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Thanks to a law signed last year, Nevada’s school districts and charter schools may now participate in a groundbreaking new pilot program to utilize competency-based education.  They must first submit an application to the Nevada Department of Education before the deadline on April 11, 2018. Details and the application are available here.

Nevada defines Competency-Based Education as “A system of instruction by which a pupil advances to a higher level of learning when the pupil demonstrates mastery of a concept or skill, regardless of the time, place or pace at which the pupil progresses.”

So in other words, mastery of specific academic content, and not just the 100-year-old system of meeting seat-time requirements, can become the measure of when a student is ready to move on to the next lesson — an important step for schools looking to personalize teaching and learning for all students.

The pilot, which remains unfunded, represents an important opportunity for Nevada schools.  Feel free to reach out to me at don<at> if you’re interested in learning more about personalized learning or competency-based education.

‘Relatively strong, improving, though with major challenges remaining’, is one way a new evaluation of Nevada’s laws governing its public charter schools can be summarized succinctly.

The latest annual review of state charter school laws by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked Nevada’s laws 11th best in the country, in an analysis that revealed both strengths and weaknesses.  Last year, Nevada’s laws ranked 13th best.

The report released this week is considered the nation’s most authoritative of its kind.  Its authors considered a range of factors, and identified relative strengths and weaknesses of Nevada’s legal and funding frameworks for charter schools.

Strengths in Nevada’s system included its system which uses two statewide agencies, called “authorizers” with the authority to approve and oversee charter schools, in addition to school districts which also supervise some charter schools.  Charter schools in Nevada benefit from robust levels of operating and financial autonomy in their work.  The strong accountability system for measuring the quality of charter schools here also earned praise in the evaluation.

“Potential areas for improvement include ensuring equitable operational funding and equitable access to capital funding and facilities and strengthening accountability for full-time virtual charter schools,” it concluded.

With more than 5,500 students served, Nevada’s two large statewide virtual charter schools, Nevada Virtual Academy and Nevada Connections Academy, factor very prominently into any analysis of how Nevada’s charter school students perform overall.  While each of these schools remains a popular choice among Nevada’s families, their overall academic performance and lower graduation rates have been the focus of extensive deliberations by the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority in recent years.

Charter schools are public schools, free for students to attend, that are granted flexibility from a wide range of school district requirements in exchange for demonstrating agreed-upon levels of academic performance.

Read Don Soifer’s presentation to a policy hearing chaired by Nevada State Treasurer Dan Schwartz

Augmenting Nevada’s Teacher Pipeline

“A robust policy framework would do two things: promote an intellectually demanding curriculum for all students, and enable a space in which distinctive schools (i.e., private schools, charter schools) can flourish.”

Ashley Rogers Berner, No One Way to School: Pluralism and American Public Education, 2017


Nevada’s Educational Challenge

One in five Nevada eighth graders scored at grade-level proficiency in math last year on the state’s Smarter Balanced assessment, while only two in five did so in English language arts.

Of Nevada’s graduates who go on to higher education, three in five require placement in a remediation course in reading, math or both.


More Teachers Needed, Fast!

Nevada public schools have over 1,000 vacant teaching positions each summer, varying widely across district, grades and subjects.

Enrollment in Nevada’s approved education programs has declined substantially since 2010. Even among license-ready graduates of these programs, between 10 and 16 percent choose not to teach, to teach in schools that do not require licensure, or to teach in other states.

About two-thirds of new Nevada teacher licenses are granted to teachers prepared out of state.

Nevada Consortium on the Teacher Pipeline, 2017


Ready for Growth?

Census projections indicate that Nevada will need to create more than 250,000 new seats in schools over the next decade or so.

Brookings Mountain West noted that the target industries that rely most on workers with STEM training are contributing disproportionately to Nevada’s quality job growth.


Nonpublic Schools Struggle With Hires Too

Leaders of top private and independent schools also report struggling to fill their teaching openings with the high-quality candidates they seek.

They describe Teach for America alumni as among their most coveted potential hires, a source of human capital that would allow them to expand to serve more students.


Reinforcements Coming?

Just 39 percent of UNLV undergraduates finish within 6 years, and just 46 percent at UNR do.

Brookings Mountain West

According to the U.S. Department of Education, only New York as a lower percentage than Nevada’s 18 percent of teachers in their first 5 years of experience.

Education majors scored the 4th lowest among Nevada’s 11 major career track profession requiring 4 or more years of college on ACT among 2016 graduating class. Only health administration, community, family and personal services, and visual and performing arts candidates scored lower.


Career-Switchers Welcome?

Would a Nobel Laureate in economics or math be qualified to teach in a Nevada high school?

Accomplished professionals with training and experience in their discipline must often take as many as 72 credit hours of transitional ed-school coursework as part of their ARL pathway.


More Than Compensation

When factoring net monthly income, cost of living, retirement benefits and student debt burden, teaching in Clark County compares quite favorably to other markets, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, according to one soon-to-be-published report by researchers at UNLV’s College of Education


Alternative Routes to Licensure

Nevada charter school law allows top-performing charters to seek approval as providers of Alternative Routes to Licensure, but hasn’t happened yet.


Does Requiring PERS Help?

Every public school teacher in Nevada, including charter school teachers, is required to participate in Nevada’s Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS).

Nevada’s teacher retirement plan was graded ‘F’ earlier this year by nationally-renowned Bellwether Education Partners. Their analysis estimated that only 32 percent of Nevada teachers will break even from participating in the retirement system, and that 51 percent of the plan’s pension contributions today are going toward pension debt.

For a mid-career professional who anticipates ten years or less of teaching, being required to participate in PERS represents a daunting financial commitment.

Leaders of some top-performing charter schools express concern that this requirement harms their ability to recruit the teachers they want.


What Can Be Done?

Aggressively expand new and current opportunities for mid-career professionals via Alternative Routes to Licensure

Allow charter schools to opt out of PERS

Consider social impact bonds and other tools to reward teachers financially for successful student outcomes

Maximize government incentive programs, like the Good Neighbor Next Door programs from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, to create new incentives for teachers to live where they are needed, especially in more expensive markets like Reno.

Study and emulate successful strategies to make Nevada more attractive to teachers

Scenes from Nevada’s National School Choice Week Celebration, January 23, 2018 at Artemus Ham Hall on the Campus of UNLV.  Some 1,500 students from across the broad spectrum of educational choice, not to mention a healthy contingent of teachers, school leaders and public servants came from around the state to cheer, sing, dance for choice.  Special thank to Elissa Wahl and Karen Gray for all their tireless work making it all happen.  Can’t wait to see everybody back next year.

From the Las Vegas Review-Journal

It makes perfect sense but bears repeating: No one knows a child better than a parent. Parents can best understand their children’s moods, interests, desires, dreams and learning styles. More than any government official, no matter how well-intentioned, parents can best determine the school and curricular program that will help their sons and daughters.

Today marks the start of National School Choice Week. We celebrate a movement that has worked to empower parents and provide more personalized options to reflect students’ unique needs.

School choice comes in many forms.

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