At the end of March I engaged in a rather long Facebook conversation with Richard Jay, one of the sponsors and a major advocate for a ballot measure in Washoe County that would, according to one description, “Washoe County Question 1 is an initiative on the ballot that would generate revenue to repair aging schools and build new ones through a sales tax increase. If passed, WC-1 will raise about $780 million over the next nine years.”
In order to support the measure, Mr. Jay and others promoting its passage provided a good amount of information to support their claim that the school district, despite a host problems well known to the public, its dealing with a superintendent whose firing was badly mishandled and the reasons for which have never been satisfactorily explained, for example, a long string of years in which graduation rates were relatively low when compared to national averages, mistreatment over the course of several years of students at a school for special needs, and a spotted student achievement record, the most recent blow being, this, that only 13 percent of the district’s juniors were on track for college, this number considerably lower than other districts administering the ACT broadly as a measure of overall student achievement.
In addition, the District had hired its new superintendent from within without a national search and without even formally interviewing the “candidate.” The following was reported in the local newspaper:
There’s been a lot of advocates and wonderful things said about Traci [Davis],” acknowledged community member Mary Alber. “All of us don’t know Traci as well as you do. We want that opportunity to know what she represents, what her vision is. If there are other candidates, let’s hear from them, too. But the board refused to look beyond Davis.Davis herself was never interviewed for the superintendent position or any other in Washoe County School District. http://www.rgj.com/story/news/education/2015/07/10/traci-davis-hired-permanent-superintendent/29979315/
And, there was great turmoil created in the community when it was learned that the new superintendent was being offered such things as a “longevity bonus” that was to be paid during her first year in office.
Amidst all this, proponents of WC1, did all they could to put the district in a good light by producing good amounts of data that made it seem as if all was not just well but, indeed, very good. My conversation with Mr. Jay in several Facebook postings was about the actual state of the district and the value of the very positive information he and other WC1 supporters were providing.
At one point in the conversation, Mr. Jay told me, “Now you bring up more opinion and no fact” and then proceeded to provide me with the facts I should know. I did ask Mr. Jay for permission to repost our conversation and he granted it. I cannot recover now recover the conversation but will post if I do find it. The post containing the quotation above was near the last in the sequence and I did tell Mr. Jay that I would examine the data he had sent me so that I could understand the fact, at least what he understood to be the factual basis for arguments concerning the goodness of the district and its instructional programs.
Mr. Jay mines data and takes from it only that which serves his purpose (as a banker) to bolster the record of the school district, a strategic move for one who wishes to promote the growth of the region. In one posting, he offers up a statistic, a “fact” as he would call it (he has accused me of offering “opinions and no fact) that shows that Washoe County’s students did better on the statewide ACT administration than the state average. He doesn’t mention that the State average shows the percent of students taking the test who proved themselves to be on track for studies at the college level was no higher than 9%, this ranking the State at the bottom of the list of those requiring this test to measure student achievement. Washoe County students did better but not very well with only 13% of its students showing progress of the kind that would allow for success in college. I repeat these FACTS and am bothered by the fact that in charts developed by the Economic Development Agency of Western Nevada (EDAWN), charts used regularly in the campaign, ACT pass rates are shown to be relatively high in Washoe County, this made possible by using data for only those students who take the test on their own, pay for the testing, because they seek college admission. That is deceptive reporting.
Another indicator of the effectiveness of the education students receive in a school district is, I believe, how well prepared students are to succeed in the world beyond high school. A FACT related to the ACT assessments is the number of students who, when enrolled in college, need remedial work in the foundational abilities areas such as math and English. Reports I have read tell me that good numbers of students graduating from Washoe County schools do need remediation and are required to take remedial courses when entering out local community college and university. The percentages I have been told by people who work to remediate are around a third of those from WSCD entering the university and two-thirds of those entering the community college. I cannot discover what the rates of remediation are for those matriculating to colleges and universities out of the area. It would be most interesting to know how well students going out of area for higher education fare, how many need remedial courses at entry and how many actually graduate with degrees from the schools they attend.
A recent report on moves to help students enter college without having to take several costly (credits earned in remedial courses do not count for graduation) courses while attaining the basic skills they need to succeed in college reports the following statistical facts concerning the numbers of students who are required to enroll for remediation:
Of the 865 recent Washoe County School District high school graduates attending 64 percent were in need of English or math remediation, or both.
Of the 977 recent Washoe County School District high school graduates attending 41 percent were in need of English or math remediation or both.
So, when Mr. Jay tells me such things as Washoe County School District being “One of just 10 districts in the country to be recognized as a “district on the rise by Education First” and “praised with “doing more with less,” I find little to really commend the District in such achievements because the quality of education shown in truly meaningful indicators makes such “achievements” rather meaningless when all is said and done.
He points to the fact, and I cannot dispute this, that the “graduation highest in history of WCSD. How a district bolsters graduation rates is a question that sensible people have to ask and, if more are graduating but graduates are not well prepared for life in the world they will encounter after they leave high school, then more isn’t better in the most practical kind of terms. He says that “more advanced and honors diplomas earned than ever before” and adds that interestingly culled “11th graders taking ACT outperformed the state.” He adds that 66% of graduates completed at least one AP/IB/CTE/ duel credit class.
All of these facts, and they are facts, are meaningless unless understood in the context of a program that is successful in preparing students for life beyond school and there are, as presented above, indicators that show that they are not being so prepared, at least not well prepared. Things I cannot know from Mr. Jay’s facts are such things as whether or not standards for graduation, their lowering, might be a fact contributing to the higher graduation rates. I cannot know what it takes for a student to “complete” one of the advanced duel credit courses. Do the students pass these courses for having done in the work that is supposed to go along with advanced courses? Do they gain from these courses skills, knowledge and dispositions that are indicative of advanced abilities and understandings? Do they pass the examinations that are often a part of advanced placement packages? Are teachers pressured to insure that students “succeed” in these courses and forced to use methods that might not be those sensible educators would recommend to bring about success that is truly of the meaningful variety?
One of the bragging points Mr. Jay likes to tout is the “overall B+ ranking, third highest in Nevada,” received from Niche, leading company that rates districts.” Niche is a private company that began as a service like Rate My Professor, that depended on students who chose to do so reporting on what they thought of their professors. A survey of any kind that depends on such methods of data collection are never taken by people who do legitimate research, to be valid because it could possibly be that only those disposed to liking a particular individual may make the choice to take the survey, the problem being that those with differing opinions simply do not chose to participate.
Niche was not very successful in its professor rating business so it broadened its scope to include the kind of “research” upon which Mr. Jay relies to show the goodness of his local school district. I looked for information on how the grades Niche reports are calculated. Some of the data is culled from statistics reported by legitimate research organization such as the U. S. Department of Education. Another source, by Niche’s own explanation of its methods to be of critical importance to the score that leads to the grade, is the reporting of students and parents and teachers and others involved in some way with the institutions being graded.
I can find nothing in the Niche description of its methods that explains how participants in its surveying process are selected but it does seem that participants, as with the Rate My Professor approach, self-select and there is nothing in Niche literature to indicate that the methodology includes any mechanism for insuring that the actual participants are representative in any way of the whole of the cohort of those who should have a voice in describing the nature of the institutions with which they are involved in significant and meaningful ways. All of those choosing to participate in providing Niche with information could be, for example, district administrators or, for that matter, disgruntled students or their parents, even some who are simply angry about a single indecent.
I do want to continue the conversation with people like Mr. Jay because I am interested in doing what is right for students. I want every student to actually receive an education that pushes him or her to his or her potential. I do think that schools, most schools in the U.S.A. fail to do so and not necessarily because of the quality of the teachers who teach in these schools—although that is something of a factor when pay for teaching is so low as to serve as disincentive for a good many who would insure high quality instruction and making them teach in classrooms with so many students as to make quality instruction impossible—but because of factors like goals for education that are based more desire to keep costs down that to provide what it takes to make possible meaningful kind of success.
Success, by the by, is defined by those who are somehow chosen to define success and success as I see it being defined and dealt with is about what schools can do with what they have and not with what schools can do if they had what they needed to do IT well. Class size is a critical factor in the quality of instruction offered and, in our local school district, a good many teachers, even in the elementary schools in grades above the first two or three (state law caps early grades at 15, though this law isn’t regularly followed because of budget realities) teach to 30 or more students each hour, some more, up to 46 or so, I have been told by teachers. If success has anything to do with growing as a knowledgeable, well-informed, and thoughtful human being, then methods of mass production are counterproductive in the worst ways, an uninformed, too often ill-informed body of citizens responsible for governing themselves according to the constitution under which they live.
Mr. Jay would probably say that what I just said is opinion and not fact. Well, that is something else we need to talk about, what really is fact and what is not and what stands as good evidence to prove that a fact is or is not indeed a fact. That students in classrooms in which teachers can interact for more than a rushed moment with individual students, to hear what they are thinking, to get a sense of how they think, will have more success in helping students grow as thinkers, at the very least, this is a very good sense opinion. If one wants evidence of such, there is good evidence based educational theory (ignored by those who want to cut budgets with regularity) that proves as well as proof can be developed, that teacher-student interaction is a critical factor in the growth of such critically important aspects of intellectual growth.
I have gone too long already, but, in closing, invite anyone interested in the issues discussed here to either send me an e-mail (I do not know if I will be Facebooking for very much longer) at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone me at 775-343-6888.