Nevada’s new superintendent, 75-year-old James Guthrie, is still a passionate reformer

December 10, 2012

Victor Skinner Victor Skinner

Victor is a communications specialist for EAG and joined in 2009. Previously, he was a newspaper journalist.
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By Steve Gunn
EAGnews.org

CARSON CITY, Nev. – James Guthrie may be 75 years old, but time has not extinguished his burning desire to improve public education.

The new Nevada superintendent of public schools made that clear during a recent speech before the Nevada Association of School Boards.

He told his audience that state schools waste millions of dollars per year on automatic raises for teachers, which are based on nothing but remaining employed from year-to-year and taking advanced college courses.

Compensation not based on classroom effectiveness does nothing for Nevada’s students, who are currently stuck in one of the nation’s lowest-performing public school systems. And it costs schools a great deal of money.

In the Clark County (Las Vegas) school district, for instance, teachers automatically receive annual raises of $1,465, on top of negotiated salary adjustments, due to a provision in the teacher union collective bargaining agreement.

In the 2010-11 school year those raises cost the Clark County district $22.6 million.

“We need to pay for effectiveness, not things that have no bearing on student achievement,” Guthrie told his audience.

Guthrie said the current teacher salary schedule, used by most districts in the state, should be scrapped. He said he looks forward to the day when Nevada will adopt a merit pay plan that will reward the top performing 10-15 percent of teachers in the state with higher salaries.

More accountability, along with higher salaries for standouts, would make the teaching profession more attractive to top college graduates, Guthrie said.

He also called on the state legislature to withhold extra funding for Nevada public schools until a new statewide teacher evaluation system is in place. Guthrie wants to base future teacher raises on effectiveness, and there will be no chance to measure that until the new system is implemented in 2013.

“I’m not open to debate about that,” Guthrie said.  “We’ve got to find a way to pinpoint their effectiveness.”

Under the present system, school principals can typically identify their best and worst teachers, but tend to have little idea about the effectiveness of those in the middle, Guthrie said.

He said he would put more emphasis on building a pool of effective teachers than decreasing class sizes. Teachers unions typically fight for smaller class sizes because they contend students learn better with a smaller student-to-teacher ratio.

Many believe the unions like smaller class sizes because they create a demand for more teachers. The more teachers working in public schools, the more dues money that flows to the union.

“The U.S. has succumbed to the delusion of small class sizes,” Guthrie said. “Small classes with bad teachers give you nothing.”

Guthrie’s goals for Nevada schools

Guthrie was appointed to his new position by Gov. Brian Sandoval in March to replace outgoing Superintendent Keith Rheault.

He comes with a long and distinguished resume which is too lengthy to reproduce here. The following are a few highlights:

He currently serves as the senior fellow and director of Education Policy Studies at the George W. Bush Institute. He also serves as the director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University and editor of the Peabody Journal of Education. He was also dean of the School of Education at the University of California at Berkeley.

He was an education specialist for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

He has come out of retirement several times to take on new challenges in the world of education.

So Guthrie obviously knows what he’s talking about. And he talks a lot about making the public school system more accountable and effective. He doesn’t fret about upsetting union officials or anyone else.

“When you get (to be 75) you don’t care,” Guthrie told the ReviewJournal.com. “You say what you want.”

Guthrie has already outlined several ambitious goals he has for Nevada’s public school system.

He wants to kill the destructive practice of social passes, saying students need to earn their way to the next grade. He specifically mentions the frequently cited standard of making sure third-graders are able to read before passing them on to fourth grade.

Only 58 percent of Nevada third-graders were able to read at grade level, according to results from state standardized tests.

“They ought to stop there until they can read,” Guthrie said.

Guthrie would also like to allow 11th-graders with enough credits to graduate to move on to college, and use the year’s worth of K-12 funding still waiting for them for tuition.

Another goal is to identify and pay the state’s top 10 percent of teachers a “lucrative salary,” on par with doctors and attorneys, to make the teaching profession more attractive to top university students.

“In tomorrow’s world, the best teachers earn $200,000,” he said.

Conversely, Guthrie has no patience for ineffective teachers. He recently wrote the following in a published article:

“Analyses continually confirm that an effective classroom teacher is the most powerful in-school instrument currently available to propel student academic achievement. Terminating the lowest five percent of ineffective teachers and replacing them with teachers who are only average in effectiveness would of itself elevate U.S. achievement to among the highest in the industrial world.”

He would like to blend online courses with traditional teaching, which he believes can boost student performance and allow increases in class sizes.

Guthrie would also like to increase funding for charter schools so they are on more of an equal footing with traditional public schools. Currently charters and traditional schools receive the same per-pupil funding in Nevada, but charters have the added expense of securing and paying rent for building space.

While many in the education establishment have completely disregarded the old No Child Left Behind federal law, Guthrie says it had many good points the nation shouldn’t lose track of, like creating and enforcing high standards of accountability and forcing schools to report achievement data for minorities, low-income students and special education students.

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