|1999 Education Legislation
The Pro-Market Message Appears, At
Least Partially, to be Getting Through
by Pat Hickey
arents have demanded that schools get better. Community leaders have warned that society can ill afford for them to get any worse. And for better or worse, the push to raise academic standards and improve student test scores has clearly become a national obsession.
Nevada is no exception. Current expectations could hardly be greater. Feeling enormous pressure for schools to perform better, Nevada legislators and educators are now facing the test of their lives to meet those expectations.
The Nevada Education Reform Act of 1997 mandates that higher academic standards be implemented in K-12 schools throughout the state beginning in fall of 1999. The State Board of Education has already approved higher benchmark standards in English, math and science proposed by the newly formed Council to Establish Academic Standards for Public Schools.
For those interested in monitoring education legislation proposed for the 99 legislative session, heres a partial list of five bill draft requests (BDRs) recently presented during public hearings before the Interim Legislative Committee on Education. Included with each is a description and brief analysis.BDR No. 1: Professional Development Centers Would allocate funding for the next biennium to establish and equip four regional centers for professional development (PDCs) within Clark, Douglas, Elko and Washoe school districts. Teachers and administrators would be trained in the new standards in measuring pupil achievement and analyzing and interpreting test scores, and in teaching higher-level content areas and basic skills such as reading instruction using phonics and basic mathematic computation. Analysis: Education reformers say that what teachers know and can do is the most important influence on what students learn. Thus recruiting, preparing and retraining good teachers is all-important for improving public education. In that sense, PDCs based on a successful Douglas County model have already proven helpful. A whole other area not addressed by this bill is raising academic and entry-level standards for teacher education institutions at UNLV and UNR. PDCs are not a bad idea, but they deal with the effects of inadequate teaching skills and not necessarily with their causes. Like all "reform" measures these days, this one comes with a price tag for Nevada taxpayers. BDR No. 12: Teacher Competency Tests Would adopt a resolution encouraging the states Commission on Professional Standards in Education to raise the passing score for teacher competency tests administered for teaching licenses in Nevada. Analysis: Massachusetts recently did this and over half of the teaching applicants failed. Therefore, to be intellectually honest with ourselves, we should admit its a good thing to expect more, not less, from future teachers. How can we raise the academic bar for students in hopes theyll achieve more (and studies show they will) if we dont do the same for teachers? Assemblywoman Chris Giunchiigliani opposed this recommendation. The teacher unions have traditionally been against it as well. But they are talking of a "new unionism." Could they, this session, actually be for it? BDR No. 24: Stopping Social Promotion Require by statute that before entering 9th grade, students must demonstrate proficiency in the new academic standards. Regulations recently adopted by the State Board of Education require that students receive a grade of "C" or better in two core classes, English and math. This change would tie promotion to high school directly to the new standards and require a statewide assessment of those skills. Analysis: A bill to end "social promotion"? Not a bad idea. Education Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Raggio became furious when he heard from someone that such a bill would require building parking lots in middle schools for those who cant pass. Then again, how do you get a drivers license if you cant read and write? State Board of Education member Bill Hanlon suggested more remedial programs will have to be funded if we keep raising standards. But common sense (and numerous recent studies) would indicate that we wouldnt need so many remedial programs if we had higher standards in place to begin with. BDR No. 3: Merit Pay Would require school districts to provide a continuing 5 percent increased salary differential to teachers who attain certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). Analysis: Obtaining NBPTS certification requires teachers to meet certain standards, prepare portfolios for their work and demonstrate their teaching abilities in an assessment center. The logic behind getting more stringent credentials is good. Better skills means better teachers. A market approach to education would reward teachers who offer greater skills. Some might suggest this is a first step toward merit pay which teacher unions have traditionally opposed. But NSEA lobbyist Debbie Cahill said recently at an Interim Education Committee meeting that she was "happy to hear of incentive proposals for teachers." For teachers to become NBPTS-certified will of course cost money. Not to fear: BDR No. 2 would appropriate additional money to the State Department of Education. BDR No. 5: Teacher Incentives Suggests a resolution which if adopted would encourage school districts to pay incentives to teachers who remain in what are called "at-risk" schools. Analysis: Again, an incentive to encourage teachers monetarily. It would provide one year of credit toward early retirement for five to seven years teaching in an at-risk school. Bill drafters have been cautioned by legal counsel that other government employees might challenge the constitutionality of credit toward early retirement. Police and mosquito abatement officers could probably make the case that their job places them in at-risk environments. Teaching Teachers to Teach Raising academic standards is a must if America is to remain globally competitive. Linking teacher training to these new standards is crucial if we are to succeed with education reforms.
A recent study by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) found that professional development designed around strict standards is one of the most cost-effective ways to raise student achievement. The NCSL study concluded that "professional development has the greatest impact on student performance when it is connected to what teachers do in their classrooms and focuses on instructional content."
The 1999 Nevada Legislature seems intent at looking at various professional development proposals. Parents and school reformers would do well to consider what policy principles will shape any new legislation. The National Education Goals Panel has listed the following state policy recommendations:
Stay tuned as these and other education bills make their way through the 99 session. We just may get some of the reform our children deserve.NJ
Pat Hickey is editor of Nevada Journal.