Fresh Ideas: Nevada’s schools can’t afford to fail
January 29, 2014
I hated reading "Nevada in last place again in education survey," (Nevada Appeal, January 9, 2014). I had to agree with State Superintendent Dale Erquiaga's statement about the Education Week Quality Counts survey. "It's a little unfair to put it on the schools." For better or worse, schools reflect the communities they serve.
The survey cites multiple data sources including the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores. NAEP has been testing a randomized sample of fourth and eighth graders every other year since 1973. It shows trends over time. NAEP reveals that Nevada students continue to make progress in both math and reading.
Furthermore, our schools closed the achievement gap for low-income students, even as half of Nevada's students qualified for free and reduced lunch in 2012. Half. We know poor children face profound academic challenges and yet — thanks to dedicated teachers — our kids are doing better.
All this is good news, just not good enough.
The EW survey puts Nevada's high school graduation rate at an embarrassing sixty-three percent. However, that statistic depends on how it was calculated. According to Kids Count (http://www.aecf.org), Nevada's drop-out rate is a respectable 4.1 percent. Carson City's is even lower, at 3.4 percent.
Diane Ravitch, education historian and author of Reign of Error points out, "If you count only those who graduate in four years, then it is about 75 percent… If you add those who took five or six years… <and> those who received a GED or some other alternate degree, it is up to 90 percent."
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Finally, the EW survey calls attention to Nevada's abysmal per-pupil spending. We rank 49th.
Certainly, Nevada's weak economy is a factor. Our unemployment rate continues a full two points higher than the national average. Roughly one in five Nevadans is poor. Some might believe that Nevada's low per-pupil spending is a common sense response to the recession. They'd be wrong.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, since 2001 Nevada has never ranked higher than 46th. Our high point was in 1997 when we soared to 35th.
Granted, money alone is not the answer. Nonetheless, smaller class sizes, early childhood programs, professional development, support staff (like school nurses and counselors), arts education, libraries and technology go a long way to offsetting the effects of poverty. Those resources improve students' chances of becoming successful, contributing members of our community. And isn't that the goal of public education?
There are no quick fixes. Current efforts may take a decade or more to show significant results. However, teachers, parents and others who care about Nevada's children can't afford to become discouraged. Too much is at stake. We must elect and support leaders who aren't afraid to champion and defend the most democratic, essential, and hopeful of our institutions–our public schools.
Lorie Schaefer is a retired Nevada teacher.