Lawmakers and educators agreed Saturday that, before they can improve K-12 education in Nevada, they have to figure out what schools are doing right and what they’re doing wrong.
There is no way to determine how to make education work better without that information, said State Superintendent James Guthrie. He added that the “longitudinal data system” now being developed can provide what educators and lawmakers need.
Much of the discussion centered on the effectiveness of reducing class sizes, which Nevada has never fully studied. It will spend more than $160 million on such studies in each of the next two years.
“This data system is going to be a treasure trove,” Guthrie told a joint panel of the Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees.
Deputy Superintendent Deborah Cunningham said that data system will provide “information on the return on investment — what is the payback and, if we do it differently, what is the payback.”
“It used to be about how money is raised and distributed,” she said. “Now it’s about what money buys you.”
Guthrie said the information educators hope to develop must help teachers become more effective in the classroom, that just adding money to reduce the number of students in a class isn’t, by itself, the magic bullet.
“I would love more money for education,” he said. “But if we’re going to have that, I would like to see it spent wisely. If we just reduce class size, that would not be effective.”
Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, said the analysis is vital to make changes in the education system — including to the teacher professional development programs.
“Once we have data, we can move forward not on ideological debates but actual data,” he said.
Guthrie said that data system is the first of three components to improve K-12 “by combining these data about inputs, student characteristics, teacher characteristics and outcomes.”
The second, he said, is using the “fair and comprehensive data to rate each public school in the state.” The first take on that rating system — one through five stars — will come out this year.
Third, Guthrie said, is developing the system to individually evaluate the performance of teachers and principals, a process he said no state has gotten right so far.
“The new evaluation system will enable the needs to be tied to the individual teacher,” he said. “It is not set out there to punish. It’s set out there to help.”
That data, he said, will drive changes in the professional development programs for teachers so they get the help they need to become better. Guthrie described the current professional development system as “useless; it comes to teachers in ways they cannot use.”
Assemblyman Andy Eisen, D-Las Vegas, asked whether he means professional development is useless “or the way it’s currently done is not helpful.”
Guthrie said it’s the latter because professional development “is directed from the top,” by administrators.
“Teachers say it doesn’t feed into what they believe they need in order to improve their instruction,” he said adding that’s a national problem.
“My hope is in Nevada we can replace that.”
He and committee members agreed one of the biggest challenges in Nevada’s school system is the growing number of English-language learners.
Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, said it isn’t just Hispanic children trying to learn English.
“It isn’t because they’re fluent in some other language,” she said. “Many are ELL because they can’t express themselves in any language.”
Washoe Schools Superintendent Pedro Martinez agreed. He said two-thirds of students in Clark County live in poverty, as do about half of those Washoe County.
“In Washoe, less than half our children come into kindergarten at (grade) level,” he said. “We only graduate in the low double-digits English-language learners.”
Martinez said Washoe hasn’t seen the average class size grow as much as in Clark, where the average class size from grades 6-12 is now 38 students, but only because Washoe is spending down reserves to keep classes smaller.
“Over next two years those, reserves will be gone,” he said. “If there is no additional infusion of resources, our class sizes will be where Clark is.”
Richard Stokes, Carson City’s superintendent, said the capital, like Washoe, is using its ending fund balance to keep programs operating. He said the district is looking at a $5.5 million budget shortfall this coming fiscal year.
The process of working through the recommended public schools budget will continue with another hearing Monday.