Higher Learning, From the Bottom Up

Education and economic diversification are inseparable. The question is whether Nevadans are willing to pay the price for one to obtain the other.

Gov. Brian Sandoval recently told the Nevada Development Authority that the state has had “ups and downs, and peaks and valleys” before and come back from them. He didn’t mention that Nevadans emerged from one depression by finding ore in central Nevada, another through federal largesse (the New Deal and World War II), and in both cases by offering activities—boxing, easy divorce, gambling, prostitution—that others shunned.

This time, Sandoval feels—correctly—it should be different. He pointed to a recent Brookings report, “Unify, Regionalize, Diversify: An Economic Development Agenda for Nevada,” which emphasizes “target opportunities” from tourism and clean energy to mining and aerospace. But lead Brookings contributor Mark Muro sounds the discordant note: “A strong state economic development plan needs to be crafted and followed, requiring hard decisions and painstaking execution.”

Commentators have noted that Nevada leaders have sung this song before. They also have tended to agree that it’s an excellent general blueprint, and Brookings’ suggestions and research have more gravitas than any state agency or legislative study committee.

Nevadans should read and think deeply about the report. They also must ponder what price they are willing to pay. Consider another report, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada’s “2011 Legislative Report Card on Racial Equity.” A lot of attention went to Sandoval vetoing a bill to provide more free breakfasts in schools—because, his policy adviser said, school districts opposed the measure.

School breakfasts may be bleeding-heart liberalism—or they may be an important part of any plan to increase the length of the school day, improve student health, cut back on absences and enhance kids’ lives. Good health does, after all, improve a kid’s chances of excelling in school.

Political hot air won’t diversify the economy or improve education. Education reformers can’t just give in to local whim or fall into the tired old traps of either arguing for more spending (with no new thinking attached) or imploding the whole system. “Holistic” might have too much of a new-age tint to make a dent in our political discourse, but educational reform has to be holistic. Nevada is last or almost last in college-educated population, and too many in college still need remedial classes. If we want to solve the problem, we need to go back to the beginning, meaning kindergarten and even earlier.

Rather than deifying or demonizing teachers, why don’t we think about paying them better, but also changing certification procedures so they have more training in subject fields? Instead of proposing to privatize online education, as a recent community college “task force” did because its chair hates government, why not notice that community colleges have added hundreds of online sections, and figure out what they are doing right or wrong?

In recent weeks, reports have appeared about UNLV revising its requirements in order to improve the undergraduate experience (The College of Southern Nevada, where I teach, also is making changes). These are in response to the chancellor and regents reducing the number of credits required for degrees. Economic diversification seems unlikely if those credits fail to go beyond fashionable vocational training (High-tech! Green energy!) and include such niceties as how to write a proper English sentence. It also wouldn’t be bad to help students understand how the world arrived at its present situation (that’s history, folks).

But improving college curricula isn’t enough. To create better college students, we have to better educate high school students, and on down the line. This means reform must be top-to-bottom, starting with parents’ commitment to their children’s education, continuing K-12, and culminating in college, where knowledge and abilities already acquired are put to the test of a truly higher education.

When reports appear about an internal auditor’s lawsuit alleging illegal behavior at CSN, when the governor is unwilling to countenance new revenue streams to fund changes, and when both sides dispense rhetoric on automatic pilot, we can be cynical. But we should remember that we elect the people in charge, and we have the power to change them—and ourselves.

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