County school district’s accountability program is designed to mislead

The Clark County School District’s School Performance Framework is in conflict with the state of Nevada’s framework. The district’s framework (designed by Ken Turner, a special assistant to the superintendent and an outside consultant) will cause a great deal of confusion in the community when the state releases the results of its framework.

Both frameworks rank schools by assigning stars. Clark County’s model relies heavily on what it describes as “growth.” The state’s program, while incorporating growth, has a greater emphasis on proficiency. This results in schools with low proficiency rates in Clark County earning four stars from the district’s accountability system and only two stars from the state’s system. The state was expected to release its results last month, but officials have decided to wait until after the 2013 legislative session.

The whole idea behind the accountability system is for parents and the community to know how a school is performing. Having these conflicting results will not inform the community at all. This lack of transparency leads to problems with credibility and higher levels of distrust in public education. As sure as the sun will rise in the morning, the public will be told by state and local representatives that the reports are being held up by technical difficulties — which will be fixed once the Legislature adjourns.

While the district continuously touts transparency, more and more people believe the transparency occurs only when it benefits the resumes of school district officials. The Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Las Vegas Sun have requested information regarding graduation rates. They have not received the information. District officials suggest state law does not require that they release it.

A joke about the district’s framework is beginning to circulate around the state at Clark County’s expense: To see stars in Clark County, you only need look up at night, because that doesn’t demand a lot of proficiency.

Earlier this year, it was reported that schools in Clark County whose scores declined were “held harmless.” That means that they were awarded more stars than they earned.

These inconsistencies do not bode well for a new teacher evaluation system required by the state. If the district and state are so far apart rating schools, teachers should be concerned about this inconsistency and possible unfairness in their evaluations, which already raise an abundance of unanswered questions.

One huge problem with both accountability systems is the use of a single descriptor — in this case the number of stars — to determine school performance. If the accountability system is supposed to inform the community, then proficiency and growth should be reported separately. People, especially parents, have a right to know how their school is performing based on proficiency. They also have a right to know if the school is moving in the right direction — improvement.

Combining them into a single statistic and assigning stars does not inform anyone. It merely leads to more questions.

One of the problems facing the school district is its elected trustees. They don’t ask questions. Anyone who has taken a class in statistics knows the first rule of statistics is to ask the next question.

A few superintendents ago, all students were required to take algebra in the eighth grade. That resulted in very high failure rates. The argument the superintendent used back then to support his initiative: He’d rather have the students take and fail a more rigorous course such as algebra than take pre-algebra, because it would serve the students better in the long run.

Members of the community thought that was a bold move, a reform worth supporting, an idea that would move Southern Nevada ahead educationally. They supported it. Math educators thought it was nuts. Well, the most recent research suggests students who were forced to enroll in algebra without the necessary knowledge and skills underperformed their peers who were not forced into taking algebra unprepared.

That’s a lesson lost here. In Clark County’s School Performance Framework, schools are awarded stars based on the number of students enrolled in advanced classes. You’d like to think the stars would be rewarded based on student performance.

This plan has resulted in students being deliberately misplaced in advanced classes so the schools could be awarded more stars. You’d also think the school district would adopt a “do no harm” policy in this star chase. Instead, the district is ignoring history and any research that proves inconvenient.

And to what avail did the schools earn these stars by deliberately misplacing students? Not much. Because when the state’s School Performance Framework is released — even if it is after the legislative session — everyone will know they were being deliberately misled.

And who pays for it? The students. The students who did not receive the assistance they needed. The students who were not properly placed. Those same students are more likely to become credit deficient, which places their graduation in jeopardy.

The students who earn the right to be in those classes through past performance also pay a toll. Their teachers were distracted, taking care of attendance and discipline issues, addressing student deficiencies and other issues, taking time away from instruction.

Last year, schools were told to take 15 minutes out of their 50 minutes of instruction every day, in classes such as algebra, for “interventions”: Teachers helping students who were behind who probably did not have the prerequisite knowledge and skills to be there in the first place. So students who had the necessary knowledge and skills, who came to school every day, paid attention, etc., had their instruction cut by 30 percent. Then the higher-ups want to know why students are performing poorly.

Who else pays for it? The teachers. Their class sizes are some of the largest in the country. The average first-year algebra class in Clark County has 37 to 42 students in it. So those teachers are dealing with approximately 200 students per day in crowded conditions, not enough books and supplies, dealing with students with Individualized Educational Programs, students referred from the judicial system, students not taking their medications, students being misplaced — and those teachers are then asked to teach a more rigorous course of study because of the adoption of Common Core Standards.

How can they continually take time out of academic classes to provide interventions for students who should not have been placed there in the first place, yet successfully implement the more rigorous Common Core Standards?

This star chasing also affects taxpayers, because we will be expected to pay more for the remediation of these students who were misplaced. History suggests it is always better and cheaper to do it right the first time.

The Clark County School District would better serve its students by getting out of the public-relations mode and into the education that occurs in the classroom. Creating a 12-member public relations team while crying poor and asking teachers to do more with less sounds a little disingenuous.

Bill Hanlon (, director of the Southern Nevada Regional Professional Development Program, has been an educator for more than 30 years. He was the coordinator of Clark County School District’s Math/Science Institute, and he served as vice president of the Nevada State Board of Education.

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