Local ‘scholars’ can’t walk the walk

It’s amazing we needed colossal failure on a test to prove that — by and large — the kids of the Clark County School District don’t know math.

Anyone who conducts commerce in Las Vegas should have realized that before.

If you want to really stun a kid working a restaurant counter or other retail establishment, give him a few pennies with your cash to help round out the change you get back. Invariably, you’ll still get pennies back, but rarely in the right amount.

Forget algebra and geometry. Cast aside any thought of widespread literary understanding.

Many high school teachers in the Clark County School District will tell you they can’t start any curriculum because most of the kids they get can’t do basic math and don’t know how to structure a sentence properly.

How can you teach to a test that assumes the student has already mastered his multiplication tables when it’s clear many kids haven’t?

School administrators like to talk about “high-stakes” tests, the kind in which a student needs to show a certain level of aptitude to earn a diploma.

Whatever happened to the regular low-stakes test of passing a grade?

Seems to me the great failure of the system isn’t that the overwhelming majority of algebra and geometry students can’t pass a math test. It would appear the greatest flaw is allowing kids to pass third or sixth or eighth grade without knowing the educational equivalent of tying their shoes.

We’ve heard a lot of talk from University Chancellor Jim Rogers about college kids needing remediation. Indeed, the vast number of our “scholars” in the higher education system do need help in math and English.

In the rush to prove our kids have “earned” their high school diplomas and that schools are making “adequate yearly process,” we’ve forgotten to teach them anything.

I’m not suggesting this is unique to Las Vegas, but it would appear the added strains of growth and transiency and increasing numbers of kids who don’t know English, make teaching to any test nearly impossible.

The state of Nevada has set fairly high educational standards for its students to meet. And State Board of Education officials should be commended for raising the bar.

We want our children to be successful and compete with kids from China and India and Virginia and, even, Mississippi.

But raising the standards doesn’t automatically lift all ships.

And if we’ve learned anything from the disastrous No Child Left Behind Act, it’s that perceived accountability is standing in the way of real adequate yearly progress.

Under the federal mandate, which has never been fully funded, schools are required to meet certain low bars of growth to avoid being blacklisted.

So, while a majority of students might still might technically not be meeting standards, the school can attain progress if the percentage of those failing drops.

The focus of No Child really is at the bottom. A school that meets standards gets a specific designation that is meant to instill confidence. Yet the state’s standards really imply that students are exceeding the meager academic challenges of No Child, when in fact teachers, principals and students are merely treading water until the next high-stakes test.

What good is accountability if a child can’t add two columns of numbers in middle school?

My relatively minor experience with the schools here involves fairly regular visits to classrooms to speak or read to students.

At one recent high school social studies class, it was clear most kids had no understanding of basic civics. You can forget talking about the branches of government and the role of media when most kids don’t know the difference between a mayor, a governor and a senator.

Once, when reading to a fourth-grade classroom, the teacher was surprised I had brought along a chapter book. Forget Harry Potter, these kids were still on “Harry the Dirty Dog.”

I’ve talked to numerous high school teachers who tell me about the blank stares and the blank answer sheets and the review — there’s always review, because there’s never enough kids who get it.

Of course all kids are hurt in this scenario. It’s not necessarily their fault for being promoted to higher grades without having higher knowledge.

It used to be said that there was a certain stigma for a kid being held back. Now it seems we push them all forward and we don’t care about the bigger stigma — that they don’t know basic educational concepts. At least now they’re showing their ignorance at grade level with their peers.

And what about the rare kid who does get it? Seems at least half the kids at A-Tech passed one of the January math tests. Somewhere, in some classes, there are kids who not only get it, but get screwed for knowing.

Sure, the greater story is that 90 percent-plus of kids don’t understand what they’re taught. That’s a tragedy. It’s a downright farce what we’re doing to the 10 percent or so who did pass.

How can a teacher push a kid in algebra when he or she must spend the bulk of class time revisiting elementary school concepts?

The community dialogue about public schools seems largely to be focused on unattainable policy like adequate funding on one end and school choice on the other.

It would be nice if we could just get back to readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic.

Contact Erin Neff at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at

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