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State schools superintendent argues against automatic teacher raises

RENO – Nevada schools “waste” millions of dollars every year by awarding automatic raises to teachers for simply returning and taking courses beyond their bachelor degrees, argued Nevada Superintendent of Public Schools James Guthrie to the Nevada Association of School Boards on Friday.

He said the current teacher salary schedule, used by most of the state’s 17 districts, needs to be eliminated. It includes the Clark County School District, which teaches almost 75 percent of all Nevada students, and must give returning teachers annual raises of $1,465 because of its contract with the teachers union.

“We need to pay for effectiveness, not things that have no bearing on student achievement,” argued the superintendent partway through his first full school year at the helm, acknowledging his statements probably will cause a backlash from teachers unions.

That backlash probably will extend to his “top priority,” which is not persuading the state Legislature to give more money to public schools, as the Nevada State Education Association and local teachers unions have pushed in their statewide business margins tax. A solid teacher evaluation system must come first, Guthrie said.

“I’m not open to debate about that,” he said.

The state has about 23,000 teachers in K-12 schools, but he doesn’t know “how many of them are effective,” he said, realizing principals know their best and worst teachers but are murky about those in the middle. A new teacher evaluation system is under construction by a Legislature-appointed council and will rely on student test scores. The plan is to implement it statewide in 2013. Districts now have their own evaluation methods, which often rely on principals observing teachers, which is subjective.

“We’ve got to find a way to pinpoint their effectiveness with confidence,” Guthrie said, placing a greater emphasis on building a pool of “effective teachers” than on decreasing class sizes, which are unusually high in Nevada. At 35 students per teacher, Clark County has the largest average class size of the country’s 20 largest school districts.

But that dubious ranking isn’t of great concern, Guthrie said.

“The U.S. has succumbed to the delusion of small class sizes,” he said, arguing that “small classes with bad teachers gives you nothing.”

But, he said, effective teachers with many students can make a difference if students have another effective teacher the following years.

Guthrie alluded to implementing a merit system, awarding teachers more pay when their students succeed. That way, the top-performing 10 percent to 15 percent of teachers would be earning salaries on par with lawyers and doctors, making the field more attractive to college students deciding between careers.

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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