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Nevada has made strides on education, but plenty of work remains

In the last legislative session, Nevadans approved bold changes to the state’s public education system to ensure schools work better for the people they are built to serve: children. Now it’s time to put those reforms into place in ways that not only make the laws passed worth the paper they’re printed on, but also lead to solid learning gains.

Amid national partisan bickering, Gov. Brian Sandoval, state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, Assemblywoman Debbie Smith and Assemblyman David Bobzien led the effort in Nevada to come together in a bipartisan way to bring common-sense change to schools. Now we need to make sure that success isn’t squandered.

The new law requires job performance be considered when teacher layoffs arise, rather than basing layoffs on seniority alone. That will be important this year if the economic slump forces a reduction in Nevada’s teaching force. No one wants that to happen, but if it does, it’s critical we keep the best teachers in the classrooms.

The law also requires officials to come up with a new, fair and objective statewide evaluation system for educators. That will replace a system in which teachers were typically reviewed infrequently, subjectively and in ways that didn’t reward excellence or help those struggling to improve.

Under the new law, a newly appointed Teachers and Leaders Council must recommend what the evaluation system should look like. The council should design a rigorous and transparent system that provides teachers with the feedback they need and want. The council also should swiftly engage stakeholders, such as teachers, school administrators and parents in a meaningful conversation about the changes.

Ultimately, the new evaluation system must recognize great teaching and, when necessary, remove struggling teachers who don’t improve. Too much is at stake to do otherwise. Research by Stanford University expert Eric Hanushek shows that an effective teacher generates three times the academic gains of an ineffective teacher. By supporting and evaluating the quality of a teacher’s work with kids, we are prioritizing a quality education for all students and laying the groundwork for a stronger future work force in Nevada. Great teaching and learning will help ensure Nevada children are career and college ready.

Though the reforms passed were sweeping, our work in the Legislature on education is far from complete. Lawmakers should build on the momentum of the past session and pursue new and equally important changes that will benefit kids and families. For example, many states are considering empowering parents of children in chronically failing schools to petition to make key changes at those schools. This could include changing a school’s management structure or its leadership. Parental engagement is critical to student success, and we have to do everything we can to empower parents to become more engaged in their children’s education. Nevadans should consider such legislation as well.

Turning around a failing school can take time, and as a mother to two school-age daughters, I just don’t think any child should have to wait it out in a terribly underperforming school because it’s the one they were assigned to based on their ZIP code. Several years in an ineffective classroom can have a horrible effect on a child’s entire life trajectory. Knowing that, Nevada legislators need to empower low-income families who are stuck in chronically failing schools with the chance to get public scholarships to attend high-quality private schools. Any private school that participates should, of course, be held accountable for the learning that happens there, in the same way that is expected of traditional district and public charter schools.

We know there are some who think we’ve done enough, or perhaps even too much, to try to shake up the status quo in our schools. But when you look at the picture of education in Nevada, you see we have to keep working at this.

The unemployment rate in the state is more than 13 percent, higher than anywhere else in the country. Improving schools will help ensure kids gain the knowledge and skills employers are looking for. Nevada also has one of the highest dropout rates in the country, and achievement levels for kids who are in school are far too low. The percentage of children in Nevada who can read or do math competently, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress, hovers between roughly 20 and 30 percent in the elementary- and middle-school grades. Surely, we can all agree that’s not good enough.

If we pull together and make sure the changes we already fought for are put in place in a thoughtful way and advocate for additional student-centered reforms, we can give kids in Nevada the education and bright futures they deserve.

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s schools, is CEO of StudentsFirst, a public education reform group.

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