Review-Journal business poll: Schools need to improve


Brian Rouff sees his fair share of résumés peppered with mistakes.

And the search for qualified local employees doesn't often improve much when he speaks with prospects via phone.

"I can only judge from what comes across my desk, but from my personal experience, I would say the communications skills could definitely stand to be better," said Rouff, managing partner of Henderson-based Imagine Marketing of Nevada. "Most of the résumés we get don't even get candidates to the interview point because they're loaded with typographical errors and grammatical problems. And I'll talk to some applicants on the phone, and most of them are not up to the standards we're looking for."

That's a problem, because Rouff's company is a communications firm. Its employees need to be able to, well, communicate.

If a recent Review-Journal survey is any indication, plenty of local business owners and managers share Rouff's experiences. They say they're concerned about the caliber of graduates from local schools and universities. They worry about the skill levels of the work force they draw their labor from, and they fret that substandard schools will make it tough to diversify Nevada's economy.

Not one respondent out of nearly 70 participants in the Review-Journal's December business poll said local schools and universities were very effective at preparing students for work. Roughly half said schools were somewhat effective. The remainder said area schools and colleges weren't at all effective.

"Our public schools are shameful," wrote commercial real estate appraiser Charles Jack. "Our public schools are consistently in the bottom five of the country in every article I read. That's just a disgrace. How do 90 percent of the kids in our high schools fail an algebra-competency exam? What the heck is going on? Those kinds of numbers did not exist when I went to high school in the '80s."

Agreed Dan Connell, chief executive officer of San Jose Test Engineering in Las Vegas: "This is a trick question, right? Just take a look at the latest math (and other academic) scores in Clark County schools."

Connell said in a follow-up interview that he's especially noticed an "appalling lack of critical-thinking skills" among local graduates. And that skills shortage has broader economic implications. When local schools don't produce qualified workers, Connell said, he and other executives must search outside Las Vegas for talent. Bigger recruiting costs and relocation expenses follow, and companies raise prices as a result. Higher prices, in turn, make businesses less competitive.

Rouff, who sent his children to Nevada's public schools and universities, was quick to emphasize that Imagine Marketing found several great hires from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The top percentage of new UNLV graduates prove well-prepared to work at the public relations firm, he said.

"I don't want it to sound like I blame the schools. I understand what they're trying to do in the scope of limited resources, which unfortunately look like they're becoming more limited," Rouff said. "A large part of the problem is the schools don't have everything they need to do the job."

But many more survey respondents blamed poor performance inside county schools on unaccountable teachers and administrators, as well as a lack of competition.

"Our educational system is for the birds. Money is not the issue," wrote Lincoln Spoor, chief executive officer of Westward Dough Operating Co., which runs 13 Krispy Kreme Doughnuts franchises in five states and one local Caribou Coffee franchise. "We have spent trillions of dollars on education since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program and our schools are worse than ever. The kids graduating today have significantly fewer skills in math and English than they had in the 1960s. The federal government is primarily to blame for this. The system is corrupt and there is no accountability."

With 37 percent of the vote, increasing accountability among teachers and administrators won the top spot among several potential school-system fixes. Teaching hard skills, including fundamentals in math and language, came in second, tying at 16.9 percent with the number of participants who called for a combination of approaches. Deconsolidation of the massive Clark County School District -- the nation's fifth largest -- won the approval of 13.8 percent, while boosting school funding collected 9.2 percent of the vote. An additional 3.1 percent said they didn't know what could improve local schools. Another 3.1 percent wrote in school competition as an option.

Spoor, who said he sometimes has to hire extra workers to make up for skills and service deficits among employees, recommended competition. Encouraging school choice with measures such as vouchers would force administrators who run area schools to better their offerings, he said.

"Nothing makes you better than knowing someone is right up your tailpipe. It keeps you sharp, motivated and hungry," Spoor said. "If you don't have competition, you're not going to innovate, you're not going to step it up, you're not going to push. I just think competition makes people and companies better. The school system has not really ever had any competition."

For Ray Bacon, executive director of the Nevada Manufacturers Association, fomenting school competition and ending social promotion would upgrade performance inside local schools. Teachers today must educate classes full of kids with widely disparate levels of mastery over earlier material. It's a Herculean task few professionals could manage, Bacon said.

The solution: Don't allow any student out of the third grade until he can read. Better yet, Bacon suggested, reconfigure schools from age-based grade levels into classroom groups assembled by mastery levels. At Nevada's universities, expanding online distance education would both slash budgetary needs and make it easier for busy commuter students to attend class.

But Rouff, who encouraged three of his 15 employees to attend a UNLV rally last week protesting education-budget cuts, said he believes schools need more funding most of all. For accountability, additional expenditures should require specific achievement benchmarks that would measure the effectiveness of spending infusions.

"I'm sympathetic with the people who say they can't afford more money (in taxes). Every family, every organization, every business, every nonprofit and even the government -- we're all dealing with the same issues," Rouff said. "But I think it's a matter of realistically assessing our priorities. There has to be a will for that, which means people need to recognize how important education is for the future of our state. We're going to be No. 50 pretty soon if this keeps up, and that does not bode well for our future. We'll be a Third World state before they're done with us."

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

 

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