Las Vegas Sun

November 20, 2017

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Nevada 3.0 - The state of education:

Clark County school superintendent: ‘We are going to need some support’

A Q&A with Superintendent Dwight Jones

Nevada 3.0: Education

As the Legislature considers several proposals for education, the Sun asked for a variety of opinions on the state of education in Nevada. It's part of the Sun's Nevada 3.0 project, which is looking at issues confronting the state and ways to move forward. You’ll find:

• The Sun’s editorial, "Invest in schools"

• A conversation with Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction James Guthrie

State Sen. Scott Hammond, a public school teacher and charter school board member, writes about choices facing the state.

Dr. Sonya Douglass Horsford, the senior resident scholar on education at The Lincy Institute at UNLV, writes about a missed opportunity in Nevada.

Ruben R. Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, writes about what the schools need.

Judi Steele, president of the Public Education Foundation, writes about improving school leadership.

Victor Wakefield, executive director of Teach For America in the Las Vegas Valley, writes about grassroots ways to improve schools.

Another view?

Have your own opinion? Write a letter to the editor.

This month, Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones sat down for a discussion with Matt Hufman, the editor of the Sun’s editorial and opinion pages. This is an edited and condensed transcript of the conversation:

What do you think is the most important thing the Legislature can do for public education this year?

The most important thing for me, just based on the conditions in the district, is that we would get some targeted funding for some key categorical things that are real drivers for us in Clark County. For me, No. 1 is going to be to hire more teachers. I’ve got to bring the class size down. I know some people have said class size doesn’t matter. It does, especially when you start getting above 30 and when you have the makeup of a classroom that we have in Clark County — a number of English-language learners, kids that come with special needs, percentage of kids in poverty.

I mean, you throw all those things into the mix, and then you get 30-plus into a classroom. That’s a lot for a teacher to be able to navigate, with all the different levels of achievement that come into that classroom. So we’ve got to work to hire more teachers to bring the class size down, and if there’s some additional funding, I would love for it to be targeted and support the hiring of more teachers.

Are there other priorities you have for this session?

English-language learners. I think there is discussion out there, so I’m cautiously optimistic that there may be more support for helping students get to English quicker.

What we learned from the Gibson report (a study of the district done in 2011), and what we’ve learned from Miami-Dade, from Broward County (in Florida), equally from Houston, districts kind of our size but all performing higher than we are, was that their experience and focus on English-language learners, and especially in the early childhood program — kindergarten, preschool and getting kids to English quicker — made a huge difference in those kids being on grade level by that big transitional year of third grade.

So, I’m very supportive of the state’s momentum to say we want kids to be reading by grade level at third grade before we just pass them on through the system, but I think you’re going to have to invest in some key initiatives that are going to support that happening. You know you just can’t wish it or blink like Jeannie and believe it so.

Do you have the budget to do what you need to do?

We do not. We are going to need support from the governor and the Legislature, and it’s going to have to be targeted, and there’s a lot of need when you cut over time.

It almost becomes kind of a reinvestment. So, if we’re going to talk about reinvestment, I’d like to say there are some focus reinvestments that we could do that would be much better for the children in this state, and I think any talk of reinvestment has to be focused on kids.

I mean it has to be on student issues, not just adult issues, so we’ve got to talk about reinvesting in early childhood education. We’ve got to talk about reinvesting in our English-language learners so those populations continue to grow.

We’ve got to talk about reinvesting in more teachers because I’ve got to bring that class size down.

So, those pieces I think really benefit kids. If I am going to go and ask for more money, I want to ask for more money that is going to target us, getting a better result for our young people. That’s kind of the message I think we’re trying to take to Carson City.

Frederick Hess, a proponent of education reform and School District “thought partner,” said if you pursue some of the reform efforts, if you root out waste, there would be more than enough money. Do you agree with that?

It’s what we’ve been trying to do with the Open Book portal, so I don’t know if I agree or disagree. And, what I always say to Rick is, “I like you being a thought partner, but you’ve never done this work.”

So, like many of the reformers that talk about it or write books about it, but haven’t done it, if you ask Rick Hess: “Do you know that for a fact? Have you done that somewhere, where you could demonstrate that?” The first answer he’d say is, “No, I’ve never done it.”

Now I am not one that just says, “Just throw money at it.” But I think you could be fairly focused on if we invest the resources in the right way. So what I would say is: Is there still room for us to look at current spending and reinvest some of those dollars to a greater need? I would say yes. I still don’t believe after two years we’ve done that better.

Is it better efficiency?

Much better efficiency. And that’s what came out of the Gibson report. I still use that data to try to drive decisions, not just whichever way the wind is blowing.

And we’ve been trying to retool staff to rethink their budgets and their units to say, “How are you ultimately delivering and what kind of dollars are you spending and is ultimately the outcome what we want?” And we’ve still got too many cases where the outcome doesn’t match the expenditure.

And so, we’ve got to do something different. I just can’t keep doing the same expenditure and not get a better outcome.

The per-pupil funding is not enough? It’s below the national average.

It’s not the national average. There are some folks who are fairly close to that and in some cases have gotten a better result. Whatever resources the Legislature and taxpayers allow us to have, we ought to use those resources to get the very best result and then have a conversation in a transparent way with the community to say, “If we’re using that well, is this a result that you’re comfortable with?” If it isn’t, then maybe we’ve got to talk to you about a reinvestment.

Some critics like to point to Utah, our neighbor. They have a lower per-pupil spending, but it’s a different demographic.

Yeah, it is, I think, looking at the demographic makeup, but not as an excuse because at the end of the day, you know that doesn’t become an excuse we get to hide behind.

But it does create some unique challenges, for our buildings, for our teachers, for our leaders and, in many cases, for our community.

Some of the people that move here, that are in search of jobs, you know our poverty numbers have really gone up and so their children come here with a lot of need or they walk through the schoolhouse door with a lot of need.

All states have their challenges, but there is some uniqueness in our demographics.

You mentioned pouring money into the kids, not the adults necessarily. The teachers union is certainly not happy with the recent arbitration. How do you get them on board?

I do support that you’ve got to invest in your adults.

At the end of the day, I need the adults to ultimately have the effect on the children, and our teachers play the critical role. I think the No. 1 investment we can make is in our teachers, but in a downturn, I can’t just invest in salaries when we’re already close to 89 to 90 percent of my budget being salaries. I need to answer questions like: How do I help you perfect your trade, how do I bring down your class size, how do I ultimately get the kind of tools and things you need in the classroom to help you to do your job better? I’m not against folks actually making a good wage, but what I know right now is, because of the budget cuts that I don’t own, I just — in many cases — get blamed for it.

Because of the budget cuts, I’ve got to save, but how do we keep supporting our kids while we try to hopefully get a better economy where that rising tide can support all boats? I can’t just support this boat and have the children’s boat sinking. I’ve got to actually save. We’ve got to shore up that as we try to say, “How do we get more resources to support the whole system?”

So, I’m certainly not against folks making a good wage, but what I do know is, some of the things that have been cut, at least during my tenure and even before I got here, we’ve got to start restoring some of those things that really affect children and adults.

So I think I better keep working with my association on finding the right balance.

I don’t know if it’s urban legend, but we hear about companies coming here and saying, “You guys don’t have the education standard.” Do you hear that?

Oh, I think we hear that. I think that’s folks in some cases not doing their research. There are some really good schools in this city and in this state, and I don’t think you can just hide behind just looking at the whole state data on how the state is performing. I think one thing that the star (rating) system allows you to do is to find quality schools all over the area. They’re not just in some of our wealthier communities; they’re actually folks that are beating the odds in a lot of communities.

You do a Google search on school rankings. Nevada finishes 51st in this ranking, 49th in that ranking.

And if you actually really look at either what data they are using when they’re making the ranking or some of the criteria they’re using, I’m always surprised at how folks just take that ranking and don’t do their homework. Nobody really researches what the data say, so when I talk to, especially my friends — my critical friends in the media — I’ll say, “So what was your take when you saw that in eighth-grade language arts or eighth-grade math, Nevada was the fastest growing or the third-fastest in one category, the seventh-fastest in the other? I noticed you never mentioned that.”

It’s why I did the State of the District as a marathon. If you go from the starting line, do the Jeannie blink and get to the finish line, boy, everybody will run a marathon. But if you have to pass those mile markers to actually change the system, then you’ve got to pay attention to some indicators.

And it doesn’t mean you just get to the finish line. You actually have to pass mile markers to get there, and some of them, you’re getting tired; some of them, you’re losing your breath, your legs are getting weak. And so Nevada is passing some mile markers. If you look at how fast we’re growing — there are only a few states that are growing faster than Nevada — that’s not part of the conversation. So, it’s almost like there’s this negative pitch on Nevada, and folks are so destined to hang on to it that they almost just can’t believe that we could start to have a different conversation. So, I always close with that, ultimately: Nevada’s children are as smart as children in any other state. At some point, we’ve just got to start acting like it and expect it.

So, it’s the parents who aren’t smart, the adults?

I don’t know about that. I don’t spend time trying to blame media, but boy do we latch on to what’s not going right, and there are some things that are going right.

Is it that the rankings are wrong, or are we just not seeing a turnaround?

Well, I think it depends on how they’re doing the rankings, and I think folks expect there to be a turnaround by snapping your fingers or whatever. I think you also have to be mindful of progress or mile markers and if you’re not making progress.

What I worry about is we’ve cut so much that I don’t know if we could sustain that. I think folks have been doing more with less. And they’ve been doing more with less even before the downturn in the economy. That ranking, too, matters on how the funding compares to other states.

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