The ABCs of Improving Nevada’s Education System

So you think our state's education problems are completely unsolvable? Think again …

Illustration by Jon Estrada

Illustration by Jon Estrada

Understanding what’s wrong with education in Nevada and fixing it are as simple as A, B, C.

A is for Accountability. Many Republicans claim K-12 and higher education get enough money and are administratively top- and bottom-heavy. They’re right about the top-heavy part. They could even be right about the other parts, except for one key problem: We, the public, don’t really know what our decision-makers are doing.

Case in point: The Washoe County School Board recently tried to fire Superintendent Pedro Martinez, but did it secretly without an acceptable explanation. Even if Martinez deserved to go, the school board made itself the story—and highlighted its incompetence, both by acting covertly and then holding a meeting at which several of its members behaved like spoiled children. They provided a prime example of the continual lack of administrative transparency in public education in this state.

Meanwhile, last year the Legislature passed a bill to study how to run Nevada’s community colleges more effectively and efficiently. But Northern legislators tight with administrators who don’t want to give up information accommodated those administrators’ desire for secrecy. Their study might have saved the state money and improved higher education, but by doing their best (or worst) to scuttle reforms, we don’t really know.

Politicians and citizens alike need to insist on the books being open and scrutinized by completely independent accountants. They should also demand that employees who come forward and tell the truth receive whistle-blower protection rather than harassment or pink slips. Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on those issues.

B is for Bucks. Nevada tops every bad list you can think of, and its education record leads this trend. Nobody is happy with high school or college graduation rates, exam scores and other rankings. Many Nevada leaders ask, “What’s the solution?” then debate everything from charter schools to teachers unions.

It’s time to reframe the question and ask, “What solution haven’t we tried?” Then the answer is simple: money. Yes, that means generating more tax revenue, but it doesn’t mean simply throwing cash at the problem. First, if we know where the money is going through accountability, we’ll be able to spend more innovatively. We could pay teachers more while lengthening the school day or year. Or expand free breakfast and lunch programs—maybe students will be able to focus more clearly if they’re not hungry. Or how about throwing in a few bucks to enhance counseling and retention services?

C is for Certification. One of my favorite high school teachers had to switch from English to history when world history became a graduation requirement and schools needed more teachers for that course. Why her? She had had two semesters of freshman-level Western Civilization. As an excellent teacher, she could pull it off, and it was better than having the track coach teach history so he had something to do.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner (also my graduate adviser) put it simply in an interview with The Atlantic: “You have to know history to actually teach it.” In other words, being trained in how to teach does little good if you don’t know what to teach. But if you know your subject and want to teach it, Nevada, like most states, requires a slew of education courses that often take too much time and money, and thus discourage would-be teachers from pursuing the profession.

Why is there still such an emphasis on education degrees? Most “reformers” claim schools need to “train” students for jobs, and spend less time on the humanities and social sciences, conveniently forgetting that most jobs require the ability to read, conduct research, use logic and reach conclusions—all of which are learned through liberal arts.

So why don’t these “reformers” support simpler and quicker teacher certification, with fewer education courses and more emphasis on the subject field? Think about it: Teachers with more training and knowledge in their field make for more effective educators—the kind of educators who excite students to learn and to do better … the kind of students who can get Nevada off of some of those “bad lists.”

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.

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