Monthly Archive: March 2015

Give Me Liberty, or… Give Me Mediocrity

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,

yearning to breathe free… I light my lamp beside the golden door.”

Statue of Liberty (Emma Lazarus)

The Jewish American poet’s sonnet is proudly enshrined on the plaque adorning the feet of our nation’s symbol of freedom. Her torch has lighted the journey through New York’s harbor for tens of millions of our immigrant predecessors.

And while Lady Liberty stands there welcoming all to the small island named for her, many of the descendants of her compassion have grown tired themselves–with the underperforming “huddled masses” that are crowded into so many of our country’s urban schools.

Joining my legislative colleagues this weekend for an education conference in Florida, I sat listening to the challenges Nevada and the other 49 states are facing as they endeavor to achieve greater educational outcomes with varying amounts of taxpayer income.

Regardless of the level of per-pupil spending, the problems are the same.

At the gathering, national Common Core standards were referred to often by educational professionals as the “stair steps” to higher academic achievement and the pathway to and through the economic golden door, the dream of which has led so many to America’s shores.

A growing problem is not just managing the act of ascending but also assessing a student’s steps up the academic staircase–steps that seem, at times, as tiring as the climb up the 354 circular steps to Lady Liberty’s crowning glory. Not only have performance assessments [tests] been difficult to standardize, the question has often arisen as to whether testing itself is all that it’s been made out to be.

Standing on top of a bathroom scale every morning doesn’t change your weight. Neither do endless assessments cause student performance to improve.

Sequestered inside a rainy Central Florida meeting room, we listened to more pedagogical approaches to improving student achievement than the Rio has salad bar options. After a while, it occurred to me that a little old-fashioned American innovation would likely work as well as another series of top-down, untested Ivy League theorems.

Take, for example, an approach that’s working in one school district in rural Kentucky. Parents, teachers, and principals there were allowed the flexibility to innovate within their own schools. As the local school superintendent put it, they were “looking for creative alternatives to existing practices.” In their case, creating a charter school within a school, tailored to address the needs of their own unique blend of students, has been improving graduation rates and the career-readiness of students in their Blue Grass district.

Better educated graduates who are ready to compete in the global marketplace is a goal on which even Tea Party patriots and Common Core collectivists can agree.

But, as Mark Twain once said, “Whiskey we’ll agree on, but it’s water that we’ll fight over.” It is the same with education policy. It’s not where we want to go but differences over how we choose to get there that causes the disputes.

And as with legislators returning to Carson City after a weekend break from all the Assembly Republican Caucus’s gun bill hearings, a variety of routes can lead to the same place.

Some will fly Southwest; some will drive north on 95; some will come south on the Raggio Expressway [580]. A few, like John Ellison and Pete Goicoechea, will come west on 80 or 50. And some, like Ellison, may hit a few obstacles along the way—like the numerous unfortunate deer he’s sideswiped over the years returning to the Capitol from Elko.

Still, he–and we–will finally arrive at our destination.

It is not so certain, however, that we will reach a hoped-for goal of this 2015 legislative journey:  improving Nevada’s public education system. How and whether we get there will depend on how far we each must travel and how determined each of us is to join the others in the winning circle.

Our paths will vary. So, too, should our methods of reforming education in the Silver State, depending on the specific challenges of each county, district, and school.

Regardless of how we get there, our practices and reforms ought to be guided by the same spirit of freedom the Lady in the Harbor represents.

“Choice” in education is becoming the Civil Rights issue of our time.

Let the various stairways toward academic success not only be a choice we offer to students and their families. Let us also offer choices to our teachers and principals.

Nevada’s educators are quite capable of determining how to best lead our children up the steps–and equally deserving of the opportunity to achieve the success that freedom breeds.