Las Vegas Sun

August 29, 2015

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j. patrick coolican:

Give superintendent what School District needs for success

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J. Patrick Coolican

Dwight Jones, the superintendent of the Clark County School District since last fall, will introduce a hard-charging plan this week to improve the education of Las Vegas’ 300,000 students.

A district official briefed me on what to look for. I sense that in a community that has suffered a series of setbacks in recent years, Jones is soon to become a galvanizing figure whom we can rally around.

What Jones will present isn’t surprising because he had success in Colorado and is bringing his reform philosophy and methods to Las Vegas. The foundation is what’s known as the “growth model.”

The growth model focuses on measuring student progress — hence “growth” — rather than mere standardized test scores.

We tend to judge schools based on their scores, but in isolation. Good schools. Bad schools. We think we know what part of town they’re in.

But this masks the reality: There are schools where students start from nothing and make tremendous progress, indicating an outstanding teacher.

Then there are schools in well-heeled neighborhoods where students start at a relatively high level but don’t show much improvement, revealing mediocre teachers.

The key is measuring student progress over time, which will shine a light on the best teachers.

This matters because many education experts have come to believe that teacher quality is the most important factor in education outcomes — one Stanford economist has shown that the best instructors teach three times the amount of academic material as the worst. Another way of putting it: A quality instructor teaches a year and a half of material, while the worst of the bunch only teach a half a year.

This seems intuitively true — we all remember those teachers who had control of their classrooms and pushed and inspired, and those who didn’t.

“Where are the pockets of excellence? We’ll have data in six months. That will draw healthy scrutiny to the system,” my source says. Teachers will be evaluated on four levels of competency, pegged to the progress made or not made by students. Schools will be similarly judged.

From there, Jones will look to nourish what’s working. A program they call “wikitools” will encourage the best teachers to showcase their techniques to other teachers and then be paid “royalties” for doing so.

(Key unresolved questions: Will union contracts allow for innovation? Will the district succeed in getting the Legislature to enact reforms if statutory changes are required?)

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Dwight Jones

At the same time, the district will provide assistance to the underperforming, but make changes when necessary. “If we can’t get achievement, we turn the keys over to someone else.”

Finally, Jones wants to know where the district is getting the most bang for its buck — a smart move in these troubled budget times — as well as ways to use technology as a cost-effective way to mitigate the burden of big classes. They’re looking at New York City’s School of One, for instance, which uses sophisticated software to create individualized lesson plans while also measuring each student’s daily progress.

Jones has publicly expressed frustration at the opacity of the district’s financial condition, and a top-to-bottom review is coming. “We want to build credibility throughout the community,” the official says on this point.

Expect bureaucratic streamlining.

Jones is getting solid early reviews, which may have helped to get the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce to call for a tax increase conditioned on certain reforms.

Steve Hill, former chairman of the chamber, says, “He’s gotten off to a great start, and the direction he’s going makes a lot of sense.”

Oh, one more thing: On the subject of budget cuts, Jones recently told the Sun, “I’ve made it pretty clear what is being proposed right now is just too devastating for the School District.”

Give the man what he needs.

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