Increased education spending must improve student outcomes

Nevada faces significant challenges in literacy. Consider the status quo: only 27 percent of fourth graders and 30 percent of eighth graders were proficient in reading on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The Nevada Legislature and Gov. Brian Sandoval recently approved an unprecedented $177 million state investment for three initiatives to tackle this issue: Zoom Schools, Victory Schools and Read by 3. The key question is how to implement these programs so they translate into a higher return on investment — measured as improved student outcomes in literacy.

At first glance, these three programs appear to have different goals. Zoom Schools target English Language Learners, Victory Schools intend to improve outcomes for low-income students, and Read by 3 aims to ensure that all students are reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

Looking deeper, however, these programs are highly interrelated. All three programs serve overlapping populations and have duplicative priorities and eligible uses of funds. Zoom Schools and Victory Schools both have high levels of English Language Learners and low-income students. In addition, all three programs include instructional interventions to enable students to read proficiently by grade 3. While the list of eligible uses varies slightly for each program, all three programs allow funds to be used for intervention programs, summer academies, extended school days and professional development.

While the state’s investment in targeted intervention programs is new, the schools slated to receive Zoom and Victory funds have received substantial support over the years from federal and private sources. Over the 2015-2017 biennium, school districts and charter schools will receive more than $260 million to address the needs of at-risk students, English Language Learners and struggling readers.

Given that past efforts have not resulted in significant academic gains, what critical steps should state and local officials take to ensure a higher return on investment from state and federal funds?

First, school districts need to resist the historic tendency to create an administrative silo for each program, which can occur when programs are segregated under a different department or administrator and staff do not communicate or collaborate effectively. Instead, school districts should place all three programs under one point of contact to allow schools to collaborate and share ideas and services.

Second, to achieve transformative change, schools need to move beyond the traditional focus on compliance. Instead, the emphasis should be on performance and accountability. School districts should develop a comprehensive strategy at each school to address the unique needs of students, then determine how available state, federal and private funding can be used to address these needs. To ensure accountability, each of the new state programs will have specific and rigorous goals and outcome measures, as well as an independent evaluation to measure success.

Third, a strong emphasis should be placed on ensuring highly effective teachers are placed at low-performing schools. This will be challenging. Many of the best teachers have traditionally shied away from low-performing schools, resulting in a high number of novice teachers and long-term substitutes at the schools that most need effective teachers. Schools should explore how they can use both monetary and nonmonetary financial incentives to recruit and retain the best teachers at these schools.

Lastly, schools must place a high priority on providing high-quality professional development for teachers. Research shows that the most effective professional development is job-embedded, ongoing and led by teachers. Each of the aforementioned programs includes a professional development component. The key will be blending these resources together to create a comprehensive professional development program that is adaptive to the needs of teachers and results in improved student outcomes.

The unprecedented infusion of state funds provides Nevada schools with a unique opportunity to address the state’s literacy crisis. However, state and local education officials must now take focused and deliberate steps to ensure that the public’s monies are well-spent and that student outcomes improve.

Victoria Carreón is director of education policy at the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities. Nancy E. Brune, Ph.D., is executive director of the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities.

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