September 21st, 2018

Can Every Student Succeed?
Nevada ’s Lofty Classroom Goals

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Nevada Aims To Have “Fastest Improving” Schools In Nation
By Frank X. Mullen

 Nevada, long languishing at the bottom of the nation’s rankings of state educational systems, has one major goal from here on out: become the fastest-improving school system in the nation.

That’s what the state told the U.S. Department of Education in its planning documents under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the replacement for the federal No Child Left Behind law. Although state and local education officials weren’t big fans of the previous framework, they say ESSA brings control back to the states and makes more sense than the systems that came before. Nevada’s plan was among the first approved by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos earlier this year.

“(The new law) put us as a state back in the driver’s seat on education,” says Brett Barley, deputy superintendent, student achievement, for the Nevada Department of Education. “We really took writing our plan as an opportunity to have a statewide conversation about what are the educational plans, priorities that are uniquely tailored to what’s best for Nevada students, parents and teachers. We brought together hundreds of folks starting in June, 2016 and continuing today.”

There’s a lot of federal money on the table.

The state had to have an approved plan to be eligible for that education funding, given in grants under several sections of federal law. Nevada gets about 9.3 percent of what it spends on education from the federal government, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In Fiscal Year 2014, the latest data year available, revenues in support of the state’s public K-12 schools totaled $4.3 billion, including $2.4 billion from local taxes, $1.6 billion from the state and $400 million from federal grants.

Nevada’s K-12 education budget for 2018-2019 is $6.37 billion, with about half — $3.16 billion – coming from state government and the remainder coming from sales and property taxes and other taxes and fees.

Barley says the state focused on improvement methods that have worked elsewhere. “We identified who the top-performing states were in the various categories – high school graduation rates, test scores, 
absenteeism, ACT scores – and set a goal to beat them,” he says. “… We didn’t care who the belt holder was for a specific measure, we just knew we wanted to claim the title of fastest-improving state for whatever measure we were setting the target for.”

The plan was designed to: support the lowest performing schools, develop and retain great school leaders, make data-informed structural decisions in the classrooms to provide high-quality instruction for kids based on current achievement.

“We’re moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach and really using the data to inform how we’re teaching each individual kid and each individual classroom,” Barley says. 

While the 14-year-old No Child Left Behind system focused on identifying the low-performing schools, it didn’t offer much to help those schools become successful, critics say. Instead, schools could be closed if they didn’t make progress based on the standardized tests.

“We will stick to evidence-based solutions,” Barley says. That means “identifying the schools in need of additional support and wrap our arms around those schools. Teachers need the tools to be successful and leaders need professional development. Our team will sit side-by-side with the principal to co-create a plan to move that school forward. We identify federal and state funds that they can put to use to support those strategies.”

The department created a pre-vetted list support providers whose methods are proven to work. The schools aren’t required to choose off of that list, but he says “it’s a good resource especially for rural school districts that don’t have the resources to hunt for effective providers on their own.”

“The process will have a significant impact on student achievement and making sure were using our scarce dollars on evidence-based practices and partnerships,” Barley says. “That (process) was rare before last year. Now, nearly every Nevada school district is partnering with agencies that have a demonstrable record of success. That’s remarkable.”

Teachers’ unions also praise the new system as an improvement over No Child Left Behind.

Lisa Guzman, assistant executive director of the Nevada State Teachers Association, says ESSA gives teachers a voice in identifying the needs of individual schools. “There’s a checklist at http://myschoolmyvoice.nea.org/ that educators can use to do that,” she says.

Under the previous system, teachers had to subject students to multiple tests in order to make changes in what they did in the classroom. Standardized testing hasn’t gone away, but teachers can now treat each student as an individual when setting student learning goals. “It involves spot analysis,” Guzman says. “For example, instead of relying on a reading test, the teacher can have the student read to them” to determine their proficiency. And after using the NEA checklist, teachers can have conversations with principals about what opportunities for improvement are available under ESSA.

“We haven’t had that opportunity to have a voice before,” she says. “We have some control now.”

It’s not a perfect system, Guzman says, but it’s a step away from teachers being overwhelmed by testing requirements. “(ESSA) is a way of looking at the whole child” and not just test scores, she says. “In the end, fewer tests give the teachers more time to teach,” Guzman says. 

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