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A New Professional Life and Why I am Excited by the Challenge: A Cheerful Prospect
On the evening of March 8, I received a telephone call from Governor Brian Sandoval offering me the position of superintendent of public instruction for the State of Nevada. I eagerly accepted. I was thrilled to have survived a rigorous ten-week publicly transparent selection process, pitted against numerous able and unusually experienced individuals, both from within Nevada and across the nation. Even though I was happily employed, I was ready for the challenge that Governor Sandoval offered. I was not naive regarding Nevada’s education conditions. However, I had a secret. I knew that, more than most states, Nevada had but a few additional steps to take in the right direction, and it would be a leader rather than a laggard. By almost every measure, Nevada now ranks near the bottom in state comparisons. The high school completion rate is 45.4 percent, the lowest of all states and 25 percent below the national average. On National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, Nevada has 24.4 percent of children at the proficient level, 7.3 percentage points below the national average, rendering the state 47th in the nation. In eighth grade math, 23 percent of students are proficient or better, 7 points below the national average, with only seven states doing worse. Preschool enrollment is 27.7 percent, the worst in the nation and almost 19 points below the national average. Quality Counts, a national education rating, reports Nevada children as having the second-lowest “chance for success” of all the states. Only in New Mexico do children have a lower opportunity to succeed in life. Every three minutes of every school day, a Nevada student drops out of school, and thereby faces a diminished set of life chances. Cynics chided that I had signed on at the bottom, knowing that random data perturbations would of necessity take the state closer to the national mean, allowing me to proclaim statistical regression as progress. Putting aside what passes as humor by researchers, here is what I knew as Nevada’s “secret”: No state or large school district ever experiences sustained improvements in its education system in the absence of a committed and able leader, be it a governor or a mayor, who is willing to serve as champion for needed reforms. The proof here is in Florida, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Texas, and Washington, D.C. In Governor Sandoval, Nevada has such a school reform champion. Nevada, unlike some sprawling or geographically and culturally bifurcated states such as California or Illinois, is organizationally manageable. It has only 17 unified school districts, and 80 percent of school children are enrolled in two of those, Las Vegas and Reno. California has 1,000 districts, and Illinois more than 700. Two of the nation’s leading urban superintendents are in Nevada: Dwight Jones in Clark County and Heath Morrison in Washoe County. The American Association of School Administrators recently named Morrison its Superintendent of the Year. Significant statutory enactments during the last Nevada legislative session set the stage for important future education progress. These laws created a new state education governance structure, streamlined the teacher tenure process, established a framework for higher academic standards and greater accountability, and launched an initiative for leadership preparation. Finally, the fiscal picture is not so bleak you may imagine. Governor Sandoval announced in mid-March that his forthcoming biannual budget proposes no further reductions in government services and no new taxes. Economic recovery is at last in sight. My optimism is fueled further by my two years of service at the George W. Bush Institute. I had the unusual opportunity to observe at close hand the values and thinking of a decisive former President and an unusually warm and public-spirited former First Lady. I doubt that I can match their continued good humor, perspicacity, and gracious manner in working with others, but I intend to try. Moreover, my time at the Bush Institute placed me in an environment of world-class ideas and people, enabled me to construct a network of reform-minded researchers and knowledgeable activists throughout the nation, and reinforced for me the utility of operating from a strong set of personal values. Finally, the action orientation of the Bush Institute, valuing knowledge in service to humanity, infused me with a sense of urgency regarding improved opportunity and lifelong learning for our school children. What Nevada already has accomplished, what its leadership further envisions, and what the Bush Institute has enabled me to learn, all provide me with a sense of confidence regarding the future. I am, by any measure, humbled by the challenge, but buoyed by the prospect of significant success. This post was written by James W. Guthrie, Senior Fellow and Director of Education Policy Studies at the George W. Bush Institute.
Dr. Guthrie is the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Nevada and is a professor at the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Before joining the Bush Institute, Dr. Guthrie served as director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University and dean of the School of Education at the University of California at Berkeley.
Dr. Guthrie earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and a doctorate from Stanford University.