Education in Nevada right now is going through a trial by fire as teachers and administrators try to find the best way to continue teaching amidst a pandemic. From distance learning to increased gaps in student needs, 2020 has been a challenging year for educators. Recently, leaders in education met in a virtual roundtable, sponsored by City National Bank, to discuss their industry and what the future holds.
Connie Brennan, publisher and CEO of Nevada Business Magazine served as moderator for the event. These monthly roundtables bring together industry leaders to discuss relevant issues and solutions.
How is the COVID-19 Pandemic Changing Education?
Dr. Jesus Jara: I’ll just pinpoint a couple things that have been exploited through COVID-19, not only in the country and in Nevada, but especially in urban schools. It has put a magnifying glass on the inequities that exist in K-12 education. Connectivity and access to curriculum has been magnified because of COVID-19. But, about six months prior to [the pandemic], I released a commission report that, within Clark County School District (CCSD) we had some huge inequities in access.
Brian Sandoval: We have a lot of opportunities here with regard to what COVID has brought and how it has affected higher education, as well as K-12. We’ve worked really hard to have a plan that recognized the paradigm shift that has occurred. We have outfitted many of our classes with technology that allows for some of our students to have both an in-person and an online experience. I think that’s important and it is going to be very constructive for what we have to be do doing moving forward. Having spoken to students, some of them like having an exclusive online experience now.
Rick Benbow: We don’t know the long-term effects of COVID-19. What we do know is that we can be a little bit more innovative. Western Governors University has partnered with [about] 40 other business and educational organizations to create the “Open Skills Network”. We are working with these entities to move forward in a skills-based economy; that is the direction we are moving in. A skills-based economy is where employers know exactly what the student, or potential employee, is capable of through a learner employee record. Also, students are empowered to [take] those courses that give them the skills and competencies for their chosen career path.
How do you Train a Workforce for Jobs that Don’t yet Exist?
Dr. Rob Valli: [In regard to], the workforce of the future, we have to appeal to Gen Z, bring in corporate executives and lifelong learners. Forty percent of the jobs for 18-year-olds haven’t even been created yet. We have a tough and tall order ahead of us. Four out of the five top skills that employers are looking for are soft skills. This talk of liberal arts going away, I don’t believe that. I actually believe technology will be the rebirth of liberal arts.
Sandoval: A fundamental thing is retention and graduation; we have to do a much better job at those. We work closely with the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce and with the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada so that we have real-time information as to the skillsets that graduates need with regard to the business community. We are emphasizing and focusing on the fact that all of our students need exposure to liberal arts so they are good and well-rounded thinkers.
Dr. Vincent Solis: I think that we need to, as best we can, anticipate a future that changes rapidly and work to connect students to minimize that skills gap. We have work that needs to be filled and we have people that need jobs, but the disconnect is that people do not have these highly specialized skills. You can develop critical thinking skills to do things like coding and blockchains, but fewer people are accessing higher education. Education in general, over the last couple of years, has taken a bit of a beating in its public image. We need to work at that piece because now, more than ever, we need people with highly specialized skill sets.
Jeremy Gregersen: That’s really fascinating because I can see how highly specialized education can be a great value in the higher educational sphere. But, in the K-12 realm, it is my firm belief we need to go on resisting specialization for younger students. Preparing students for a workforce that does not yet exist will depend on their ability to be flexible and adapt to new situations. The best way to do that is to promote a lifelong love of learning in students.
Jara: I think exactly what Jeremy said is where we prepare our kids to be college and career ready. We partnered with Workforce Connections and LVGEA (Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance) to release their Blueprint 2.0, looking at jobs and our curriculum on what we are doing differently. We’ve had so much success with our career technical academies. For us, partnering with the business community here in Clark County is going to pay dividends to us in the future.
Bob Rodrigo: We had something we called non-academic standards; those were around behavior and work ethic, resilience and persistence. I challenged the whole community and asked, if we think it is important why are we deemphasizing [those things]? We are now calling it the Leadership and Emotional Quotient (EQ) Matrix. Now, we are pushing leadership and EQ. We need to create opportunities for project-based learning. In my previous business we did something called “Biztown”, where we spend eight weeks preparing kids to go through mock interviews and a mock job. It was an all-day event where kids were actually taught those skills. They had the pressure of being in an interview. They had the pressure of running their own little business. The more opportunities we can give [students] and replicate real life, the better.
Bart Patterson: There are some things we haven’t been doing much in Nevada that are occurring nationally. At the same time [a student does] skills training, those can be for-credit programs and certificates that then stack into degrees. We haven’t done as much program mapping in this state, so students can get a job with a skill at the same time as they work toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
Jennifer Hackett: It’s so important that things like this roundtable occur. It’s vital we all work together to make sure we are meeting the needs of students by sharing resources, information and, at times, sharing personnel. It is important that I know exactly what the schools my students are going to are looking for. It is essential that K-12 schools or high schools know exactly what colleges are looking for.
Solis: For higher education it boils down to how adaptive we can be to this new space. Our institutions are built from the ground up to resist change. If I had to categorize all the things that are happening, our ability to adapt to changes is our number one challenge.
Patterson: How do we marry a liberal arts education, which has been the core of four-year institutions and higher education across this country for decades, with this critical skills gap that exists?
Gregersen: [There is] difficulty marrying vocational and technical education with a liberal arts educational experience. At my school, the assumption is that a liberal arts education is its own good. Most of the jobs that are out there have not been invented yet. The best thing we can do for students is teach them how to think. I don’t think, right now, there is broad concession around what an education is for. We are still thinking of vocational and technical as the point of an education as opposed to the ability to think well, critically and [discernment] as the true corner stone of an educational experience. We have to come together with an understanding that learning for the sake of learning might be a good step in the right direction to prepare students for jobs that have yet to be invented.
Shelly Berkley: I’m a product of the Clark County School District. I went to John C. Fremont Junior High School, Valley High School and I am the first person in my family to go to college. UNLV might as well have been Harvard for me, it opened up a whole new world that no one in my family had ever been exposed to. The education I received in the Clark County School District was perfect for the life I have led. It is completely obsolete for the life my children, grandchildren and future grandchildren are going to be needing. That is a tremendous concern.
Rodrigo: We celebrate what we think is important; what we value gets measured. We value standardize testing. We give the SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) and do standardized testing ad naseum. At the end of the day, we are preparing kids for jobs [for which] we don’t even know what the requirements are. Does the SBAC test alone get the kids there? I think that is a resounding no.
Are We Doing a Good Job of Hiring and Retaining Qualified Teachers?
Hackett: The most critical issue right now is teacher shortage and retention. It’s an unsettling time to be a teacher. Many of them have been out of the classroom since last March and they are trying to navigate new technology, differentiate instruction and make sure their curriculum aligns to state standards, all while trying to keep students engaged online. Many of them are struggling to find a home/work balance, because many of them are parents themselves and are navigating online instruction for their own kiddos.
Patterson: That has been a big issue for Nevada State College. We are in eleven high schools now, trying to develop more teachers. We are seeing an uptick in enrollments in our Teacher Preparation Program.
Berkley: We are only as good as what K-12 can produce. If we don’t provide the resources K-12 needs in order to educate youngsters in one of the largest school districts in the United States, we are going to fall further and further behind. That means adequate funding, investment in technology and paying our teachers a requisite amount of money that can retain them after we hire them. It makes no sense to recruit teachers, have them work three to five years and then go on to something else because they have an obligation to their own families to support them.
Jara: Teacher retention is a huge issue. We need to invest in educators, in the adults who really provide support for our children. What I have pushed the team to think is, when we come back face to face, if we do the same things we have done for a hundred years, then shame on the adults, because K-12 was not serving all kids prior to COVID.
How does Technology Affect Education?
Berkley: The greatest challenge is the marrying of technology to education. It will be indispensable. COVID-19 just exasperated what was going to happen in our future. It points out a disparity in incomes and success for children that don’t have WiFi, they don’t have computers. [In some cases], their parents aren’t home, and if they are home, they have challenges with language and their own level of education to be able to help children negotiate what is going on right now. You’ve got others from affluent families that have every possible technology at their fingertips and family that is able to sit with them while they are learning online. We are going to have to invest in technology so we can equalize the educational experience our children are getting.
Benbow: In this digital world, and all the problems that have been exasperated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the common theme is that technology has certainly impacted education on all levels. Probably the biggest concerns we have are affordability, flexibility, speed to competition and restoring a confidence in the educational system that provides equitable pathways and delivers expected student outcomes.
Valli: We have to pivot, as an institution of higher education, and understand the needs for Gen Z. What are the needs for the unemployed that want to relearn a tool? That is a huge opportunity for us. Going from in-classroom to online education will evolve with a new pedagogy that will be implemented. It is a tremendous opportunity.
Sandoval: I read a story about a group of students who actually rented an apartment in Ireland and took all their courses from there. That is something that is going to happen in the future; there is going to be a new marketplace for educational opportunities online. There are the students that want an exclusively on-campus or blended experience. We call it a high-flex system. We have 20 percent of our students that want to have an in-person experience on campus.
Is Education Funded Properly in Nevada?
Gregersen: The issues of funding are ever-present. I’ve been in the city for 15 years and that has been an ongoing conversation we have had, about how to better address the need of students statewide.
Berkley: I feel like I’m a broken record, but I have been talking about this since I served in the Nevada State Assembly in the 83rd Legislative Session. We are doing ourselves a tremendous disservice by not investing in ourselves and that means investing in our education system. It is not a badge of honor that we are funded 47th, 48th or 49th in the United States. It not only shortchanges our youngsters; it shortchanges the state of Nevada. I sit on the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance board and we’re talking about the same challenges today. If this state doesn’t recognize the importance of investing in ourselves and our future, we’re going to be having this conversation 30 years from now. It is fixable if we agree to do it and stop shortchanging our state and our students.
Jara: [Among] 76 urban districts across the country, we are at the bottom. We have some of the lowest funded [school districts], probably the bottom two in the country. However, there has been an investment in education. There was a funding formula that was 52 years old and we couldn’t follow the money. That was changed at the last legislative session. Now that we can follow the money, we know where the gaps are. My CFO and I agree, we can’t continue to throw money at the problem unless you know where the money is going. I think we are going to get there this legislative session.
Sandoval: We are doing the best we can. I have the distinction of being the governor who sponsored the single largest tax increase in the history of Nevada to increase funding in education. We did the best we can and this new funding formula that the superintendent talked about is going to help the situation. I think there is now recognition that we have a changing demographic and a lot of students in poverty and a lot of English language learners that need additional resources in order to be successful. But, we also don’t want to leave behind any other students.