Dwight Jones

The school district boss on how to fix a broken system, why testing matters and why he loves teaching

dwight-jones.jpgWhen asked to pinpoint the exact moment he knew he wanted to pursue a career in education, Dwight Jones instantly rewound to third grade in “a little country school” in western Kansas. He recalled a system plagued with racism and apathy, with no light at the end of the tunnel. One day, walking home, he told himself, “I’m going to become a teacher and see if I can’t do better.” Forty years later, Jones faces what might be his biggest challenge in education. In December he left his post as commissioner of education in Colorado to take over the fifth-largest school district in the country, one that boasts nearly 350 schools that house more than 300,000 students and 16,500 teachers. The more daunting numbers, however, are the district’s high dropout rate, dismal graduation statistics and grim budget issues.

“I knew what people were saying nationally and what the headlines were, that the district was at the bottom of all the right lists and at the top of all the wrong lists.” Yet as he enters his first full school year on the job, Jones is confident the system is repairable. We stopped by his office the week before school started to find out how he plans to go about it.

Shortly after arriving here you said the district has to “change the way we provide education.” What did you mean?

Typically when you come into large [school districts], it’s not the people, it’s the system that is really hindering folks from being able to move forward. So I said, “Before we focus on the people, let’s focus on the system and see what kind of changes we can make.” And so we’ve rolled out the performance zones to say, “Can you take a big system and start to bring it down to a smaller, more manageable size even though it’s part of a big system?” And then looking at the growth model, can we really look at how schools have been doing over time and create a platform [so] that schools can start having conversations with each other and teachers can start having different conversations with parents? … It allows for the teacher and parent to sit down and say, “This is what I need you to do. This is what we’re going to do. And this is when we can expect to have your child at proficiency.” Then you can monitor that along the way.

How else are you trying to redesign the system?

We’re doing the literacy initiative, we’re rolling out the common core, we’re training and supporting teachers in a new way, we’re doing online and blended learning, we’re getting kids away from seat time to say “not ready by exit” may not mean that you just exit at the end of 12th grade; you may be ready to exit at the end of 11th grade. So how is that possible? Can you get more college credits when you’re still in high school? How do we get more kids to take [advance-placement] classes? [We’re] doing a lot of things at once to sort of correct the system.

Why should the parents of a 5-year-old about to enter kindergarten believe a public education is the best bet for their child?

I still say public education is a great investment by the public. It hasn’t collapsed to the point that it cannot yield really good results. I’m actually a parent of an 8-year-old, and I still believe my 8-year-old who’s in a public school in this district is going to get a good education. Now, part of that is my responsibility. I don’t just turn it over to the school and say “That’s totally your job!” We know that parents have to own some of that, too. They’ve got to drive it, they’ve got to ask the right questions. It’s no different than going to the doctor. If you don’t ask your doctor any questions, then just accept whatever you get and you may not get the right diagnosis. So we’re saying to parents, if you just drop your kid off at the school and say “Here, you guys take care of it,” then you may not get the results you want. You need to stay partnered with the school. That’s what I do as a parent, and we’re asking every parent to be partnered with us. We need parents’ cooperation and support.

How do you get that cooperation and support?

We’re just going to communicate differently. It’s not scientific. I’m just going to expect you as a parent to be a partner, and I’m probably not going to leave you alone. And you’re going to say, “Man, that superintendent is driving me crazy! OK, OK, I’ll do it!”

Have you encountered any challenges that are unique to Las Vegas that you wouldn’t see in other communities?

Yeah, lots of challenges. This mindset or culture that exists that you can actually make a good salary being a valet or working construction. So there wasn’t this push for kids to get a high-level education. And I think that culture has really driven this community. The example I use is, about 80 percent of the adult populous in Colorado have some form of a college degree, and most of it is an advanced degree. When you come here you’ve got 20 percent that does and 80 percent that doesn’t. So there is this culture of, “Well, I can just go to work.” And for a long time a lot of kids could. That really is an issue and a culture we need to overcome as a community.

How do you change it?

We have to get out there—it might even take a whole community campaign—and talk about the value of an education. Just think about the way the economy is now. You have college [graduates] now wanting to be a valet because they can’t get a job in their field. So if you’re an employer, you’re thinking, “OK, I’ve got a kid who hasn’t graduated high school versus a kid that has a college degree that I can pay the same.” Which one are you going to pick? So I think that [proves] the value of an education even matters in tough times, not just in good times. Maybe even matters more.

How do you feel about standardized tests and education funding being linked to their results?

I’ve always been a supporter of standardized tests because I like to know on this day at this time what’s going on. It’s a nice check. But it shouldn’t be the only check. Sometimes where we get in trouble is we think that [particular] day and time is the only indicator of that child’s either success or lack thereof. And I think you need a body of evidence to make that kind of determination.

What about test scores as they relate to evaluating teachers—is that the best measure?

I like what the Legislature has passed, which is 50 percent [will be test scores] and 50 percent will be a variety of other things. But it ought to be part of the conversation, because at the end of the day, there aren’t very many jobs you’re in where folks don’t ultimately measure the outcome.

A young teacher can be honored as Teacher of the Year, but in tough economic times, that same teacher could be the first to lose his job because he lacks tenure. Is that right?

No, it’s not right and we need to change it, and as a matter of fact, we’re in the process of changing it. I’ve gone on record as saying that experience in most things—and teaching is one of them—does matter. But it’s not the only thing. … We’re asking our bargaining groups to come to the table and help us determine the right way for us to look at it.

What was the most painful cut you made to this year’s budget?

I’m not sure I’ve made the toughest cut yet because we’re still having negotiations with our teachers, and if I don’t get certain concessions—I’ve got a $150 million deficit to make up, so it’s concessions or jobs. Ultimately it looks like an arbitrator is going to make that decision, and if they say I have to give the [salary] increases, then I don’t have the resources to save everybody’s job. And that’ll probably be the toughest cut, because I need more teachers; our class sizes are way too big and we’ve got a lot of work to do. So it’ll be hard for me to have less, but I have to have a balanced budget. And 90 percent of our budget is people, so it’ll be pretty hard to avoid it.

But we want to save jobs. One of the worst things we could do in this community is have more people out of work. There’s already way too many people out of work, and it hurts the whole community, not just the school district, if we’re putting more feet on the streets.

Let’s say a check for $5 million made out to the Clark County School District from an anonymous benefactor arrived on your desk today. How would you use it?

Probably the first thing I would do is look at our graduation initiative to make sure we’ve got that funded. No. 2, I would look at some of our literacy initiatives, especially in early childhood grades to see how we can support them. We also need to break down some of the class sizes [and] do more target tutoring. I’d really want to focus it on the young people and how we help them get to that promise we’re making that we want to have kids ready [to graduate].

What’s your biggest educational pet peeve?

Low expectations. I call it almost a soft bigotry, this set of low expectations where we get in our mind that this group or this population can only do so much, so we set these parameters. It’s a problem we deal with all the time. Part of where we are with our achievement not being where we want is we just don’t expect more out of our kids.

What was your favorite subject in school, and what was the one area that gave you the most trouble?

I hate to admit it, but I really loved athletics and so I loved physical education, I gotta be honest. But I was really good at math; I didn’t love it, but I was good at it. And probably what I struggled with, you know, I’m a terrible speller. I love to read, and I even enjoy writing. But I’m a terrible speller. Somewhere, there’s a gap there, and I need to find it.

Why should an 18-year-old going off to college today want to become a teacher?

Man, it’s a great job. I still say teaching is the best profession. Even though I work as a superintendent, I still hope one day when I retire that I go back to the classroom. I love teaching. It’s great to see that lightbulb come on with a young person. There’s no better feeling in the world when they finally get it. Or to see a kid go way beyond what they ever thought they could do. Ultimately I think education is our way out of this bad economy. It’s your way to a better future. Doctors have a really important job because they save lives. So do educators.

Now that you’ve been here for eight months, what’s your impression of Las Vegas as a place to live?

Love it. It’s a great community. The summers aren’t even as hot as I thought they’d be. … It’s probably the hardest job I’ve had so far, but there are a lot of opportunities here, and we’re trying to make sure we take advantage of all of them. And you know the business community and the philanthropists and the Legislature and governor’s office, they care a lot about this state. We’re not having to convince anybody that we’ve got to get it better. We might have conversations about how we ultimately do that, but I think folks really want it better. So I’ve had absolutely no second thoughts about coming here.