Stop cheerleading

One of the good things about producing our news story this week about Nevada again falling behind in education is that policymakers we spoke with made no excuses.

As you can read on page 8, the annual education survey by Education Week showed Nevada with poor grades in six out of six categories. It placed last in the nation.

When we spoke with state legislators, they didn’t try to sugar-coat it. They made it clear that Nevada is not just failing but is falling back.

They did not say, “This is a Clark County problem. Washoe County is doing well.” That’s the argument officials in Washoe County have been making for decades. It’s time to admit Clark into Nevada.

Nor did they say, “This is stale data.” That is the excuse state officials have used time after time.

So we were disappointed when the Reno Gazette-Journal interviewed Washoe school superintendent Pedro Martinez, and he used both of these arguments. Though no direct quote was used, the newspaper reported Martinez said the Education Week survey “is based on old data. … on 2012 graduation rates and test scores.”

Let’s set aside the fact that 2014 was only 13 days old when that RG-J article was published and that 2012 isn’t exactly when Columbus sailed. Last week, we noticed different year dates in the report, and we inquired at Education Week about methodology.

The annual survey from the publication is anxiously awaited each year in part because it is an ongoing survey. That is, it tracks trends, not just the information of the moment. It’s a film, not a snapshot, so data overlaps from year to year. Each year half the categories are updated. This year, the “chance for success,” K-12 achievement, and school finance data categories have the most current data available. The standards and accountability, transitions and alignments, and teaching professions data are carried over from the last report. Next time the last three will presumably be updated.

This isn’t stale data. Nevada operates on a two-year budget system. The new budget approved by the lawmakers in June hardly had enough time to have any impact on this survey.

The Gazette-Journal also reported, “Martinez said the only F on the report given to Nevada is in funding.” This is a reference to a subcategory of school finance. School finance is broken down into equity and level of spending, and Nevada received an F on the spending level. But that wasn’t the only F. Under the kindergarten-12th grade achievement category, Nevada received an F for the current status of student achievement. But even if Mr. Martinez were correct, and Nevada had received “only” one F, what kind of school superintendent brags about such a thing?

The trend line in the Education Week report is clear, and claiming stale data is just an excuse. Fortunately, Superintendent Martinez administers, he doesn’t set policy. But he should know that in a state with dozens of poor national rankings, a happy face on bad news is a mistake.

If there’s one thing this state does not need from officialdom, it is more cheerleading. For a half-century an upbeat spin has substituted for actual achievement in this state, not just in education but in mental health, economic development, tax equity, and dozens of other fields. How urgent can things be if a survey placing Nevada last in the nation is sugar-coated? The state needs harsh talk.