Changing the Ground Rules

by Mark Alden

e are heading toward educational bankruptcy in the State of Nevada. Our most precious resource, our youth, is being shortchanged. A poor education system is leading to the decay and conceivably to the eventual destruction of our society. Throughout the second half of our century, calls for educational reform have been met with bureaucratic promises, higher costs, and an almost constant decline in performance.

The ground rules must change. We must alter the way we think about educational reform, taking the emphasis off the operation of buildings and systems and placing it where it belongs—on improving learning and the level of knowledge in our children.

We must ask ourselves if we are giving the individual child who wants to learn the opportunity for a quality educational experience. And we should ask, since children vary so widely, why we have based our learning system on how long the child occupies a seat in school, rather than on whether the child can demonstrate and operational knowledge of the curriculum.

Currently we mandate that all children in our state must attend grades one through 12. That’s a noble goal, but some of these students are not ready for the educational process, and some actually do not want to be attending school. This is proven over and over again by the student dropout rate, by student violence against other students and even against faculty members, and by the poor academic performance of these students. Children who are unready or unwilling to learn interfere with the educational opportunities of those who are there to learn.

I therefore propose certain specific changes in the way we educate our youth in the state of Nevada.

First, we should make available—on a voluntary basis—child development education for children ages two through five, modeled on the program at the Cheyenne campus of the Community College of Southern Nevada. In this program. Both child and parent attend class for half day, two days a week. The effectiveness of this program is shown by the subsequent success rate in school of the children from the program. The children are prepared for school. The parents are prepared to give their support.

At the secondary level we need only look at the performance of students at Moapa Valley High School to see what happens when parent involvement becomes a way of life. These students consistently excel in reading proficiency, math proficiency, writing proficiency, SAT verbal testing and SAT math testing. Unfortunately, the results of standardized tests in many other schools in the state send a clear message that there is something wrong in the current operation of our elementary and secondary system.

Second, we must stop insisting that teachers, staff and administrators put up with the unruly, disruptive and violent behavior of non-achieving students in the name of politically correct fad of the week. If we place the emphasis of our educational effort on learning, those who interfere with learning don’t belong. Our schools exist to educate our youth, and this is difficult enough without having to accept unruly behavior and daily violence. We must recognize that the current notion of "one-size-fits-all" education is not working—and has never worked.

Third, it is essential that we monitor student performance and accomplishment in terms of each student’s potential, starting with the early grades and continuing through the child’s career in our schools. By the end of grade six the student and his or her parents should be advised of optimum educational direction for the balance of the student’s years in school, either vocational education or a pre-college course. And we must recognize that there will be a significant gray area involving many students who could go either way. The choice of either direction should be made in terms of student performance, aptitude and interest. Among other things, it is time to recognize that skilled workers in many vocational trades can earn every bit as much as many college graduates. High school curricula must be revised to offer both a high quality vocational opportunity and an exemplary pre-college curriculum. Crossover points should be built in, so that students who change their minds may have the opportunity to transfer from one track to the other if they qualify.

Fourth, students who are not performing academically or who are behavioral problems must be removed from mainstream and classes and placed in an alternative environment. Reinstitution of an apprentice program should be considered. Educational work camps are not entirely out of the question. Returning the youngsters to their parents as "unsuitable for public schooling" should be available as a final option. The current system is not working. Our young people are our most important asset but we are not serving them well in the way we currently operate our educational system. At the present time we are sacrificing the education of those students who want to learn out of a misplaced concern for youngsters who express themselves in terms of violent, disruptive and unruly behavior, and who, in the final analysis, are not learning anyway.

Fifth, we need to revise the way in which we pay, retain and promote our teachers so that it is based on teaching accomplishments in terms of students performance. We have to eliminate the politics of reward. And we have to rethink pay scales based solely on longevity or the accumulation of additional high credits in higher education. At the present time, a poor teacher who manages to endure may be better paid that a sincere, dedicated teacher who is producing significant results. Those teachers who just show up and put in their time should either be retained to do the job entrusted to them effectively or counseled into another career path and let go. Teachers whose performance merely meets the minimum standards should be paid for minimum performance. We certainly should not reward them for doing as little as possible. Teachers who excel in terms of the performance of their students deserve merit regardless of whether they are first year teachers or experienced veterans. Teachers must be encouraged to improve their knowledge and skill in the subject areas in which they teach and should be rewarded for doing so. This means math teachers take courses in math, language teachers courses in the languages they teach, science teachers courses in science, and so on. In short, we need to be certain that our system of rewards through pay and promotion reward behavior that improves the learning of our youngsters.

Sixth, those of us with a responsibility for higher education must ensure that schools of education reflect emphasis on the individual learner and do not simply perpetuate the failed policies of the past.

The creation of the Nevada Legislative Committee on Education and the current interest in educational reform in the state government opens a window for improvement. If we merely go through the motions, as we have done so often in the past, promising much while delivering nothing, the opportunity may be lost for another generation. The time has come to revise and revitalize elementary and secondary education in the State of Nevada. The ground rules must be changed. u

Mark Laden is a member of the Board of Regents of the University and Community College System of Nevada.


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