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Teachers need better professional development

Nevada faces a student literacy crisis that demands solutions. The state ranked 46th in the nation in fourth-grade reading and 40th in the nation in eighth-grade reading on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Recently, the 2014 Kids Count Data Book ranked Nevada 50th in education.

How can Nevada improve these results? Student success hinges on the teacher in the classroom. Quality instruction is the single best predictor of student achievement. While teachers learn the fundamentals of their profession through licensing programs, they need ongoing professional development and experience to master their craft. Research shows that professional development needs to be “job-embedded” and sustained to be effective.

The Guinn Center for Policy Priorities and Nevada Succeeds argue in a recently released report that improving professional development for teachers is a key to improving the quality of instruction and literacy outcomes for students. Our research will be presented Monday at 2 p.m. at the Public Education Foundation, 4350 S. Maryland Parkway, and all are welcome to attend this free event. A major portion of our research will speak to the fact that while Nevada’s school districts currently invest approximately $70 million annually on research-based professional development practices, literacy outcomes remain stubbornly low.

Why is this investment not producing results? The current professional development system suffers from a lack of coordination. A patchwork of funding sources and grant requirements creates a culture of silos that leaves professional development efforts disjointed and unfocused. Teachers face a barrage of training and find it difficult to integrate all the disparate efforts into their classroom instruction. The quality of professional development offered is uneven, and evaluations are either not rigorous or nonexistent. The lack of uniform state professional development standards for school districts is also a significant part of the problem.

Bold steps need to be taken to improve the quantity, quality and consistency of professional development in Nevada. Improving the quality of professional development needs to be a top priority at the state, school district and campus levels. Legislation should be adopted requiring the State Board of Education to adopt standards that school districts must follow to ensure that training is of high quality. The focus of evaluation should shift from measuring teachers’ reactions to analyzing the impact on instruction and student achievement.

To improve quality, professional development efforts should be coordinated around a common vision. Structures also need to be put into place, such as setting aside time each week for teachers to collaborate. These meetings should be facilitated by teacher leaders and use specific protocols to discuss student issues and select intervention strategies. Mentoring and coaching also should extend to all teachers and should be individualized to each teacher’s needs.

Improving professional development for teachers will cost money. Because resources are limited, we reviewed whether current funding could be reprioritized for professional development. We found that some federal funds available for professional development are not being fully utilized. In 2012-13, school districts across the state carried over $21.3 million in federal Title I funds, of which $15 million was for the Clark County School District. While the amount of carryover varies annually, school districts can dedicate any carryover to sustained, one-time training to build capacity for teachers to provide training to others in future years.

There are also opportunities to set aside funds from various ongoing federal funding sources for professional development. Legislation should be adopted requiring the Nevada State Board of Education to establish specific percentages that must be set aside for professional development from each source. Reprioritizing existing funding for professional development will require school districts to analyze the effectiveness of current uses of funds and discontinue initiatives that don’t work.

As Nevada works to diversify its economy in the wake of the Great Recession, it is no longer possible to ignore the literacy crisis the Silver State faces in K-12 education. Nevada’s economic future depends on producing graduates who can fill the next generation of jobs that demand a highly literate and skilled workforce. Our recommendations provide a roadmap to address the one thing we know will make a difference in literacy outcomes: the quality of the teacher in the classroom.

Victoria Carreon is director of research and policy at the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities, and Seth Rau is policy director at Nevada Succeeds.

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