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May 3, 2015

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It’s not multiple choice

Improving education is more complex than many simplistic plans suggest

A major part of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s plan to overhaul education is to change the rules for teachers. He wants to get rid of teacher tenure and put all teachers on one-year contracts with no guarantee of being rehired. He also wants schools to stop giving teachers raises for having advanced degrees and end some benefits of seniority, such as extra pay.

The governor’s proposals, offered in Assembly Bill 555, take on a politically sensitive issue and the debate has been heated. Conservatives across the country have been clamoring for these types of changes. Some right-wing activists have demonized public employees’ unions, and they have made it seem like the entire problem with the state’s schools are because of teachers’ unions. The teachers’ unions, which are no strangers to political debate, have fought back.

The result is that education policy has become more polarized and more political, and that’s a shame.

The governor and lawmakers should be looking at real ways to improve education, and teachers shouldn’t be vilified. The state requires them to be well trained before setting foot in a classroom and they are required to continue their education. Surely, most teachers are diligent and committed to their work but, like any profession, there are people who shouldn’t be in it and people who need to perform better.

So how does the state improve education and do it fairly? Many of the issues aren’t as simple as the proposals make them out to be. For example:

• Tenure: Certainly, the tenure system, which can make it nearly impossible to remove a bad teacher, needs to be changed. So do seniority provisions that protect the jobs of poor teachers. The issue is finding a way to properly set standards and fairly rate teachers. If the state strictly uses standardized test scores, it will create an education system no one wants with teachers teaching to the test. As well, standardized tests don’t capture the whole picture of a teacher’s performance. For example, what do you do with special education students or remedial classrooms? A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work.

• One-year contracts: Short-term contracts might, in fact, push good teachers out. Why put up with that stress? If a teacher has a personality conflict with a principal or has an off year, would he simply get dumped? It doesn’t sound as if there’s much, if any, due process.

• Extra pay: Sandoval has argued that advanced degrees don’t guarantee better teachers, and that’s true. But if a teacher gets an advanced degree in education or a subject area she teaches, that should be a benefit. If an administrator gets a degree in leadership or education, that should help the school. Shouldn’t that knowledge be worth something?

Education policy is more complex than many people make it. State officials should understand that strengthening the teaching ranks is important, but it’s not the only way to improve the quality of education. The fact is that Nevada doesn’t put enough money into the schools and certainly doesn’t pay teachers like the professionals they are.

There’s no magic fix to what ails education. Simplistic answer and hyper-partisanship won’t work. The state needs to carefully consider the entire picture.

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  1. Sandoval is weakening America by his educational cuts.

    education=economy=strong country

    He is indirectly aiding the terrorists who oppose America.

  2. "But if a teacher gets an advanced degree in education or a subject area she teaches, that should be a benefit. If an administrator gets a degree in leadership or education, that should help the school. Shouldn't that knowledge be worth something?"

    Only if that extra knowledge is worth something, ie, it produces higher student achievement. Right now it doesn't.

    "One-year contracts: Short-term contracts might, in fact, push good teachers out."

    There is zero evidence for this claim. In fact the opposite may be true. Tenure, lock step pay and seniority provisions, may actually encourage the worst teachers to be more likely to stay longer than the best teachers. We also know that most professions outside of government are based on no contract at all and many of these jobs attract high quality individuals.

    "The fact is that Nevada doesn't put enough money into the schools and certainly doesn't pay teachers like the professionals they are."

    There is no evidence for this either. Nevada spends 180% more today than 50 years ago and that is after adjusting for inflation. We also spend about $70,000 per teacher when benefits are included that is significantly more than the average American.

    You are right that that education policy is a complex issue but you're wrong to think the teacher union is blameless in creating perverse incentives and rules that have made education worse in the long run.

  3. Private schools insist on higher degrees for their teachers: most teachers at the Meadows earned M.A.s or PhDs; and the Adelson school insists that ALL its teachers have PhDs. Higher degrees for teachers are the norm for private schools across the nation, and justify higher pay. Why is this? Do the expensive private schools not know what they are doing? The truth: better, more qualified teachers in the main seek out more knowledge, and their performance generally improves.

    And here the conservative ideologues expose their real agenda down to its very roots: they seek the destruction of public education entirely. They seek a class-based America in which only the rich have access to quality schools, while the rest of its citizens go wandering through the streets with a voucher in hand that won't pay for anything better than Third World educations for their kids. This is morally wrong, and goes directly against the promise of equal opportunity in our American democracy.

    Also, as Dave Eggers points out in his wonderful column yesterday in the NYTimes: "when we don't get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don't blame the soldiers"" Yet in education, we do just this: if the battle looks like a losing one, we blame the teachers, and seek to punish them. This is flat out wrong. We need to provide teachers with better tools and a more effective administration and organization. Education reform should begin there, not by, in effect, punishing teachers for the larger failures of educational philosophy, and of American society.