“It Can’t Just Be a Multiple-Choice Question”

The county’s new school boss on assessment, creativity and the role of parents


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patskorkowskybyanthonymairweb.jpg

Pat Skorkowsky has a chance to be a transformative figure. As the new superintendent of the nation’s fifth-largest school district in a state widely regarded as having one of the worst-performing education systems in America, he really doesn’t have much choice. After 25 years as a teacher, principal and administrator in the Clark County School District, he’s well aware of the challenge—and he knows that to succeed, he’ll need the support of teachers, parents, government and the business community. That’s a lot to ask, so we asked him how he hopes to get started.

You emphasize the “importance of ensuring the academic success of every child.” But what does that mean? Better test scores? Or some harder-to-measure kind of intellectual growth? Academic success is not only being able to master skills; it’s also being able to think critically and interpret information and make a judgment based on the information. It can’t just be a multiple-choice question; it can’t just be the assessment and getting a good grade on the assessment. It has to be being able to think, being able to synthesize information, being able to write it.

But with the Common Core Standards coming on board, and the concomitant push to testing and standardization, what will happen to teacher creativity in the classroom? The Common Core requires students to analyze and synthesize, not just know facts so they can pass a multiple-choice test. English [department chairs] in many high schools have been working on developing curriculum for the last three or more years, before it was even required to do so, and they have been coming up with really creative stuff. Now, we don’t know exactly what the assessments are going to look like at this point, so I can’t say exactly how we are going to approach that piece, but they will be focused on analysis and synthesis. Students will have to read a piece of text and identify what the writer is saying and what the writer used to support what he or she was saying. In math, meanwhile, we are at least one or two semesters behind our international counterparts, and the Common Core is written to meet international standards, not national standards. Most countries do not run their math the way we do. They don’t have Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, etc. They blend them all together.

You have said one of your primary goals is class-size reduction. What are your target numbers? We want average class sizes between 26- and 30-to-1 student-teacher ratio in core high school classes and 15-to-1 in grades K-3.

You’d like parents to get more involved with struggling schools. What are the challenges in making sure that happens? We have the most difficulty in areas where parents are maybe working two jobs, and we haven’t given them the access that would enable them to participate. Another aspect is that we have many schools with large English-language-learner populations, and yet we have no one at the front desk who can speak the parents’ language. Making schools more accessible for parents and encouraging participation are two of my top priorities.

How should parents assess your performance? With any job you have to be accountable. I am accountable directly to the Board of Trustees and to the parents as well, because it’s my job to ensure their child gets the best possible education. We’re going to be rolling out some specific pieces that are going to have accountability so that everybody knows what they can expect from me.

At the elementary level, that means determining that they are proficient in reading, language arts and mathematics. The middle school level is about making sure they’re ready for high school. In high school, it’s about getting them ready for whatever their next step might be. It’s making sure that they have the classes they need to graduate, that they do not need go into remediation courses in their freshman year [of college], or that they’re ready to start a career. And it’s about making sure they get that diploma. If they don’t have that, so many doors are shut to them.

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“This is our musical fairy garden,” Katie Decker says. I look around the patch of weeds we stand on in the side yard of Walter Bracken Elementary School: There’s nothing much here but a chain-link fence. We are in a rough-hewn, working-class neighborhood a few miles northwest of the newly vibrant heart of Downtown Las Vegas. My feet are sinking into loose, dry dirt.

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