>Race to the Top in a Death Spiral: Education and Money in Nevada

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Nevada Representative Shelley Berkley (D-NV1) expressed her take on the funding problems besetting Nevada school districts: “I know the myriad challenges we continue to face in meeting the basic needs of our students, but I also know that the future of our community and our nation depends on developing the brightest minds,” Berkley said. “I hope that we can find ways to offer exciting, new and innovative educational opportunities and by doing so, tap into funds that are designated for this purpose.” [LV Sun] The last line is significant, because if the state can’t meet funding targets, and/or all the money is soaked up filling gaps, then Nevada will not qualify for federal stimulus funds for innovative programs. Hope springs eternal, but the State Superintendent may be closer to the actuality: “We’re using it (federal funds) to barely maintain what we had before.”

There’s no one reason behind the shortfalls and depleted education coffers, but any or all of the following could be part of the overall problem.

1) An anti-government public mindset that presumes any spending on other people’s children is a “waste of money.” In its most extreme form the privatizers would see every school as a charter operation, a for profit enterprise in which parents would be able to chose the best school and the best schools would stay in business. Invisible hands in the market would reward good systems and bankrupt those failing ones. Aside from beating Thomas Jefferson and his vision of free and universally available public education system back into the private tutor system of the 17th century, the radical privatizers are advocating the creation of a class system in which those who can pay may educate their children and those who cannot might be issued vouchers (charity) from public funds. Not surprisingly, this is a simple statement of corporate welfarism.

The second level nay-sayers predicate their arguments on “waste and abuse.” We shouldn’t increase funding for public education, they contend, because they districts can “cut the fat” from their budgets and all will be well. The fat’s been shaved, and as of 2009 Nevada school districts are just about down to the bone. Layers of administration in urban school districts are popular targets. There may be some positions that could be eliminated, however, trimming central administration won’t come close to freeing up the kinds of money needed for district wide operations. Teacher salaries also seems to make for a target among some. However, most who make this argument wouldn’t be willing to take the pay cut necessary to actually live on a public school teacher’s salary.

2) An antiquated and inadequate tax system that prevents the state and local districts from finding revenue, especially during economic downturns. Nevadans love to squawk about taxes, but the hard truth is that this state has very few taxes on anything, and the tax rates we do apply are artificially low. The argument that low taxes will induce more businesses to locate in Nevada is quickly deflated when it’s noted that successful businesses use location decision models predicated on availability of markets, infrastructure, and transportation, with taxation levels far down the scale of significance.

Governor Gibbons’ argument that we “can’t tax anyone during tough economic times” is a sham contention based on an ideology in which we won’t tax anyone for anything lest we burden individuals and businesses during good times, or put them out of business during bad ones. Taxation levels aren’t the reason businesses close up shop. In most cases unsucessful enterprises go under because they were (a) undercapitalized in the first place; (b) operating from a flawed business plan; (c) not exercising good record keeping systems; or (d) facing a sharp drop in demand for their products or services. For most failing businesses, taxation is the least of their problems.

3) Demands placed on the school system by the communities they serve. Faced with a lack of public services in other realms, the schools tend to serve functions necessary to educate children but not primarily related to the process of information transmission or the guidance of learning behaviors. Since we have far too few social workers available, and incomprehensible case-loads for those we do hire, school counselors are pressed into service to assist families in crisis. Because we don’t have enough police officers to attend to school related problems, we have our school districts hire security personnel. The dirth of access to psychological and psychiatric services in the community means that the school districts are the ones who must offer counseling and treatment for troubled students. Most neighborhoods don’t have community clinics for health screening, immunizations, vision and hearing testing, and check ups — so, we have the school nurses do the job. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having the local school serve as the community education, health, and service institution, but if we want that system then we need to be prepared to pay for it.

4) Unrealistic expectations for systemic educational performance. Oh, that we could all be Lake Wobegone, wherein all the children are above average. Detractors announce somberly that our schools are failing should not all the students therein achieve top scores on high stakes tests. Part of this may come from the “You teach’em” philosophy maintained by some parents to shuffle the little darlings to the bus and then wash their hands of any responsibility for their behavior, achievement, and results. If the test performance doesn’t measure up to the parental expectations then it must be the school’s fault because Lord Knows the parents can’t shut off the television set, limit the video games, or make the youngster finish homework.

Not to diminish the responsibility of both parents and teachers in the process, but we need to look at the graduation requirements and the testing programs administered to children, and the outcomes we determine to be necessary. Nevada increased its demands for mathematics graduation requirements at one point in time, with an eye toward insuring more students were exposed to higher levels of the subject. Three credits in mathematics are now required for a standard diploma from Washoe County Schools. [WCSD] Oldsters in the audience would assume this means every youngster takes an Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry class. However, Reno High School is deleting its second year Algebra class next season; and now the Algebra course requirement leads to two Geometry classes. If I am reading the credits diagram correctly a student could get 1 credit for Algebra 1-2, another for Geometry 1, and a third for Formal Geometry. Three credits, and apparently without Trigonometry or a Pre-Calculus class. [RNO] So, why would increasing mathematics instruction standards result in essentially the same standard offerings from 50 years ago? The answer is certainly not a derogation of RHS’s standards or student population. It’s quite likely because the students who could absorb and benefit from higher mathematics comprise the same proportion of the student population as that of the class of ’49.

In our haste to “raise” standards all too often we confuse the necessary with the desireable. Having some basic background in calculus and statistics would definitely make a person a better consumer of information gleaned from polling, academic studies, and the like; but, for most functional people the capacity to resolve a quadratic equation isn’t a daily necessity. Life can get even more bizarre when the academic overtakes the practical. Witness the state standards for economics instruction.

Nevada youngsters are to emerge from their high schools understanding the concept of incentives, nominal and real GDP, the Consumer Price Index, monetary and bartered trade, supply, demand, and price elasticity. They are to “analyze the roles of financial institutions in creating credit.” They should be able to explain mediums of exchange and units of account, and the M1 and M2 money supply measurements. However, if one is looking for the phrase “reconciling a checking account” … it’s not there. For that matter, nowhere do we actually require that a youngster know how to properly write a check. Nothing in the standards appears to directly address the different types of business enterprises common in Nevada – single proprietorships, partnerships, and corporations. We require competency on subjects like international trade, but evidently don’t place equal emphasis on how to create and implement business plans in the domestic economy. Those elements are left for the Business Standards. Last time I looked, business department classes were electives.

In terms of our requirements for economic education in Nevada we’ve emphasized the academic, relegated the practical to the business department elective courses, and assumed that someone else was providing the life skills necessary to compare consumer loan terms and reconcile checking accounts. What we do, and don’t require, leads to questions about testing programs which are supposed to “measure” comprehension and attainment.

5) The testing trap. The first flaw in the argument that we can quantify educational attainment is simply that some things cannot be measured. For example, how does one measure “appreciation?” We can measure whether or not an individual recognizes “Beethoven,” but not whether the person understands Romantic Era symphonies sufficiently to enjoy the music. Similarly, we can measure whether or not an individual remembers that Picasso had a Blue Period, but not whether the person can explain their preference for Picasso, Braque, or Monet. Those things we cannot quantify tend to be marginalized in discussions of educational achievement. “If it were important we would test for it,” too often translates to “If we can’t measure it then it must not be important.”

The second flaw revolves around what measurable things ought to be incorporated in a testing regime. The first question is Who gets to determine what gets measured? Returning to the economics/business realm for a moment, a professor assigned to teach Econ 101 may have a very different set of requirements for a high school graduate than the owner of a local business seeking to hire a sales assistant or office help. Thus, our testing programs may be vulnerable to the particular needs and aspirations of those who can exercise the greatest influence over the content of the curriculum, and not necessarily those who have the widest range of understanding of the practical applications of the content in ordinary lives.

The third flaw is the tendency to reverse the priority by which high stakes tests become a substitute for the curriculum instead of measuring the attainment of it. It’s entirely possible for a school to lose control of its curriculum when its teachers start “teaching to the test.” Control, in this situation, reverts to the test manufacturers and away from local and state school officials; from those who are accountable to the parents and the community to those who are not.

In a better world we would offer “exciting, new and innovative educational opportunities” to our young people, but to do so will require addressing the validity of our political philosophy, our commitment to providing the resources necessary, our expectations of student performance, and our ability to become wary of testing traps.

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