Education has long been a hot-button issue in Nevada, oftentimes because of a negative perception. Recently, executives representing education in Nevada met at the Las Vegas office of City National Bank to discuss this perception, the challenges the state faces and solutions moving forward.
Connie Brennan, publisher and CEO of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. The magazine’s monthly roundtables bring together leaders to discuss issues relevant to their industries.
Does Nevada’s ranking tell the whole story of education?
Renee Coffman: Having a number is an easy thing to rely on. The problem is the metrics, to some degree. And, I’ll give you one example. One of the reasons that Nevada looks bad, sometimes, is with our ACT scores. We’re a state where every junior has to take the ACT. We’re putting those numbers up against states where only those that are college bound take the ACT. You’ve got a denominator that’s all versus a denominator that is constrained to those students that are already college bound. But everybody wants [those numbers]. That’s the easy news bite and it’s something you can grab on to. We have to do a little bit better job educating people on what those numbers actually mean. And, do more to celebrate the successes so people are aware of those successes.
Maheba Merhi: Nevada is also a very transient state. We don’t have the homegrown educational system for a stable market, so to speak. As it fluctuates, the districts then make the adjustments they need to make. With that it’s very difficult to maintain even classroom continuity. So, Nevada is a different type of state to look at those metrics. Sometimes, if the student has to take the ACT and they’re counted as a Nevada student, they may have come mid-year. We don’t know where they’ve come from. They’re not necessarily a product of Nevada schools, but they count as the one in everyone who has to take that exam. That’s a factor that we need to look at as well.
Frederico Zaragoza: There are some pockets of excellence and I think the data sometimes might hype that. On the other hand, there are places and schools that need a lot more resources than we’re willing to invest as a community. These are those pockets of poverty. People that live in those communities, their educational challenges are different, and the solutions are different than when you’re looking at averages. The problem with data is it tends to be norm-based and the two extremes, the really good stuff and the really bad stuff, tend to go away.
Paul Stowell: I don’t think the numbers accurately portray what’s going on in this state. We’re heavily involved in education. I see what’s going on in this state from an educational standpoint with programs. I see at-risk type schools that are succeeding beyond what the numbers are portraying and I see there are some bright spots and success stories out there that never get told, never get reported. I wonder how those are factoring into the numbers. Why do we continually rank at the bottom? We see the numbers going up and we’re going in the right direction but there’s a disconnect with what’s really going on in the community and what the numbers are portraying. Businesses look at those metrics and then say, “I’m not going to relocate a regional center or a headquarter to Nevada because we can’t get the staff and the employees we need because Nevada is not producing the best and the brightest.” That’s not true, we are producing the best and the brightest.
Is more funding the answer to education?
Zaragoza: I think it’s part of the answer; I don’t know that it’s the total answer. The populations that we deal with, oftentimes, have more than just academic barriers. To be successful with students, you’ve got to provide wraparound services, you’ve got to be looking at them holistically. To only look at the classroom as a single variable for student’s success, is not consistent with the literature that shows what’s needed for success, especially for non-traditional populations. P-16 alignment starts very early on in the process. Even in the high school years, I think you’re very limited in what you can do so if you’re investing only at that level, I don’t know that’s the most efficient investment. There are a lot of communities now that are investing in pre-K, they’re investing in the developmental phase. So, money is part of the equation but how you invest it and the game plan is truly important. We do have to understand that, in some cases, money is not the answer but, it’s certainly a variable.
Steve Buuck: Education has two components. [The first is] the kid and their willingness to learn, their ability, want, drive and their care from home. Then also, there’s the mentor, an adult in his or her life that is going to pledge to make a difference in that kid’s life. There is a human component. I realize you have to pay for that stuff; the majority of our budget goes to human resources. I understand that. And yes, there are great people volunteering their time and investing in the life of one kid and that kid is learning a ton from that person. So, it would be foolish to say that funding solves all the issues.
What is the community’s role in education?
Stowell: It’s the community that has to invest. Money isn’t everything, it’s important. But, I believe we should focus more on the best practices and the successes we’re having. It goes back to parent engagement and involvement, student involvement. There are so many facets of how we can, as a community, raise our kids to be productive citizens to take over our positions when we retire. There are great needs and challenges and we’ve got to bring the community and parents back to the table to further this discussion and not let it be had in the political realm.
Coffman: I also think it is having a more cohesive discussion about education from a statewide perspective where you’re bringing all of the entities together. We work in silos and I think we could leverage a lot of collaborative and cooperative opportunities if we had opportunities to sit together and talk about how we can work together to forward a greater mission of improving education statewide.
Buuck: You have not because you ask not. A lot of people, when you look them in the eye and express need are willing to engage and help. Maybe it’s our fault on the education side that we don’t ask enough. It’s amazing, even if we’re looking for guest speakers, people want to give back to kids. It’s really a beautiful thing. When we’ve asked the business community they’ve responded well, that’s the bottom line.
Stowell: I’m part of a group called the Nevada Corporate Giving Council. It’s corporate funders coming together on a quarterly basis and we share a lot of best practices. Applied Analysis puts together our corporate philanthropy survey and the numbers that come back, [education] is number one in terms of giving from corporations in Nevada. We outpace the national average, which is fascinating. Education is very important to Nevada-based companies that are here doing business. From a corporate funders standpoint, that is our discussion most every time we get together.
Is there a barrier to collaboration?
Coffman: It would be really interesting to see if we could get some sort of an education collaborative going, maybe you start with Southern Nevada and you bring Northern Nevada into it. Reaching out to the public schools just to try to offer them services sometimes is a challenge, to even get in there. There are things that we would like to do to raise awareness of health professions and careers or even do things as a service and you have to go through so many layers in the public schools to even get to the right person to know who to talk to say, I want to give your students a presentation about drugs and abuse. We all have limited resources, are there ways that we can leverage shared resources? As a university, one of our missions is also research. It’s so difficult to get people to play outside of their sandboxes with respect to research. We are not going to be successful in developing a strong research mission like you see in other states with other higher ed institutions, unless we collaborate. It starts here, there’s got to be a way that we can facilitate that.
Stowell: Take a city like Boston, how many universities and schools and districts are there within Boston proper? Tons of them. Yet there are great institutions there and very old institutions compared to Nevada. How did they do it? How did they collaboratively bring everyone together to succeed and become one of the premier cities for education in the country?
Coffman: Some of it is just because we are so new. In the early years, you’re so focused on growing and doing what you need to do to stay ahead of the curve that you’re internally focused. But, we are reaching a tipping point and a point of maturity in this community where I think some of that outreach and working together and collaboration becomes much more possible.
Candyce Farthing: I came from Oregon about three years ago and I’ve seen, just within the charter network, a huge focus of collaborating and being together and being a united front and really supporting and having a voice together, even though we’re competing against each other.
Zaragoza: The other consideration is whether the models that we’re projecting are going to continue to be the most effective models. The question of whether we just continue to grow and support the existing systems needs to be looked at. There are some best practices out there and there’s so much that we need to look at in terms of innovation within the education systems beyond where we’re at. We need to go back and evaluate whether the current education model needs to morph into a more diverse system that’s a little bit different than what we’re using.
How big of an issue is remediation?
Zaragoza: For me it’s a big problem, 70 percent of graduates that come through CSN need remediation in either English or math, so that’s a challenge for us. We, as a rule, don’t have the same applicant pool as a university type, four-year system, but for a community college, it’s about 70 percent, especially the math area.
Merhi: I agree that math is usually the biggest area of remediation that’s necessary for pretty much all college students. Whether it be community college or even university students.
Steve Buuck: If our high school kids get a “D” or lower in any core class, they must remediate it. They have to take it over during the summer school. And, it’s largely math and science classes that kids are taking. That’s new. Obviously every school in the country remediates an “F”. Kids have to or they didn’t get credit. But, we make every kid with a “D” in core courses remediate. It’s a start.
Do we have a teacher shortage?
Farthing: We have a huge teacher shortage. We need to grow teachers within our own. If we don’t have the right personnel to help focus on these kids, to do what we need to do to get them where they need to go, we’re not going to go anywhere. That needs to be a drive for our community, to be able to foster kids wanting to become teachers.
Merhi: We are working very closely with the Clark County School District and supporting a program that we developed called Apple. [That program] takes support staff that work at Clark County School District and helps them then obtain their bachelor’s degree and their [teaching] licensure. The employee is able to keep their employment when it’s time to do their student teaching, which is usually the toughest part for someone who wants to become a teacher. We’ve worked with Clark County School District to design a program for those support staff to then become teachers that are homegrown, already in the system and here in Nevada.
Farthing: On a bigger note too, we need to compensate our teachers more, but we also need to talk it up. It needs to be a more positive thing instead of a negative thing. There’s a connotation now that people don’t want to go into education because of all the additional testing, the additional requirements, the lack of pay, the time and all these pieces we’re requiring of teachers these days. We need to start celebrating teachers and celebrate going into education and how fantastic it is.
How are you training students for the jobs of the future?
Stowell: Look at where jobs are going to be in five, ten years, and the changing economy and technology. What is the labor market and the economy going to look like in five or ten years? It’s going to change dramatically. Are we going to be prepared for our educational systems to meet that demand?
Zaragoza: We need to educate people for jobs that don’t exist but, the skill sets that are needed are pretty well known. We just need to be able to incorporate that into our systems and processes, thinking more about skills that students need. Employers now are telling us soft skills are critical skills now. Those skill sets shift away from the job and are going to be important for us to teach within the higher education system space.
Buuck: That’s a comforting comment. I read that kids we have in our school today, in 20 years, more than half of them are going to be in careers that don’t even exist yet. It is scary and yet, you’re right, it comes down a certain skill set that’s always going to win in the American economy and in the workforce.
What does Nevada education look like in the future?
Zaragoza: I’m very hopeful. I really am.
Merhi: I am as well, I’m hopeful it will change. I think Nevada’s infrastructure is changing and these conversations are leading us in the right direction. We’re seeing more initiatives come forward. In the next five years, it will be a much better place.
Farthing: There’s been some very rigorous expectations put in place that we are going to do this, pull up our bootstraps and go. That’s felt across the board. I’ve seen a shift just in the few years I’ve been here with education as a whole in Nevada. We need to focus on these students and we need to not be at the bottom anymore.