It’s evident that education cannot remain static and neither can it exist as separate from the real world. Rather, experts agree it needs to be made up of a series of interconnected, flexible institutions that reflect the change of Nevada industries and the demands and opportunities of technology.
“You can’t educate kids in a vacuum. We always have to be looking at the future of the economy, what we’re preparing kids for, what jobs are. If we stay focused on what we’re doing, not really think about where we need to go for our children, then we’re doing our kids a disservice,” said Dr. Jesus Jara, superintendent, Clark County School District (CCSD).
“We have to be connected to each other as we do this work,” said Traci Davis, superintendent, Washoe County School District (WCSD). “Because we have to make decisions about what tomorrow looks like and what employers are looking for, and how we adapt to those opportunities K-12.” Graduation is often seen as the ultimate goal. However, some experts feel the goal should be to turn students into productive citizens whether their path takes them to college, military or straight into the workforce.
“The demand for educational expertise is widening and that’s markedly due to the nature of the industries that are moving into the state,” said Dr. Marc Johnson, president, University of Nevada, Reno. “There is more of an emphasis on technical educational certificates and the trades, because the trades are needed for construction.”
There’s tremendous demand for technical certifications for Nevada’s rapidly expanding manufacturing sector, too. “There are many job opportunities for individuals not getting four year degrees, but which do require a significant amount of post-secondary education,” Johnson added.
The challenge for all educators is, as Nevada’s skill-based economy grows, there’s need at all levels, from workforce-ready high school graduates and skilled workers with specialized certificates to individuals with advanced degrees, putting education right in the midst of the real world.
“There’s a need for a whole broad array of individuals with different kinds of education to support the economy that’s booming here,” said Johnson.
Education at the Speed of Now
Education in Nevada is not remaining static. The question then is how is education changing and what’s the driver behind that change?
“A couple things,” said Jara. “The economy is driving a lot of the changes. I sit on the LVGEA (Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance) board of directors and we had a presentation by RTC (Regional Transportation Commission) and saw the changing of smart communities as we’re moving and becoming innovators in transportation in our state. I’m sitting through that and thinking about my kids graduating from high school. Can they compete for jobs and get into college and careers to be able to perform on some of those levels?”
The needs of students are also changing education. Today’s students want to be active learners, said Johnson. UNR offers white walls where they can gather and conceptualize projects and 3D printers and laser cutters so they can create things and prove whether those are workable models.
Students today live in a fast-paced world and education has to stay nimble to deliver relevant instruction. It also needs to reflect the world as it is and, to the extent possible, as it will be by the time the student graduates and needs a job.
To that end, there are national conversations and overarching trends that reflect the changes occurring in education.
“What I really like that we’re seeing is the cooperation between higher education and the K-12 system as to how we build the skills training and how we get students into the workforce or better prepared for college? I love those discussions that are ongoing about how we do that and the renewed interest in the success of students once they get into college,” said Bart Patterson, president, Nevada State College (NSC).
Currently, Nevada has 15,000 unfilled construction jobs, said Jara. One way to match workforce with education and ensure the state has the skilled workers needed and the jobs students need is to create pathways from school to trades.
“Not everybody is going to college,” said Jara. Only 27 percent of Nevada high school graduates do, and the other 73 percent obviously need jobs. CCSD partnered with local labor unions to create apprenticeship programs where students can walk directly out of high school and into skilled trades.”
In addition, the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with CCSD regarding the issue of career and technical skills.
“It focuses on how we ensure that individuals graduating from high school are either workforce ready, career ready or college ready, and that they have some of those skill sets to be successful,” said Thom Reilly, chancellor, NSHE.
One focus area is dual enrollment, allowing high school students to do college course work and pursue a specific certificate that can lead to a job upon graduation or to an accelerated pathway to college credential. Some students earn certificates before graduating high school. “I would argue while you don’t need a four year degree, you need something beyond high school,” said Reilly.
The last legislative session provided funding formula changes to fund four areas at the community college level: construction trades, mechanical repair technologies, precision production and transportation/materials moving.
College of Southern Nevada (CSN) has created an HVAC program for high school juniors to meet increased workforce demands and allow high school graduates to enter directly into a $60,000 career. The challenges are that it’s only offered at one school and there’s a fee. The goal is to make it more accessible districtwide, explained Reilly.
Historically we’ve measured success in the U.S. by high school graduation followed by college.
“I see that changing,” said Davis. “Kids can be successful on different pathways and it’s okay to go into the workforce and be a plumber, because you can make a great salary and take care of your family and do well. But if you choose to be a lawyer, it’s okay to go a four year institution.”
Nevada has long accepted alternate pathways to careers. One reason the state performs poorly in educational rankings is the low number of Nevadans with higher education degrees.
“You can’t value workforce development and then say you can’t succeed if you don’t go to college. We have to educate our community on how that ranking is and how there are some indicators that are hard for us because we live in an area where we value workforce development and we value families that don’t go to college,” said Davis.
New technology is changing how teachers access materials and instructional support and how students access information. What needs to change, Jara said, is that access needs to be available to every student in every zip code.
WCSD’s district-wide digital learning platform and resources is changing how learning happens. “We’re not there yet, but there are districts where textbooks are obsolete,” said Davis. It’s easier to update digital texts.
“Online is becoming a bigger part of what all colleges and universities do, but it doesn’t work for every student, Patterson said. Students need a level of self-initiative which may not have been taught, before online education is effective. “We’re experimenting with other things like heightened classrooms, where a portion of a class is online and a fair amount of the class is still in person.” The hybrid nature of an individual class can help students both build relationships and benefit from online instruction.
Remedial and Technical Education
Sometimes the best way to move forward is to ensure you’ve learned everything you need. That can require some remediation. Another focus of the MOU with NSHE is to address the 60 percent of new college students that arrive needing remedial math and English. The plan already in motion is to roll back remedial education to high school level, where it becomes simply education – not remedial. Two things happen when remedial education takes place in high school, Patterson said. First, even when students do need minor remedial they can join traditional classes designed so they can be successful in college-level courses.
Second, any remediation is done “In context of a credit-bearing course so it doesn’t cost them more money and speeds time toward graduation and success of graduation. I see that as very positive that we’re having that conversation and working out the details of how that might occur. That just means a more prepared student will come to college and we’re going to have more success working with them to stay in school and graduate,” said Patterson.
The plan, as envisioned, would allow high school students dual enrollment and dual credit. Combined with an apprenticeship program, a high school graduate could move into the workforce, finish off remedial education, go directly into a two-year institution for a stackable degree and continue to a four-year institution.
“Generally we’re focusing on how to be more responsive,” said Reilly. For example, CSN will be pushing forward with career technical education (CTE) academies that focus on core areas of workforce demand with stackable certificates that count as a two year degree, allow fast entry into lucrative jobs and can add up to a degree.
“It really is a pre-K through 20 pipeline that we’re building with that MOU and it’s going to start in our middle schools,” said Jara.
Middle school is also where students will be urged to set themselves on specific career pathways and where, once a student might have expressed an interest in becoming a fireman or police officer, now they’ll be urged into broader discussions around career possibilities with public safety degrees and certificates. If a student expresses interest in being a doctor, they can learn the host of healthcare-related jobs under the meta umbrella.
That is, if students even express such general career choices anymore. New career tracks evolve daily. Twenty years ago nobody planned to grow up and become an app writer.
“It’s nice to say we know what those jobs are, but we’re educating kids for jobs we don’t even know exist yet,” said Davis. “We have to ensure, no matter what trade they might go into, they have the employability skills.”
Students are graduating into a world where advanced manufacturing is being done by robots. They may not have to know how to make the robots, Johnson said, but if they’re working in manufacturing they’ll have to operate them, and that takes sophisticated training.
During the 2019 Legislature educators are watching key issues affecting education. Of particular interest is the funding formula which hasn’t changed since 1967.
“Our number one priority is to address the funding formula because it’s broken,” said Jara. “It’s 52 years old. Our kids are being educated with an outdated funding formula at higher standards, with higher demands, with new technology and we’re still funding public education with this? This formula needs to be modernized to meet the needs of our children.”
Some of the ways experts said the formula fails is that it funds English as a Second Language learners, special needs students and higher risk students the same when those groups do not cost the same to educate.
“Personally I think the funding formula is doing exactly what it’s intended to do,” said Johnson. “Basically the formula says if students finish classes on a campus they will get state funds after the fact to and into the future to pay for instruction of those students (in part; the students also pay fees). The formula works for those institutions which have increased enrollment.” The fact that the formula reimburses institutions where students finish classes means it rewards institutions whose students graduate and head into the workforce.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) is looking to the legislature for several funding issues. “Among those are to continue the build-out of the School of Medicine and to construct a state-of-the-art engineering building to meet skyrocketing student enrollment and workforce demands,” said Dr. Marta Meana, acting president, UNLV. The university has also requested support for the Health for Nevada Initiative, which involves research into health disparities, neurodegenerative disorders and sports research and innovation.
Because of the teacher shortage in Nevada, one of NSC’s ongoing goals is to graduate teachers. One of the items they’re anticipating in the Governor’s budget is funding for a new 66,000 square foot education building.
Colleges need funding to support increased student populations, a good change because Nevada has historically struggled with high school graduation rates. Currently they’re stagnant in Southern Nevada, without a lot of movement in the last eight to 10 years, according to Reilly. Graduation rates have risen steadily in Washoe County over the last eight years to reach 84 percent.
The goal is to increase graduation rates and the skills of those graduates, college-bound or not.
“Thirty percent of our students are the first in their families to attend college,” said Meana. “Opportunities multiply for first-generation students when they graduate, the impact is trans-generational.”
Nevada has one of the lowest rates of bachelors-prepared workforce in the nation and a shortage in many critical fields in which bachelors degrees are required, like healthcare and finance, said Patterson. Even in positions that don’t technically require a degree, students benefit by building a core of analytical, verbal, written and team-building skills.
“All of us are changing to be more nimble than the traditional college,” said Johnson. “The four year degree where people come to campus, take four years to learn the principles, how to apply principles with strong ethics, with a good general education background, that model is going to be appropriate for many years to come. People come to the university to get a broad education and at the same time, specialize in a field.”
Universities can also supply shorter term models, because every time a new major industry comes to Reno, UNR can create a minor with some degree of specialization in that field. For Tesla it was battery technology and energy storage. Currently it’s cyber security given the threats of cyber invasion.
“For a college like NSC, we’re intended to be very connected to the community and the workforce, so critical institutions, like higher education, work together and look at solving statewide issues. We need to understand better what industry needs are, what business needs are and how we can better solve issues. I certainly don’t believe at all that college is this unique experience that isn’t connected to real world. The best [education] comes with learning skills that are applied and connected to community and jobs,” said Patterson.