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An Invitation to Nevada
School Superintendents

by Judy Cresanta

hat would you say if demographers informed you that the makeup of your school population consisted of the fourth-highest percentage of school-age children living in poverty? Would you blame the socio-economics of your region? Or what if you were informed by the feds that one-third of your students qualified for the Title I program—federal education aid to disadvantaged students? Would you bemoan the lack of parental support? What would your reaction be to the news that nearly half of your state’s public school students are black or Latino—minority groups who have historically done poorly on national achievement tests? Would you list this as your excuse for poor statewide test results? How about learning that education funding and teacher salaries were among the worst in the nation? Would you say student performance can’t improve before the next bond issue passes?

School superintendents of Nevada public schools, meet Texas. Within the past few years, Texas has become one of the highest-performing states in the nation. Policy Review recently came up with a few telling statistics about the Lone Star State’s miracle turnaround.

Among the 39 states that participated in the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in fourth-grade math, Texas finished in the top 10, right alongside states such as Maine, North Dakota and Wisconsin—all of which have far fewer low-income and minority students.

The state’s black fourth-graders and Title I fourth-graders scored higher in math, on average, than their counterparts in every other state. Its Latino children finished sixth.

White fourth-graders in Texas had the highest average math score in the nation.

Between 1992 and 1996, the percentage of Texas fourth-graders achieving at or above the NAEP’s "proficient" level in math rose from 15 to 25 percent, far outstripping improvements nationwide.

Likewise, kids scoring below the "basic" level fell from 44 percent to 31 percent during the same period.

I’m certain you care about Nevada’s school children. And I am equally sure that you want similar successes for Nevada public schools. So I am asking you on behalf of thousands of parents and school children across this state to consider how Texas jumped to the head of the class in elementary school achievement.

Texas’ remarkable turnaround was achieved by applying a simple lesson from corporate philosophy. First, micromanagement doesn’t work. What does work is empowering educators to find innovative ways to raise achievement by giving them the freedom to experiment. Perhaps most importantly, Texas holds teachers and principals accountable for student performance. Through the devolution of power, authority and decision-making, the local school in Texas has become the vanguard of an accountability movement sweeping the nation. But few other states have gone beyond lip service. And that includes Nevada.

chools in the poverty-stricken barrios of El Paso must meet the same standards as those serving the cozy Bellaire section of Houston. Narrowing the gap does not occur by infusions of money, but by accountability. What lessons can be learned?

  1. Five in all:
  2. Decentralization is critical.
  3. Student testing, used properly, helps schools identify weaknesses among students and teachers.
  4. Test data illuminates good and bad practices—for example, free English lessons for entire families.
  5. Any child can learn.

Discipline is mixed generously with a sense of accomplishment.

So, while most education reforms have been buckling under teacher union pressure, the accountability system in the Lone Star State has only become more rigorous over time. Soon Texas, one of the nation’s poorest states, may be the best place to get a good public education.

The template for reform that Texas has demonstrated is very clear, very simple and very effective. And it demonstrates that the needs of Silver State children in public schools can at last be seriously addressed, if you can help get Nevada’s education establishment to simply grasp the nettle.  NJ

Judy Cresanta is president of Nevada Policy Research Institute.


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