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What Can’t Be Measured

Teaching Results
Illustration by Chris Morris
Illustration by Chris Morris

The harmful effects of accepting that our education system is “last in the nation”

It’s been a while since I worked as a reporter covering public schools in Las Vegas, but I still cringe when I see the headlines: “Nevada schools ranked worst in the country.” The refrain is so commonly repeated by journalists and lawmakers that it has become our de facto reality. News pages and evening broadcasts around the state groan under the weight of these stories each year, and 2018 was no different. It was Nevada’s third year at the bottom of Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts” report, which ranks public schools in every state and Washington, D.C.

By now the stories read like journalistic Mad Libs. Simply swap out last year’s date, sprinkle in a few new statistics, and voilá. Of course, it takes only a few minutes of perusing these rankings to see how the doomsaying is grossly misleading. In the case of “Quality Counts,” each state’s final rank is the sum of three things: socioeconomic factors, including family income; how much the state funds the school system; and how students actually perform in school. Only one of these roughly corresponds to the quality of the work performed by the trained professionals in Nevada’s schools, yet we are encouraged to lament, as the Review-Journal did last year, the “sorry state of Nevada’s education system.”

All of this comes with a hidden but devastating cost. In my time covering education in Nevada, I don’t think I encountered a more destructive force than the one wrought by the idea that our schools are worthless. The thought sometimes occurred to me as I was visiting a supposedly “failing” school, which nearly always was just a synonym for “school in a poor and minority neighborhood.” Around me, kids played, laughed, and got into trouble like normal kids. The teachers I met — often there by choice when they could have had an easier assignment in the suburbs — invariably struck me as some of the best the district had to offer.

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It also obscures the good work being done to improve schools. The Clark County School District has a stable of talented principals, many of whom have achieved national recognition for their work. As a reporter I spent a few afternoons shadowing Katie Decker, who turned Bracken Elementary into a Blue Ribbon School and was tapped by the district to do the same at two more schools in low-income neighborhoods. The district’s magnet schools and career and technical academies are also inarguably on the cutting edge of public education nationwide. When you’ve met high schoolers capable of taking apart and reassembling a car engine, the question isn’t “How can we rebuild this broken system?” so much as it is “How can we bring a quality education like this to every student?”

Reconciling this yawning chasm between the popular portrayal of schools and what I saw in front of me was a constant struggle during my roughly two years on the public schools beat. It colored virtually every conversation I had with parents, district staff, and teachers. You could feel the resentment in the room when everyone got together to discuss something. Many of these meetings culminated with someone angrily accusing another of failing the children, nearly always accompanied by a reference to “being last” in education. As far as I can see, the legacy of this yearly ritual has been only to undermine trust in what is a vital public good. The fact that it is aided and abetted by local media and lawmakers from both parties is a shame.

Perhaps most importantly, it denigrates the heroic efforts of teachers themselves, who remain faithful to the profession despite having every reason to throw in the towel. Nobody is affected more by the long hours, low pay, and lack of funding. To pile public ridicule on top of that is an unconscionable burden that most would not accept in their own careers. Why would we accept that for the individuals we task with educating our children?

There are signs, however, that the nut is starting to crack. Job satisfaction among teachers is at a 25-year low, and studies from a few years ago revealed that a third of teachers said they would probably leave the profession. A popular video recently put out by VICE asked a handful of former teachers in Oklahoma why they quit their jobs. They cited low pay, grueling hours, and crumbling schools — education spending in the state fell 25 percent due to Republican tax cuts. Many were forced to work another job to make ends meet.

“I want better for my own child, and I wish the community was more supportive of teachers to make that happen,” said Eric Weingartner, a teacher of 15 years who quit to go to work assembling natural-gas compressors. “It shouldn’t be a battle inside of you of whether you care about your own family or the family of others.”

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You could argue that it’s an accomplishment that anyone graduates in a school system as starved of resources as Nevada’s, but that would be beside the point. The impulse to excoriate ourselves and our peers (who among us is not family or friends with a teacher or school aide?) could be confused for masochism if it didn’t serve an obvious political utility: exculpating those who wield actual power, like the governor and the Legislature. A more honest and truthful headline would read, “Nevada’s perennial lack of a social safety net and decades of recalcitrant political leadership are ruining the school system.”

Scariest of all is that actual policy is borne of this hysteria and has been for some time. It was the driving force behind the Reagan administration’s infamous “A Nation at Risk” report, an apocalyptic account of American schools conjured up by a panel of mostly administrators. The report proved a hit with a sensationalist corporate media, and it never mattered that it was based on fudged statistics, as researchers from Sandia Laboratory later found (their report got considerably less press, coincidentally). It nonetheless sparked a wave of unhinged reformism — remember No Child Left Behind? — whose legacy is now viewed across an endless abyss of standardized testing and spending cuts.

“It should come as no surprise that a commission dominated by administrators found that the problems of U.S. schools were mainly caused by lazy students and unaccountable teachers,” scholar Salvatore Babones wrote in Salon. “Administrative incompetence was not on the agenda. Nor were poverty, inequality, and racial discrimination.”

Walk into any legislative work session on education in this state and you’ll see carefully groomed consultants, bean-counters, and administrators in suits. What you won’t see are everyday teachers, parents, students, or anyone else with an actual stake in the system. You’ll get an earful of vaguely sinister buzzwords such as “proficiencies” and “career readiness.” What you won’t hear about are families forced to choose between paying for medical care or school supplies, about the schools that keep a closet full of clothes and food to give to students, or about the teacher in a poor neighborhood who lost a third of her students in the middle of the year to the apartment complex advertising a cheap move-in special in an adjacent school zone two blocks away.

There is an Everest-high mountain of evidence — way more than can ever be marshalled to justify so-called interventions like standardized testing or slashing recess — proving that issues like poverty and transience are the real culprits when it comes to academic performance. But strain as you might, what you’ll never hear from the dais of the Grant Sawyer state office building is any attempt to address these issues in a meaningful way. Social issues are filed away as intractable facts of life in Las Vegas; something out of the hands of mere mortals. But are they? These problems are borne from scarcity. Of money, of resources, and of the constant financial precarity in which many, many people live each day in a city practically overflowing with wealth.

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Would parents be forced to make the impossible decision to uproot their families if they weren’t always scrambling for quick cash? Would children have to stay home to take care of loved ones if healthcare were affordable and a simple illness wasn’t the difference between bankruptcy and a normal life? What if some of the wealth in this gilded company town went to affordable housing instead of, say, a new NFL stadium? Or what if folks were just plain old paid more? By all means, supply your own answers to these questions, but the idea that they are isolated issues that have nothing to do with the outcome of our education system is self-evidently absurd.

“We have a crisis in education today, but it’s in educating children of poverty,” professor Gary Miron told The Christian Science Monitor. He added that fixing poverty “is more than the schools can do by themselves.”

But, increasingly, they are expected to. Nevada’s schools are awash with pet programs and micro-reforms that sound appealing but aim low. Gov. Brian Sandoval’s much-vaunted $500 million investment — which came only after grueling austerity cuts were exacted on the people least responsible for the economic disaster caused by private finance — has been largely limited to specific programs. That’s not to say they aren’t a welcome improvement, but there is a reason that the industry phrase for this is “targeted reforms.” After all, the aim is not to change the structural problems causing the mess in the first place. This is why rankings, while useful as a general snapshot, should not become the basis for reform. The temptation to overfocus on minute changes in test scores becomes too great. Who really cares if a child gets five more questions correct on a test when they have no food at home?

For example, take a look at the Nevada Department of Education’s five-year plan for improving schools. Emphatically titled “Nevada Ready!,” it quickly devolves into a wormhole of spreadsheets, graphs, pie charts, and meaningless PR speak. The word “data” comes up 97 times, the word “poverty” only two. There is no mention of transience, an epidemic plaguing schools all across Las Vegas, but there is a catalog of acronyms: NPEP. STIP. HPSE. SBAC. NSPF. The list goes on. Data are useful, yes, but as a supplement to dogged, in-the-trenches work that involves the people closest to kids: teachers and parents. What we have is a veritable alphabet soup of utter confusion, and ultimately a doomed effort in the divination of data that are abstract by nature. It is guaranteed to fall short by design, and each successive year of middling progress serves only to underline its fundamental inadequacy. Its only real accomplishment has been to allow politicians and administrators to hide their failure behind statistics. If the graduation rate goes up a tick, it’s a monumental success worthy of shutting a school down for a photo op in the gym. If it declines a smidgeon, the press releases arrive with the same tepid assurances about the “long road ahead.”

Ultimately, what’s lacking is leadership and true vision. The fundamental problems facing schools will not be solved by pencil pushers. They will be solved by citizens identifying the needs in their own communities and demanding that their elected officials address them. That’s how democracy is supposed to work, but it cannot function if, among other problems, the public is routinely paralyzed by an avalanche of sky-is-falling hysteria that encourages distrust of ourselves, our peers, and the best system we have to raise new generations of thoughtful citizens.

Sure, the rankings will still arrive each year, and the headlines will continue to be written, but next time do the sensible thing. Ignore them.