There’s blame to go around

Education “reformers” desperately need someone to blame.

According to Nevada’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dale Erquiaga, “The truth is even worse than the statistics would have you believe.”

Erquiaga gave an interview to the Las Vegas Review-Journal citing the National Assessment of Educational Progress report tracking results of annual exams given at fourth and eighth grades. Just a third of Nevada’s fourth-grade students are rated adequate in math and only 27 percent of them are reading at grade level.

Erquiaga responded, “We’re not being honest in our historic reporting of where we are, and we’re certainly not being prepared or ready for where we’re going.” He then cited the finding that almost one-half of Nevada’s high school graduates must take remedial classes in college as evidence of poor academic performance. Just 30 percent of Nevadans hold a college degree but in five years, it’s estimated that up to 65 percent of our jobs will require post-high school education.

Fair enough. But then Erquiaga jumps to the wrong conclusion, joining the chorus of education reformers who are convinced bad teachers and principals are solely to blame for our education woes. His solution? Punish them into better performance.

Erquiaga talks of “consequences” for falling short of educational goals, but no one has ever been able to explain to me how punishing low-performing schools by withholding money will improve education. Shouldn’t we be looking more closely at the reasons behind the poor performance which are likely linked to poverty, lack of school readiness, overcrowded classrooms, and tired and frustrated teachers? Why not add more tutors, reading and visual therapy programs, lower class sizes, after-school and summer programs, literacy for parents, extended school days and other services offered at so-called “zoom schools” that are already showing incredible results?

Surely Erquiaga sees the obvious and understands what must be done. But predictably for someone who works for a “no new taxes” governor, he buys wholesale into the “reform movement” whose primary success has been to distract us from what’s really needed: more funding. Erquiaga promises that additional money for education approved in the 2015 legislative session will “come with repercussions for schools that spend and don’t show success,” an implicit threat that is unlikely to motivate a single teacher to volunteer to move to an underperforming school.

Celebrity reformer Michelle Rhee, who was consulted by Gov. Brian Sandoval and invited to his first State of the State speech as a prominent guest in 2011, plans to step down from her position as CEO of StudentsFirst soon. She leaves a shrinking organization, failing to produce the vaunted $1 billion she promised to raise for candidates who believe in her style of corporate education reform, seen in many circles as virulently anti-union.

Rhee’s reforms haven’t yet produced the promised results in Nevada. The new teacher evaluation system she pushed, approved by the 2011 Legislature, has yet to be implemented three years later.

StudentsFirst recently pulled out of five states, but remains active in Nevada where its PAC made its largest contributions during this year’s election cycle. Two Democratic Senators, Moises Denis and Justin Jones, received the maximum contribution of $10,000 each while Republican Sens. Ben Kieckhefer and Michael Roberson raked in $10,000 and $9,000 respectively.

The reformers are determined to press on. Elaine Wynn, the current president of Nevada’s state school board, told the Review-Journal, “This is not easy work. This isn’t for the fainthearted. We lose generations of kids as we fuss around with it.”

Let me offer a small piece of advice then: stop fussing. Fund every school as if it were a zoom school, value our teachers instead of threatening them, and show them the respect a professional deserves. Then stand back as Nevada’s students soar.