a service of the Nevada Policy Research Institute


Politicians Pretend

The heart of Nevada’s public-school problem

By Steven Miller

If Nevada’s teacher union ran an NFL franchise for the Silver State, coaches wouldn’t be allowed to evaluate running-back prospects by looking at their rushing stats.

Moreover, if pure chance nevertheless provided some faster, sharper, more talented players, who showed real ability on the field, those stars, by union rule, couldn’t be paid more than any unmotivated mediocrities. Instead, all team players—stars and doofuses alike—would have to be paid by seniority.

Given the pathetic roster that would result, pretty soon even many of the talented few would depart. Aghast at the institutionalized indifference to excellence, their self-respect and aspirations would take them elsewhere.

When the team remnants ended their first season with the lowest rating in the entire nation—amazingly parallel to Nevada’s K-12 government schools—the teacher union would publicly “explain” that the franchise’s real problem was selfish Nevada taxpayers who refused to compensate players at “the National Average.” Whereupon Dina Titus, Barbara Buckley and Kenny Guinn would all rush to propose various taxpayer-bleeding schemes that studiously evaded the real structural problems.

These musings arise after learning how the Nevada Legislature knowingly sabotaged its own self-proclaimed educational “accountability” legislation in 2003. Needed to qualify for federal dollars under No Child Left Behind legislation, Senate Bill 1 of the 19th Special Session had been in the works for over two years. Nevertheless, because of the demands of a flock of teacher-union lobbyists, the legislation at the last minute was crippled to nullify its single most important accountability provision.

Throughout all its incarnations, SB 1 required what was called “an automated system of accountability information for Nevada” to allow the classroom achievement of individual pupils to be tracked over time as they went from teacher to teacher.

Such data is incredibly important. As the education chair of the Carnegie Corporation of New York recently explained, widely replicated research has shown “the single most important factor in determining student performance is the quality of the teacher”—which varies enormously. And what allows school systems to identify the really good—or bad—teachers is the year-to-year records on individual student learning.

Speaking to the Education Commission of the States two years ago, Daniel Fallon explained how what has come to be called “value-added assessment” has triggered a massive paradigm shift in education-related social science. Researchers at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, once given access to thousands of state records linking students, teachers and schools, discovered that what has been called the “teacher effect” was not only real, but massive.

“[William] Sanders and [June] Rivers,” reported Fallon, “discovered that students matched in performance on assessments at the beginning of the third grade were separated by more than 50 percentile points in comparable assessments by the end of the fifth grade, as a direct result of the quality of the teaching they received in the intervening years.

“Their results showed that … the effects of good teaching are profound and appear to be cumulative.”

The value-added assessment research also demolishes one of the major excuses always trotted out by apologists for public school failure. Because the method compares a student’s performance at one time with the same student’s performance earlier, “the student serves as that student’s own ‘baseline’ or control, [and] the experimental design removes virtually all of the influence of genetic or socio-economic factors.”

Regardless of the kinds of students assigned to them, found Sanders, some teachers consistently produced large gains in student achievement, while others did not. The research also documented that “African-American children were significantly more likely to be assigned to ineffective teachers than white children were. But when poor children, or African-American children, encountered effective teachers, their academic performance showed extraordinary increases.”

Fallon noted that “These findings have since been widely replicated in a variety of different settings with several different kinds of experimental designs and techniques.” The late Harvard economist John Kain, for example, analyzing data in Texas, showed that the gain in student achievement scores arising from “teacher quality is 20 times greater than that from any other variable, including class size and socioeconomic status.”

Thus, anyone at all serious about improving Nevada public schools will demand that value-added assessment data be applied to rewarding teaching stars and weeding out teacher deadheads.

Yet, state lawmakers and our “education” governor jettisoned this critically important tool in 2003 when faced by teacher union grousing. Nor did they rectify the error in 2005.

The conclusion is unavoidable: Despite all their blather about Nevada education, these people are, finally, unserious.

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Steven Miller is editor of BusinessNevada and policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.