Monthly Archive: March 2015

Dust Clouds and Silver Linings

 “You know how advice is. You only want it

if it agrees with what you wanted to do anyway.”

John Steinbeck (Pulitzer Prize winner)

The author of the classic novel The Grapes of Wrath had a way of putting a human face on the harsh realities facing America during the Great Depression.

Proposed legislation–like AB 448which deals with the oft-discussed subject of “underperforming” schools in Nevada–seeks to soften the stark face of failure that is the depressing plight of students in many urban American schools.

In an Assembly Education Committee hearing late Friday afternoon, lawmakers heard about Governor Sandoval’s proposed remedy for the worst off of the approximately 15,000 students in Nevada’s 5% lowest-performing schools, “Achievement School Districts.”

Reaction to the legislative “advice” was swift from members of both political parties. Members settled into previously-held safe positions for and against the proposed changes, which include the creation of a new superintendent position for a different kind of school district — one that would be administered by, and utilize directives from, national Charter School organizations. It would be a significant departure from the norm.

Are we in a situation in which desperate times call for such desperate measures? Or can we just tweak the current system and make it better? Being 50th or so on most lists that measure public school achievement seems like a pretty desperate situation to me.

Listening to Democrats in Committee disparage the plan as a partisan attempt to “nuke teacher’s unions”–and listening to Republicans describe Charter Schools as a panacea for every problem known to humankind–led me to think that there is surely a middle way of seeing this. The truth (to the extent that it exists at all) lies somewhere between.

As someone who was an original sponsor of charter school legislation in 1997, I know that not all charter schools are perfect, any more than all traditional public schools are terrible. To blindly agree with either position because of the R or D next to your name is to end up as the author of Mice and Men once said:  taking advice only from those you already agree with.

The Governor and many others in Nevada, myself included, are saying it’s time to take some unpopular but possibly worthwhile steps if we really want to change the way education is achieving results in the Silver State.

Advocating for more revenue for education is not a popular idea with many Republicans. Equally unpopular with Democrats is practically any reform that in affects unions or public employees in the slightest. Legislative solutions, however, often require doing what is good and right vs. doing what is popular or easy. In order to overcome obstacles to success, we have to work our way around the legislative roadblocks we ourselves have created over the years.

Right now, Nevada is in the educational equivalent of the “Dust Bowl.” The landscape is stark. We are all looking for relief.

During the Depression, the systematic destruction of prairie grasses, coupled with longstanding drought and billowing clouds of dust, triggered a migration of American workers. But an odd kind of “silver lining” traveled with the westbound Okie clouds. Failure in one place led to a departure from the old–and success in the new.

It may be that there is a solution hidden in the dark clouds that currently loom over the state of modern education in Nevada. Maybe we will find a silver lining and a glimmer of hope in the very thing that troubles us most:  our underachieving schools.

If we can find creative, effective ways to turn things from bad to good–like those Dust Bowl immigrants who struggled greatly and traveled boldly into unknown lands, underpinning the expansion of economies in the West–maybe we can prove something not only to the rest of the country, but also to ourselves. Maybe we can once again show what it means to be “Battle Born.”

To do so, we must be as wise as Steinbeck and listen to advice we may not like hearing but desperately need to take.