Behind Jones' departure: A loss of authority

State rejects CCSD’s yardstick for teacher performance

LAS VEGAS — When Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones suddenly announced his decision to resign recently, he attributed his decision to his mother's illness.

"The decision,” Jones assured the community, “doesn't have to do with any other factors outside of just wanting to do what I think is right for my family," he told local news media.

The public is familiar, by now, with situations where personal or family reasons are initially offered to explain a public figure's departure.  "I want to spend more time with my family," for example, is frequently heard. Later, however, more facts emerge. The individual may have been facing other, more active incentives — or pressures — to leave.

Inevitably within the district, therefore, rumors quickly began circulating of other, possibly alternative, reasons for Jones’ departure.

Aside from mere rumors, however, does evidence exist that other important factors may have been in play, in addition to the health of Jones’ mother?

The answer is yes.

One Las Vegas Review-Journal story on Jones’ departure quite publicly raised the possibility that the school chief may have simply “had it” with Nevada.

“With more of his reforms in shambles than in action,” wrote education reporter Trevon Milliard, “Superintendent Dwight Jones will leave the Clark County School District halfway through his four-year contract.”

Milliard’s story went on to assert that “the system that Jones said would be ‘a way for us to hold ourselves accountable for improved student performance’ is already obsolete, destined to be cast aside before the ink has time to dry. That is because the district’s framework directly conflicts with the state’s method of grading schools.”

Actually, Jones and his team largely designed the state education department’s initial approach to school assessment, and many features of Jones’ design remain prominent throughout the state School Performance Framework.

It is true, however, that during the would-be reformer’s two-plus years in Nevada the ground beneath him shifted significantly.

In late 2010, when Jones was hired by CCSD trustees, the State of Nevada’s education department answered to virtually no one, yet also had little practical authority. Then-superintendent Keith Rheault saw his job as largely advisory vis-à-vis the districts. This was especially true with the Clark County School District, massive in size and a political force in its own right.

At that time, state lawmakers had already mandated the development and implementation of a uniform performance-evaluation system for students, teachers and administrators. Such a performance-tracking system —because it intrinsically required some definition of what, exactly, is to be tracked — was the initial stage of what will eventually become a Nevada Growth Model.

Then, in 2011, the Nevada Legislature restructured the state department of education. The governor’s office was given the power to appoint a state superintendent, who was now charged with enforcing Nevada’s education statutes and regulating K-12 public education — an authority that previous superintendents had not held.

In April 2012, Gov. Brian Sandoval named as superintendent of instruction, James W. Guthrie, a nationally known and highly respected education leader. However, during the previous 16 months before Guthrie became state superintendant, Jones and his advisor, Kenneth Turner — instrumental in Colorado school-evaluation matters — had persuaded state authorities to adopt the student percentile growth model from Colorado as its own “Nevada Growth Model.” 

Superintendent Jones — in his CCSD reform update, A Look Ahead Phase II: Progress Made and the Next Mile — proudly reported that the CCSD School Performance Framework had been adopted by the State of Nevada as the template for its own SPF.

When Nevada had asked the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law, wrote Jones, the state’s application had been “predicated on the Growth Model and the School Performance Framework.” A principle guiding and informing the state’s waiver application, said the Phase II report, was that “student academic growth is the key indicator of a school’s progress towards preparing all students so they are ‘Ready-by-exit’.” Both student academic growth and ‘Ready-by-exit’— are cornerstones of Jones’ reform design.

On any job-seeker’s resume, a note that the State of Nevada had adopted the applicant’s design for statewide school reform would definitely move that resume to the top of the pile. But what if that design had ultimately been found to be seriously wanting?

In the fall of 2011, the state, Clark County and other Nevada stakeholders began the preliminary collaboration and input for the state’s performance framework, a 5-star school ranking system. Then, in February 2012, Jones rolled out the elementary and middle school rankings under CCSD’s own School Performance Framework, based on the belief that “growth matters most” and centered on results derived from the Nevada Growth Model.

However, when Guthrie arrived in the spring of 2012, he had concerns.

While highly laudatory of Jones, and in full agreement with him on many issues, Guthrie nevertheless brought with him a level of skepticism regarding the Colorado model.

A student percentile growth model, he explained to Nevada Journal, is a set of mathematical algorithms that allow projections, based on student test scores, of how students, if left on that trajectory, would score in the future. 

“Then, it compares their actual scores with the prediction of how they would have scored,” he said.  “And if they do better than prediction, it is said to have been elevated achievement. Less than the prediction suggests that teaching or instruction or something is going wrong.”

Two features of the Colorado student percentile growth model are very enticing, says Guthrie. One, it has great graphics, making for easy understanding in layman’s terms.  Second, it’s free and costs the state and districts nothing to use.

However, “among economists,” he said, “there is great deal of concern about the Colorado student percentile growth model on the grounds that it might not be a valid set of algorithms.  So, I began to explore all of this.”

What Guthrie concluded was that “it is sufficiently valid to judge a school.” However, “It is insufficiently valid to judge an individual teacher.”

So, he says, given that this growth model was already in place and sufficient for ranking schools, the state will use it to judge schools, “at least for the time being.”

What the state did not do, however, is accept growth as “the key indicator.”  In the state’s School Performance Framework, set to roll out preliminary rankings this summer, proficiency matters most.

That was not the only divergence in view between Jones and Turner at CCSD, and Guthrie at the state.

Preliminary work on the state’s performance framework had begun in the fall of 2011, but deliberations on the actual standards for the state’s rankings did not begin until after Guthrie arrived, accepted his mandate and set to work.

Today, both the state and CCSD models offer a 5-star ranking system. They differ in emphasis, however, and that emphasis is significant.

The CCSD model accords a higher weight to student growth and a lower weight to genuine academic proficiency.  The state’s model, on the other hand, accords more weight to actual proficiency.

“The difference,” says Guthrie, “is you can have a student making a lot of growth, who’s really growing faster than his peers, but in fact he still isn’t proficient in reading or proficient in math. He’s getting closer, but he’s not there.” 

A document dated March 6 — one day after Jones publicly announced his pending departure — and prepared for CCSD trustees by Turner, describes the numerous similarities of, and differences between, the state and Jones-Turner SPF models.  According to that document, while “growth” counts for 20 percent of the CCSD high-school model, it is 10 percent of the comparable state model. And while academic achievement counts for 30 percent of the state model for high schools, the district’s version assigns no points for academic achievement.

Another important apparent difference between the state and CCSD models is their “look-back” periods — the number of years of data that go into establishing the trend against which a student’s current performance would be compared. The state model, according to Guthrie, will use four years of data. However, the CCSD model currently appears to use only one.

Turner’s March 6 update to the CCSD school board also reported that district principals had been polled in January on the question, “After Nevada releases the state-produced SPF, should CCSD continue to publish the results of the District-produced SPF?”

“Although principals had not yet seen the results of the state-produced SPF,” wrote Turner, “a large majority of principals indicated that it would be preferable for [sic] have a single SPF.”

At that important March 6 meeting, one day following Jones’ announced resignation, the school board, at Jones’ request, voted to discontinue Clark County’s SPF. 

For Clark County parents, the debate over SPF design is, perhaps, largely academic. For Dwight Jones, however, the rejection of his school-ranking system clearly constitutes a relatively sudden and unexpected shock to what appeared to be a fast-tracked professional career.

Moreover, had Jones remained in Clark County, he might well have faced the repudiation of other key initiatives of his design.

One such element was the idea that schools with higher rankings receive greater autonomy and those with low rankings are provided greater attention. The lowest-ranking schools, achieving only one star, become candidates for the “Turnaround Zone” — where schools receive additional school district resources and greater oversight, and where a certain number of staff, including the principal, are replaced.

Theoretically, the state’s turnaround program, still under development, could replace the one that Jones and Turner set up for CCSD — although Guthrie, asked about it, said, “I don’t think we should make [that] assumption ....” and promised the state will be working with the school districts.

One of the SPF issues producing the most anxiety for many teachers is the fact that state law — reflecting a mandate accompanying federal funds — requires that not only the achievement over time of individual pupils be tracked, but also the identity of the teachers assigned to those pupils. Moreover, that information is required to be entered into an “automated system of accountability information” and considered when the teacher’s performance is evaluated.

School districts are mandated to write such an evaluation process into policy, and that policy must be aligned with the state’s. Jones created an evaluation system based on his growth model, but his growth model, according to Guthrie, will not be used for teacher evaluation. 

So what was left for Jones in Nevada, if the Jones-Turner growth model and School Performance Framework no longer provided the yardsticks by which student and teacher performance is measured?

As former state superintendent Keith Rheault was departing his post, he explained his perspective on the job to the Review-Journal:

“Right or wrong, my take on the job was being a ref” for the districts and the state, said Rheault, noting that he wasn't one to push programs on districts.

If districts don't support a program, it won't succeed, he said.

Guthrie’s view is quite different, however. “I didn’t come here to give advice,” he told Nevada Journal.

“This is a new day, Nevada. Do local school districts have more to account? Yes, they do. Does the State have more authority now? Yes, it does.  Where all this ends, we will see.

“To be continued…”  

Read more: As Jones leaves CCSD, he leaves questions in his wake

Karen Gray is a reporter/researcher with Nevada Journal. For more in-depth reporting visit http://nevadajournal.com and http://npri.org.

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