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November 24, 2014

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Advocacy group says Nevada on the right track with education reforms

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Mona Shield Payne

Freshman Logann Freeman fills out registration paperwork in English class on the first day of school at Cheyenne High School, Monday, Aug. 26, 2013.

A national group advocating education reforms commended Nevada lawmakers for instituting new school policies they hope will improve student achievement.

For the past two years, StudentsFirst — founded by former Washington, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee — has released report cards evaluating education policies in 50 states and the capital.

In its 2014 State Policy Report Card, Nevada received a C-, up from a D last year. The national average is a D+.

Nevada ranked 13th nationally for adhering to education policies that StudentsFirst believes will help boost students’ test scores and graduation rates.

Florida and Louisiana scored the highest in the nation with a B-, according to the report card. Seven states — Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming — scored the lowest, receiving F’s.

“StudentsFirst Nevada is thrilled to report that the Silver State continues to make great progress in improving the policy environment for the state’s schools and students,” StudentsFirst Nevada’s outreach director Andrew Diss said in a statement. “That being said … there’s still much more work to be done to ensure that every student in Nevada goes to a great school and has a great teacher.”

The Sacramento-based organization graded states on 24 policies it believes are the “biggest levers for change” in the classroom, according to StudentsFirst legislative analyst Kirstin Miller. These policies ranged from improving teacher effectiveness and parent engagement to ensuring return on investment for education dollars and changing collective bargaining laws.

During the 2011 legislative session, Nevada lawmakers created a teacher-evaluation system and a new charter school authority charged with increasing the number of quality charter schools in the state. In 2013, legislators strengthened those laws, enabling charter schools to issue bonds for facility needs and increasing their accountability, according to StudentsFirst’s report card.

These new state laws helped the Silver State make gains in seven of the 24 policies evaluated by StudentsFirst. In fact, Nevada had the biggest improvement on the report card among the 18 states in which StudentsFirst operates.

“I’m thrilled to see that StudentsFirst’s State Policy Report Card recognizes the tremendous progress that Nevada is making,” Steve Canavero, deputy superintendent for student achievement and former director of the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority, said in a statement. “Under the leadership of our governor and Legislature — not to mention the support of a diverse group of stakeholders, including charter school parents and teachers union representatives alike — Nevada can continue working to ensure that our students have access to high-quality school options.”

The report cards only evaluate Nevada’s education policies; they don’t account for student achievement levels. The thinking goes that if a state has the “right” education policy environment for schools and teachers, student grades, test scores and graduation rates will improve.

Despite changing some of its education policies, Nevada still has one of the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the country.

There are some indications that changing teacher evaluation systems may improve student test scores, StudentsFirst officials said.

Tennessee and Washington, D.C., which aggressively changed their teacher-evaluation systems and scored a C and C+ respectively on the report card, had the greatest gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national test given every two years.

However, changing policies won’t immediately translate into better test scores and graduation rates, Miller said.

“That’s why we need to act with a sense of urgency,” Diss said. “Passing laws is one thing; implementing them is another. The faster we do it, the faster we see results.”

StudentsFirst Nevada, which lobbies on education bills and issues in Carson City, plans to build on the momentum of the education reform efforts it sought over the past several years. In particular, it hopes to change alternative licensure requirements to encourage more mid-career shifts into the teaching profession. The group also plans to work on changing teachers union bargaining agreements and the state’s public school funding formula.

Nevada can improve on the report card by eliminating seniority as a factor when making school personnel decisions and adopting the “parent trigger,” which allows families to petition school boards to turn a neighborhood public school into a charter school.

For more information about StudentsFirst’s report card for Nevada, visit studentsfirst.org.

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