ve got a partnership with them currently where we’re doing accelerated pathways for Bachelors degree for licensure for the support staff, growing their own people and helping them increase stability within the school district with people that want to stay and have roots in Nevada that will contribute to the success of their future.
STEVEN BUUCK: I’m haunted by a quote I heard that says, “We need to prepare students for their future, not our past.” That requires a lot of paradigms shifting in my own mind of how we deliver both the technology that we allow in our school to the types of classes we have. We have all read that 70 percent of the jobs, 20 years from now, haven’t even been invented yet. Numbers like that cause me to think about what we offer kids to make sure they’re prepared to get into good schools.
CEDRIC CREAR: We don’t seem to be preparing our kids to go into higher education. We have so much remediation that seems to happen and it starts in third, fourth and fifth grade. I was volunteering at a school reading to fifth graders and they couldn’t spell. I was just so heartbroken to see that kids couldn’t spell some basic things. That’s a challenge that seems to continue to spiral into the eleventh or twelfth grade, then we get them at the higher education level.
SPENCER STEWART: We’ve seen some statistics coming out in terms of how K-12 is doing as a whole and standardized scores. Something that just came out was ACT scores. Of the 17 states that do ACT testing, Nevada was at the bottom. Making sure that we have a sufficiently educated pipeline is a challenge but certainly, a lot of opportunities come with that.
Why is there a shortage of teachers in Nevada?
CREAR: Why are we scrambling every year to find teachers? It goes back to what’s the root of the issue. Is it salary? Is it wages? Is it the quality of living? I think this is a great state. Why do people not want to come? We need to do a better job of highlighting the importance of teachers as a society and making it more of an industry. We should celebrate teachers and celebrate education.
CAROLA WITTMANN: When I listen to graduates or sophomores in college, they say they’re passionate and they want to be educators. At the same time, they appear to be extremely daunted by the cost of the education they’re currently incurring combined with what they perceive to be a very low ROI (return on investment).
KEVIN CARMAN: I’d say the additional element is pressure from family. They want them to go into business or engineering and medicine and law. There’s a lot of pressure from family not to go into teaching.
WITTMANN: I agree. I was head of a high school before I came to Dawson and I heard that over and over. [They said,] “My parents won’t pay for university or college if I pursue education.”
MERHI: I think for qualified teachers, they’re underpaid. Even if they’re licensed, they’re not being compensated on a level that’s significant enough to encourage others to become qualified teachers. I know in CCSD, they’re allowing anyone with 60 units to do “emergency” teaching, so to speak, [while they] work on their degree or their license. I just don’t know that there’s a big enough gap [in pay] to give them the incentive to do it fast enough. A lot of them are staying on the emergency license in teaching as long as they can before they become fully licensed. There needs to be more incentive for fully licensed, qualified, vetted and committed teachers.
PAUL STOWELL: There’s a lot of teachers out there right now that are living below the poverty line. I think that goes back to a cultural issue. We place more emphasis on sports, celebrities, and entertainers. How do we change the mindset of society to place a greater emphasis on teachers? They are teaching our next generation who’s going to be leading this country, yet we don’t place emphasis upon that.
CARMAN: I would go beyond that. [Teachers] get beaten up on a regular basis. It’s not just a matter of not celebrating them. On a daily basis, it’s the failure of K-12 and it goes on the shoulders of the teachers. They’re being interpreted like they’re being a failure and they get demoralized. You have low pay, increasing class sizes and the media thinks it is your fault.
RAY ALDEN: In my previous institution, I did a lot of international relations. Asia, whether it’s China, India, Malaysia or Thailand, they’re investing heavily in education. They honor their teachers. They pay them well. They’re duplicating what we did during the Sputnik generation. Our school system, K-20, is what made us what we are today and yet we’re backing off on that model whereas the rest of the world is embracing it and doing it far more than we are.
How is business helping education?
STEWART: Despite some of the recent rankings, Nevada is moving in the right direction. I’m starting to see this great hand-in-hand relationship between the business community and the education community. Both parties are beginning to understand the challenges and opportunities that the other one faces. It has to be this way because we are now at a time where the state, the world, is in flux. This coming together of the business community and the education community is setting expectations for educators, for administrators, and for students as well.
STOWELL: I can tell you from the corporate side, in my 32-year career from the banks that I’ve worked for, the number one contribution is education. City National works with Nevada Succeeds. We work with Be Engaged. We work with Communities in Schools. We contribute to all these organizations. We hear that we are making strides, yet I hear the same problems year after year. Why aren’t we making a dent when there are millions of dollars going into the educational system?
PATTERSON: We actually are making a dent, but other states are too. One of the things you’ve got to do is stop looking at national rankings that compare states against states and look at whether we’re improving graduation rates and test scores. We may be the lowest, but are we improving? Kids that are coming into Nevada State College are better prepared now than they were five years ago, so we see the marked improvement in student performance. We know Clark County School District is doing a better job because most of our students are coming from CCSD. I agree that there is frustration, but the fact that companies are doing this across the nation is very salutary.
How can resources for education be Better utilized?
CARMAN: We spend a lot of money investing in teacher education and then they go out and teach for a year or two and get disillusioned. That’s a very expensive prospect for the state and not good for our children. In addition to that, we aspire to promote our higher education system. From my perspective, we have an emphasis on being a top-rated research university. Our challenge is to achieve that objective while doing all of these other things with limited resources.
ALDEN: We’re still the second fastest growing state in the country. Many parts of the country are losing students and their demographics are going down. We’re still building one school a month from what I understand. Trying to find new teachers all the time sometimes trumps trying to build in the quality programs for the existing teachers. We deal with teachers all the time that want to be endorsed in certain areas, but that’s an investment that sometimes is seen as a luxury.
RENEE COFFMAN: We all want to do more. We all want to make things better, but that’s contingent on resources and how resources are allocated. That can be a challenge, certainly on the public side, the ability to go to the legislature and get the funding that you need every other year is a challenge. On the private side, when you’re mission driven like we are, it’s difficult to continue to raise tuition but you still need to do more. [Added to that is] the overlay of additional government requirements and having to comply with new and expanding types of services for students. It’s very challenging with all of those factors hinging together.
How do regulations affect education?
COFFMAN: Education is one of the most highly regulated industries. Because of that, there are challenges for innovation. Western Governors [University] has a very unique model. Roseman has a very unique education model. When you try to put that in the system the federal government has set up, there are challenges because it looks different. If you allow people to innovate more within the educational space like they innovate in the business space, that would be really helpful because you could find some efficiencies. When you’re in this structural paradigm, it becomes difficult to change because of impacts from the federal government, state government or the accreditation system.
CREAR: I think a lot of it falls on politics. Issues become political. They become partisan and our students are sometimes used as pawns in the game of politics, unfortunately. It would be great if we had a general consensus of saying, “Look, we need to make an investment.” Money is not the problem, but we’ve seen what money does when it’s not there. A lot of the professors left the state because we did not renew contracts or we had furloughs in place in terms of salaries and wages.
What is the outlook for Nevada’s students?
PATTERSON: I’m optimistic because we have about a 70 percent increase in freshman from last year. That’s just unheard of. They want an education and see the value of education.
WITTMANN: I see a tremendous resilience and an ability to take risks, ask hard questions and think out of the box. All of us in the room had calm waters; we could somewhat predict the outcome or identify the purpose of where we were heading. Our kids don’t have that. They have rapids. They have twists and turns and debris in the way and they’re excited about it. Their resilience and knowing what to do and where to find the answers is what will drive them forward.
BUUCK: I’m hugely optimistic about this generation. If you could see the schedules these kids juggle, the academic schedule, then they’re going to football practice and starting their own not-for-profits serving in third-world countries over spring break. This generation is creative. They’re energetic. They’re passionate. I see a group of kids and I’m excited for their future and the future of Nevada.