Monday, Sept. 12, 2011 | 2 a.m.
With the start of a new school year, this is the perfect time to reflect on the contribution educators make to our kids and to the future of our state. Teaching has to be one of the hardest professions in the world. In what other profession, for example, does your boss have the same expectations of you on Day One as on Day 500?
I have observed and worked with teachers for the past two decades — as a parent and grandparent active in the kids’ schools, as the first parental involvement coordinator for the Washoe County School District, as PTA president, and now as a state legislator. The job of a teacher has become increasingly difficult during that time, with societal changes and diminishing resources.
Sadly, some in our society fail to recognize the incredible contribution teachers make. Throughout the nation, there have been movements to strip educators of their workplace rights by eliminating collective bargaining. I would strongly disagree with these folks. Our problem in education is not a prevalence of bad teachers, and the answer is not to diminish the value of teachers or weaken their ability to be a partner with school districts in determining priorities and fighting for a good working environment. The issue is far more complex than that.
In Nevada, we have taken a different approach, one that has resulted in landmark legislation. First, we fought hard to protect school funding, even in this bad economy. We restored hundreds of millions of dollars in education funding that had been on the chopping block in the proposed budget. We worked with teachers, principals, school district administrators and parents on ways to help teachers — and, for the first time, school administrators — become better educators. We did not simply implement a set of national talking points; we worked together to create Nevada-based solutions.
Nevada’s system for evaluating teachers was badly outdated. School administrators were not evaluated in the same manner as teachers. This past session, we passed legislation creating a council of teachers, administrators and parents to establish a new evaluation system. Professional associations representing educators will play a role in this council by submitting names of nominees to serve. The new evaluation system will be four-tiered rather than a simple choice of satisfactory or unsatisfactory. A greater percentage of the evaluation will be based on student achievement, but based on real achievement — how much a student has grown and progressed, not based on an arbitrary comparison of standardized test scores. Additionally, this new evaluation system will provide more support for educators, with a significant amount of assistance and additional time given to those who are falling short of the mark.
Because there is a small number of teachers who do not belong in the classroom, as is true with any profession, we eliminated barriers in the dismissal process for educators in cases of egregious behavior. We built in new ways to use the evaluation process to help every teacher improve. And we did the same for administrators, who — prior to this legislation — had not been held to similar standards. Finally, we streamlined the process for dismissing educators who — even with help from their administrators and peers — just can’t cut it. We made sure the process continues to be fair, with educators allowed to request third-party evaluators to perform classroom observations if they feel their own supervisor would be biased.
We took steps to reward educators for improving student achievement by implementing a pay-for-performance system. We required school districts and schools to report the number of teachers, administrators and support staff in each school and in each district so we can determine where our education system might be top heavy in bureaucracy.
These critical changes to education policy, which were the result of a year of meetings with educators, parents, school district officials and business leaders, are incredibly important steps forward for education in our state. They will not change our schools overnight, and our work in these areas has only begun. Rather than focusing on the negative, we need to continue to work together for the effective implementation of these new initiatives. There is simply too much on the line to accept “business as usual.”
Failure on any of these fronts is not an option. We all recognize the importance of a real investment in our schools and commitment to our education system. Education is truly our kids’ future. It is also our state’s future, as education is the key to weathering this economic storm and restructuring our economy so we attract new jobs and opportunities.
Debbie Smith, a Democrat from Sparks, is speaker pro tempore of the Nevada Assembly and chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee.