Education in Nevada has historically been the target of negative attention for low rankings and poor metrics. As education leaders work to improve the outcomes for students at every level, they’re expecting a ripple effect into the economy, workforce and community. Recently, some of those leaders met at the Las Vegas offices of City National Bank to discuss what has been done already to improve education and where the industry is headed.
Tarah Richardson, editor-in-chief of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. The magazine’s monthly roundtables bring together industry leaders to discuss relevant issues and solutions.
How Has Technology Changed the way we Educate?
Jeremy Gregersen: We’re still, for the most part, in this country educating kids the way we did in the nineteenth century. We’re asking them to remember a whole lot of stuff and tell us what they remembered. That’s great so far as knowing what five times six is, I’m in favor of it. Technology, the way that it exists right now has fundamentally changed what it means to be human. I think that the sum total of human knowledge is available to every student every second of the day in their pocket. In order to serve those students we have to start thinking hard about what it means to be an educated human being. It’s not about what you can memorize and regurgitate, it’s about how you handle, curate and manipulate information moving forward. It’s a tall order.
Bart Patterson: The base of the issue is that students have all the information, the question is can they apply it in a meaningful fashion. The way that Nevada State is focused more on that is to have more experiential learning experiences built in so we’ve greatly scaled up our internships and externships. We have hands on undergraduate research projects going on that involve students from all disciplines really getting that opportunity to have a work-related kind of experience. It’s happening in the classroom but it’s also [happening] by creating intentional experiences outside the classroom that will help build those skills.
Jeff Henrickson: Even with our business students, we’re trying to infuse them with greater IT (information technology) skills. We’re encouraging them, in their electives, to take IT based courses so they come into the workforce better prepared to handle the technology they’re going to see out in the work place. Many of them are fearful of technology or fearful of how software works. We have them play with our robots and drive it around the campus just to get them over their fear that they can’t manage technology. We’re trying to infuse more of our degrees at all levels with technology so that way they’re better prepared.
Gregerson: It seems every time we start having conversations surrounding tech, we have conversations surrounding preparing students to utilize tech in the work place. I would argue the technological revolution has changed students more than it’s changed teaching at this point. The students are just fundamentally different in the way they approach problems. The way they approach the world is a little bit different. I get and I agree that vocational training, that job training, that job preparation is extraordinarily important. At the same time what we’re seeing in study after study, [is that] folks aren’t looking to hire people with great tech skills as much as they’re looking to hire people who can solve complex problems and work with other people. It’s great for people to have great computer skills, coding skills, robotics skills, these kinds of engineering backgrounds, but at the same time, as a culture and as a country, we’ve migrated in a direction that is primarily based in job training and job preparation. We do that sometimes at our peril because we forget to educate the whole person. We forget to teach them how to work with one another. We forget to teach them what it means to have serious human questions and to wrestle with the most difficult issues we face as human beings.
Sue Blakeley: From the very beginning, we’ve tried to be as technologically advanced as we can. When you look at technology, it touches almost everything that [a student] might do. Every single thing they might go into is probably going to be touched by needing to know technology. We make it all meaningful and make sure that they do know their multiplication, their division, the essence of grammar because that’s giving them their post-secondary world a place to build off of. We have it a little easier in some ways in the K12 world because we can work on that whole person, give them those social opportunities to build the person and then really it’s just like wet cement as they go on into colleges. They have something really good and solid to build on from there.
Paul Stowell: From a business perspective, we see people that come here that have a lot of high-tech skills, but they don’t have the interpersonal skills. They don’t know how to communicate. They don’t know how to complete a sentence and they don’t know how to talk with individuals except as they text. Their grammar, their English, all of that is lacking. Tech’s great, but if you can’t talk with someone [it’s an issue]. At City National, it’s all about relationships and it’s talking one on one and communicating and dealing with people on that interpersonal level.
Spencer Stewart: There’s also the tech-enabled aspect of education, looking at the traditional business model of education and how technology can actually improve upon that model to increase access. I look at this from the framework of a really simple math problem at a macro level in terms of the number of credentials that are needed in this country to improve it’s standing, to make good in terms of embracing technology, to move this country forward. If you look at this as a math problem, it’s the number of individuals that are leaving the workforce on an annual basis through retirement and other reasons and then the number of new credentialed graduates that are moving through that pipeline. If you ask yourself how will this country actually improve in the percentage of credentialed individuals, when will we get there? The answer is “never” if you look at those two big variables in terms of the number of people that are leaving the workforce and the number of new credentialed individuals that are joining. I think it’s incumbent upon the higher ed community to figure out how we enable technology to improve that. We figure out to leverage technology to take education to scale. It’s figuring out how to do that while embracing all of the digital fluencies and then grounding these individuals in a liberal arts background.
How is the State doing in Regards to Education?
Patterson: The school district has made a lot of strides and I think their focus is improved over the years that I’ve been in the Valley, I’ve been here about 18 years now. I see the school district is getting better and better with more focus on what are the real issues that are blocking kids from moving forward. The state could put more focus on early childhood education, that would be a positive. There’s clearly a teacher shortage that is impacting the students of the state. What is the answer to that? Likely an element of that would be increase teacher pay. When you have a worker shortage, usually one of the ways you look at improving that worker shortage is to offer more money, we do that in business all the time. Clearly there are issues that are systemic that we haven’t taken on directly but I do see improvement. I see a lot of improvement in higher education. We have more students going into higher education. Nevada State has been the second fastest growing college in the country over the last 10 years. You have both of the research universities being designated top-tier research institutions. There’s a lot to be proud of in higher education as well.
Blakeley: I believe that Nevada, politically, there are some issues with taking a very proactive approach to improving education. The biggest challenge for Nevada, and I’ve been here for 40 years, has been the growth and never having the K12 public sector able to really get on top of the growth. Private education could be helpful to some of the growth issues, however I think that politically there’s not really an appetite for making it possible for private education to flourish in our state.
Gregersen: I can’t say I have a panacea or even a prescription for those issues the state faces at large through K12 education, but I’ve lived here for 15 years and I’ve seen the same problems talked about over and over and over again over the course of a decade and a half. It just seems to me that there’s, unfortunately, a fundamental lack of political will in the state to do much about it. That, coupled with a tendency towards oversimplification, this idea that we need more money, which is an oversimplification, or we need to break up the big school districts, it’s a simplification, maybe we do maybe we don’t. In this community we can do great things. There’s a lot of great things happening but the needle doesn’t seem to be moving on our rankings, on our graduation rates and those high level metrics. I’m always weary of rankings. The Einstein quote is, “If you judge a fish on it’s ability climb a tree, you’ll leave convinced that it’s an idiot.” The ranking itself doesn’t tell the story of the people who are working the educational community in the state and in the city. We are seeing the growth of more options in post-secondary education. We’re seeing people more prepared to enter the workforce in ways they haven’t been before, the graduation rate is climbing in the city, we’re seeing more kids find their way into college. I wonder about the political will to diversify the ability of schools to start up in our community and to roll up our sleeves and ask the right questions. Are we, as a population, going to hold those folks accountable to make sure that our kids continue to improve over time?
Stowell: There’s a myriad of things that need to be done and, I agree, accountability is key. I don’t think we have held our school districts, and the individuals that are responsible for the educational system in the state, accountable. Parents, the community and business leaders need to hold them accountable if there’s going to be meaningful change.
Blakeley: With the rankings too, we have to look at how our state has grown, even when you look at the number of nonEnglish speakers. Accountability needs to also then give [schools] the tools they need to be successful when they have the problems of a school that maybe is enrolled at double what it was built for and have so many non-English speaking students. There are so many factors. I believe that for the rankings to improve, you need to have, at each individual school, really vibrant leadership and the accountability from the central office has to be to that school.
Are Nevada’s Educators Prepared to Meet Workforce Demands?
Patterson: Higher education more broadly has to adjust its curriculum to the future of work. When you look at all the statistics we are showing, particularly in the service industry, areas of focus like Las Vegas, like Nevada, as much as 50 percent of the jobs could be automated within a relatively short period. Now will that come to pass? We’re not sure. The point is that we don’t even know what the jobs are going to be in the future and how quickly can higher education adjust so that they can teach those kinds of skills that are necessary to be productive in the workforce.
Stewart: This whole notion of three to four years where [students] must leave with some type of four-year degree, we’re beginning to understand that may not be the right approach moving forward. The earn to learn model where, as individuals go through their educational experience, they’re earning meaningful, marketable certificates every step of the way. They spend their time in their degree program and they’re actually earning the marketable skills that will increase their salary. It’s not waiting four, six, eight years down the road to see a measurable impact of what [a student’s] take home pay is [when they’re in the workforce]. The notion of moving from a traditional transcript to a skills-based transcript is something that we, as a country, need to focus on more and more. [We need] to translate that document into something that makes sense for employers. A few weeks ago, I googled Walmart and some others, and they’re in the process of, in some cases, [creating] their own universities to develop curriculum. It’s incumbent upon the higher ed. community to develop what employers need. We’re going to see this great convergence between the employer domain and the higher ED. domain where it’s more of a hand-glove relationship. As a country we have to move in this direction for the purposes of workforce. Gone are the days where an individual could go to four years of school and that would equip him or her for the rest of their working lives. There’s an open loop learning concept and we have to do a better job, as an education community, with employers to figure out how we design and solve for that.
Stowell: We have our own university, City National University. Colleagues that want to enhance their skill sets and move along in their career without going back to school and taking generalized courses in business of finance, they can take specialized courses in lending and all of those things they need. It’s a very robust program for City National. It’s not only to help train so someone can move along in their career, but it’s to help retain because it is so competitive in the banking industry that if we don’t better educate our colleagues, we’re going to lose them.
Hendrickson: For us, workforce development has always been at the core of what we do when we’re educating the adult learner. Our students are well over 25 years old and the average is in their 30s. We’ve been in constant redesign to see what these industries need in business, IT and nursing. Our faculty teach in the industries they work in, so they’re teaching the latest and greatest. When they’re teaching theory, they’re talking about what they do in their jobs everyday, how they’re applying that theory today and how it works. It’s a way to them help bring relevance to the theory and then educate. [There is also] constant thinking of how do we design the program? How do you keep the skill moving along so that, at every stage, they’re able to bring something back? And then, how can we take a program like City National’s program, and bring credits back so individuals who want to get a degree for the next step up [get credit for] something they’ve already learned so they don’t have to retake those classes? They’ve already demonstrated the skill and then they can move on and really just finish the piece that they need.
Gregersen: It’s really interesting you guys are talking about that sort of ongoing learning process. None of us would go to a doctor who read his last medical study 50 years ago. We’d never see that person because we’d be afraid of how we’d end up. And here we are. In a lot of the K-12 space, we think so much in a beginning and an end. Even in this country there’s so much mystique and focus still on the graduation. We would do well for our students if we really start thinking about education as a lifelong process, instilling a lifelong love of learning and understanding that we’re not going to quit. You don’t get a certification and then it’s over. Our job is to try and shape learners to stop thinking in terms of a transactional nature of education. Meaning you assign me work, I hand you my work back, you give me a grade, I collect grades together and send them off to a university. They give me an acceptance, they give me more grades and we just do this thing. You see programs in high schools that are aimed at getting kids in the workforce. That’s great, but that’s a built in dead end. If you’re not also inspiring them to understand that education is a lifelong thing, that you must always continue to pursue learning, well they’re gonna get that job and then they’re going to be surpassed by somebody with the right mindset really quickly.
What’s in Store for the Future of Education?
Jeff Hendrickson: We all teach different groups, different demographics. There’s a value to what WGU does, a value to Nevada State College and UNLV. We all bring value in different ways and we should capitalize on that resource, figure out a way to use everybody to make this work and not try to leave off anyone. We’re fighting that [collaboration] battle even in the K-12 private education space. We should not omit them either, they should be brought right in along with everyone. I love to collaborate [with other schools]. We have pathways with CSN where they can come into Nevada State College or they can come into us, that’s a great example of how we can bring public and private together and let the student choose what’s right for them.
Paul Stowell: We adults need to put our differences aside – businesses, institutions, whatever you want to call it – we need to put our differences aside and focus on what’s most important, the student. Our students are suffering from the infighting of the infrastructure that we have in this state, and at the end of the day it’s about the student. That’s what we need to focus on if we’re really going to move the needle.