A new super

You might not have noticed amid this fall’s election frenzy, but the Clark County School Board hired a new superintendent a few weeks back.

Dwight Jones will replace the retiring Walt Rulffes as the school district’s chief executive officer Dec. 15. Mr. Jones built modest reform credentials as Colorado’s education commissioner, and comes to Las Vegas just in time to deal with serious tax revenue declines, a pivotal legislative session and the challenge of improving stagnant, below-average student achievement across much of the district.

Last week, Mr. Jones, 48, used a news conference to call for community support, saying leadership of the country’s fifth-largest school system would be a public partnership.

As Mr. Jones meets administrators, teachers, support staff, parents, business leaders, students and regular taxpayers, no doubt he’ll get two earfuls about what doesn’t work in Clark County schools and what needs to be done. He’ll get some very good suggestions, some exaggerations and a lot of white noise. But Mr. Jones’ most urgent priority is obvious, and it has been for some time. It’s something his predecessors have been unable or unwilling to address. It’s the single most damaging practice in public education.

Mr. Jones must immediately end social promotion in Clark County’s elementary schools.

All of the school district’s worst failures — achievement levels that decline as students get older, low graduation rates, High School Proficiency Exam failures — can be traced back to the advancement of young students who haven’t mastered basic subject matter.

High school students’ woeful performance on assessment tests, in particular, reflects a culture that emphasizes shoving kids forward, rather than verifying whether they’re capable of learning more rigorous material.

Students are supposed to build this academic foundation in elementary school. They bring home report cards with A’s and B’s, which gives their parents the overwhelming impression that their children, far from struggling, are above-average students. Girls and boys advance with their friends to third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade.

And then on to middle school, where the foundation starts to crumble. By high school, for many students, the foundation is little more than a layer of mud.

Mr. Jones said Thursday that “we’ve got to be accountable for the growth of the students,” and “we have to be really honest about what we’re not doing well.” Good.

But accountability and honesty go far beyond reporting test scores and graduation rates. Public schools are not being accountable or honest when they allow students and parents to think all is well when it clearly is not. Parents and kids cannot be held accountable for their shortcomings when lousy students are made to think they’re OK.

The district needs to require elementary school students to pass a rigorous standardized test to advance to higher grades and middle school. Mandatory promotion exams are not new. Several states and cities already use them. Florida, in particular, has seen significant achievement gains over the years by imposing promotion tests, along with other reforms.

Such a significant change in our elementary schools won’t go over well with educators who are more concerned with student self-esteem than actual achievement. And, no doubt, it will sting a lot of families once implemented.

But by not failing students when they are young, we inevitably fail them when they get older.

We trust Mr. Jones agrees.


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