What Keeps A Nevada Education Reform Advocate Up At Night?

After the raft of education reform bills passed by the 2015 Legislature, what better topic for the latest installment in our Q&A series with Nevada business and community leaders?
Happily, we found someone willing to give us his three cents with even more candor than we’d hoped. Please enjoy our worthwhile conversation with Brent Husson, executive director of Nevada Succeeds, a non-profit, nonpartisan coalition of business leaders committed to improving the state’s education system. If you have questions for Brent or want to get involved, you can email him at brent @ nevadasucceeds . org
The Stat Pack:  Of the education reforms passed this session, which one do you believe will have the biggest impact?
Husson: In my opinion, the Read by 3rd Grade law (SB 391) is one that has very high potential to positively affect student outcomes. The biggest reason for this is that it addresses the core issue of literacy. If a child cannot read by 3rd grade, he/she is virtually assured to fail in school. Anything we do to make students more literate will have an outsized impact on their achievement for the rest of their school years, and really, on the rest of their lives. The hope for this bill comes from knowing that similar bills were passed in both Colorado and Florida, and in the school districts that implemented them well, we saw great gains. So the caveat here is that solid implementation is a must, but not a given. Nevada Succeeds is currently working with all involved parties to help ensure excellence in implementation.
The Stat Pack:  There are no real teeth in this new “Read by Three” initiative right now, so social promotion can still occur in the short-term. As such, can we really hope to see a substantial difference in statewide reading scores? How long before we see results?

Governor Brian Sandoval with lawmakers and elementary school students at an education bill signing in June 2015 / Photo provided to The Stat Pack courtesy of NDOT photographer Sholeh Moll on behalf of the Office of the Governor
Husson: Actually we learned a lot from Florida on this. Our law was written with a delayed implementation of the retention piece, or so-called “teeth”, specifically because the states that have tried to retain kids without first providing the interventions proscribed in the law have since changed their laws due to unforeseen problems that threatened to derail the law entirely. In any event, a successful Read by 3rd Grade law is one that eliminates the need for retention; that is the focus of the new Nevada law and of Nevada Succeeds. I believe the initiative will help our reading-challenged kids, even with delayed retention, precisely because it is the interventions and not retention that affect literacy. Retention is simply one last chance for the adults to get it right. If we focus on getting the children what they need long before retention is necessary, then retention will be what it is supposed to be:  a last resort. In Colorado and Florida, reading scores have increased significantly, especially in districts that have adequately embraced the interventions.
My concern about when we will see results from this policy does not come from the efficacy of the policy proscriptions, for they have been proven time and again. Rather, I am concerned that we do not have enough highly qualified teachers to move the policy into practice. We have thousands of very good teachers in Nevada, however, in CCSD alone, we are likely to begin the next school year with 1,000 teacher vacancies. These positions will either be filled by long-term subs or not filled at all. In addition, we will be employing over 1,000 first-year teachers. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that this poses a huge problem.
The Stat Pack:  Many conservatives who objected to more funding for all-day kindergarten say that while adding it has been shown to have some positive effect on student achievement in grades one and two, any positive effects disappear by later grades and that it is therefore a waste of public money. Is there any data to support that contention?
Husson:  The only study I am aware of that discusses the lasting effects (or lack thereof) of early childhood education was a federal study that looked at Head Start, which is a federally funded pre-K program, not full-day kindergarten. In any case, the truth is that education, at any level, is only worth the money if it is quality education, and quality education comes from quality educators. The quality and lasting impact of full-day kindergarten will truly depend upon the quality of Nevada’s teachers. If we have systems that can support our teachers so they can get the most out of each and every student, then the investment will be worthwhile. If it turns into babysitting, then we have made a poor investment for our kids.
The Stat Pack:  Is ending a cookie-cutter approach to class sizes worthy of further discussion? Don’t the benefits of smaller class sizes depend on numerous factors, like the age of the students?
Bonner Elementary, Las Vegas / Photo by Es715 via Wikipedia Commons
Bonner Elementary, Las Vegas / Photo by Es715 via Wikipedia Commons

Husson: I think it is worthy of discussion. There are many variables that effect quality of instruction, and class size is just one of them. When small class sizes are used to provide more targeted help for at-risk kids, the research shows that significant impact can occur, especially in the early grades. However, when class size becomes an end in itself, I think we unnecessarily cut ourselves off from many other creative approaches that can have tremendous impact on kids as well.
In some countries (including countries that have higher achievement than Nevada) they actually encourage larger class sizes, because it allows them a larger sample size with which to examine new methods. My point is that high student achievement should be the goal and class size can be one strategy, not the only strategy.
The Stat Pack: What do you think will be the effects of the new Education Savings Accounts? What about recently publicized private school concerns that they are losing enrollment while parents/kids jump through the hoops necessary to qualify?
Husson:  I’ll take the second question first. There is likely to be some short-term disruption for some of the smaller, less financially sound private schools. If they lose significant numbers of kids because they have to comply with the 100-day rule (which has yet to be clarified by the legislative commission), they may not have enough revenue to operate. These schools will have to figure out a way to bridge that gap, or get the rules changed to help them manage that issue.
The answer to the first question is a little more complicated. In general, the effects of this policy will be to shift some education resources, and some kids, out of public schools. At Nevada Succeeds we always evaluate policies relative to their effects on student achievement. In this case, we think it is important to consider not just the achievement of the students who are able to use the money to leave the public schools, but also whether the shifting of resources has any effect on the achievement of the kids who remain in the public system.

“If a child cannot read by 3rd grade, he/she is virtually assured to fail in school.”

In my opinion, it is too early to draw any conclusions about what the results will be for either group of students. In the first case, there are too many unknowns about who will use the resources and how they will use them. In the latter case, we do not know if the resources that are left at the school are enough to cover the fixed costs that don’t go away when the child does. I believe the most important thing we can do now that the law has passed is to pay very close attention to the implementation and insist on transparent evaluation of the results for both groups of kids. That is why we are glad that all students who use an ESA must take a norm-referenced test so we can measure their outcomes in comparison to other students in the state.

A substitute teacher spending time with a student / Photo provided courtesy of Washoe County School District

The Stat Pack:  The lodging and hospitality industry accounts for about 28% of the Nevada workforce. Do you think hospitality’s choice not to require that its workers have a high school diploma or even a GED is detrimental to improving the state’s work force?
Husson:  Since the beginning of the recession, we have seen more companies starting to require a high school diploma or a GED for more jobs, especially in the hospitality industry. I believe it is a step in the right direction for our state, as we want to continue to attract a skilled work force in all industries. Growth in the skilled workforce will produce positive ripple effects for Nevada.
The Stat Pack: What crucial reform and/or funding subjects within education have still not been addressed by the Legislature? Is Nevada’s education system adequately funded with the new spending? If not, where is more money needed, or from where can money be cut and reapplied?
Husson:  Nevada Succeeds believes that the next issue that must be addressed in Nevada education is teacher effectiveness and since 90% of our districts’ operations budgets are spent on personnel, we think the adequate funding issue is directly related. This issue is incredibly complicated, and I could not do it justice in the space available here, but what I would like to do is let your readers know that Nevada Succeeds is targeting this issue in the run up to the 2017 legislative session. We are convening community leaders to come up with a plan to address the many issues that affect our teachers’ ability to do their jobs well.
At this initial stage, we have recruited what we are calling the Leadership Group. The group will be co-chaired by Lt. Governor Mark Hutchison and former Secretary of State Ross Miller. In addition, NSHE Chancellor Dan Klaich, State Superintendent Dale Erquiaga, CCSD Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky, CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita, WCSD Superintendent Traci Davis and I will all be serving on the committee. The purpose of this group will be to help focus the state on this important issue and to convene the folks necessary to get the problems fixed. This is the kind of issue that will take a united community effort to address, and I am excited that these fine leaders are gearing up to take on the challenge.
The Stat Pack:  Overall, is the “New Nevada” actually going to produce substantially better educational outcomes for our students? How long will it take for the state to show results?
Husson:  I believe the “New Nevada” will produce results. What we have at the moment are a host of policies that have a lot of potential. The reason I am bullish is that I have a tremendous amount of confidence in Dale Erquiaga and his team over at the Nevada Department of Education, as well as in the processes they are putting in place relative to rules, regulations and implementation. If we get the teacher effectiveness piece right, we should start to see signs in the next 2-3 years, but it will probably take 4-6 years for real outcomes to change. This year, only 37% of kids in the state were able to take the Smarter Balanced tests, so we don’t have widespread testing data. Next year will be our new baseline. Therefore, we won’t be able to measure growth until the 2016-2017 school year when we will update the star rating system.

“If we get the teacher effectiveness piece right, we should start to see signs of improvement in the next 2-3 years, but it will probably take 4-6 years for real outcomes to change.”

The Stat Pack:  What is the role of Nevada businesses in all this education reform work? Does the business community do enough?
Husson:  I believe it is the duty of all Nevadans to take ownership of our education issues, and business is no exception. When the national news stories report that we rank 50th in one category after another, they do not report Brian Sandoval’s literacy rate, or Pat Skorkowsky’s graduation rate, they report the failures as Nevada’s failures. This reality negatively impacts business’s ability to recruit quality employees and the state’s ability to recruit more business. If we want this to change, we must all work to help fix the system.
The Stat Pack:  And finally… What keeps you up at night?
Husson:  The same statistic that caused me to get involved in this work in the first place:  40% of Nevada 4th graders are functionally illiterate. We have an obligation to educate these children, and we are failing. When the work we are doing moves that statistic significantly in the right direction, I will feel like we have accomplished something as a community. We are on the right track, but to get to the finish it will require all hands on deck.

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brent husson2
In addition to being president of Nevada Succeeds, Brent Husson has been a small business owner in Las Vegas since 2001. His current venture, a partnership with Employee Benefit Management Services Inc., brings value based health benefit management to large employers in the southwest. Their main mission is to lower health care costs for their clients at a time when the rest of the industry is increasing by double digits.
The mission of Nevada Succeeds is to bring a business perspective, through policy and advocacy, to the education debate. The organization is actively involved in the formation and implementation of education policy designed to improve student achievement in Nevada.
You can contact Brent at brent@nevadasucceeds.org

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