Will Reform Outlast the Reformers?

James Guthrie may have been ahead of his time

Washington, D.C., and Nevada have a few things in common: We both like to talk about budgets, we’re both home to dysfunctional representative bodies, we both asked lightning-rod reformers to turn around floundering school systems, and in both cases the reformers left without finishing the job.

In Washington, D.C., the reformer in question was the famous Michelle Rhee, who became chancellor in 2007 under a new system of mayoral control that gave her unprecedented leeway to mold schools as she saw fit. Rhee fired teachers she deemed ineffective, offered huge bonuses to top teachers in lieu of tenure and closed schools to save money. (She was also caught up in a test-score scandal that won’t seem to go away.)

Our school-reform martyr is former state superintendent James Guthrie. (We actually have two, counting former Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones.) Guthrie was appointed by Governor Brian Sandoval in March 2012 and resigned a year later, very shortly after floating the idea that Nevada’s top teachers be paid $200,000. It’s a head-scratcher of a figure: Why $200,000? Where on earth do teachers make huge money? (Answer: In some of the best school systems in the world—places like Singapore, where teachers are paid on par with doctors and lawyers, and South Korea, where prospective teachers have to be in the top 5 percent of their class to pursue a teaching degree.)

If Guthrie had lasted longer in the job, we probably would have seen some remarkable similarities between his policies and Rhee’s policies. As reported in these pages, Guthrie was a fan of applying the methods and metrics of business to the problem of education. Teachers would be evaluated and paid based on their performance, not their longevity. And, as in D.C., he would have pushed a system of merit pay instead of tenure.

Now that Rhee is safely ensconced at a school-reform think tank (StudentsFirst in California), and Guthrie looks to be on the same track (he published his paper “The $200,000-a-year classroom teacher” on the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s website), we wonder: What’s the future of this brand of reform? And if this was a mere fad, should Nevadans be resigned to life at the bottom of the educational stack?

The perception that Nevada’s schools are broken will be with us a long time, no matter what the reform agenda is, says Craig Hulse, Nevada State Director for StudentsFirst. But the perception may be worse than the reality: Hulse notes that Sandoval’s education-reform plans haven’t changed. And the governor’s ideas—which include grading schools on student performance and replacing tenure with merit pay—are very similar to those that Guthrie probably would have pushed.

In the immediate future, though, someone else will be doing the pushing. If you think, as many Nevadans do, that Guthrie was too far removed from the realities of the classroom, that may be a good thing.

There is one impact of all the changes that may become apparent sooner rather than later, says Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association—a.k.a. the teachers union. “Teachers are wondering what’s in store for them,” he says. “Morale is at an all-time low. You will be seeing a lot of teachers leaving this summer.”