Almost two years after lawmakers approved Sandoval education reforms, are they working?

Gov. Brian Sandoval rolled out a portfolio of targeted education reforms in the 2015, arguing they could help the state rise from the bottom of national rankings and ultimately convincing a supermajority of the Republican-controlled Legislature to fund them with a $1.1 billion tax increase.

Almost two years have passed. So have the Legislature’s multimillion-dollar investments been working?

The state contracted with a research team that included UNLV and Las Vegas-based ACS Ventures to evaluate some of the major initiatives through focus groups, data analysis and thousands of surveys. Researchers recently produced a nearly 70-page report on their findings that will be discussed in the Assembly Education Committee on Wednesday.

Evaluators recommended funds keep flowing to the programs, although they had advice for fine-tuning them and generally concluded it was too soon to make definite conclusions about how much they’d help student achievement. Here’s a summary of four of the most well-known initiatives and the independent evaluation’s conclusions about their success:

ZOOM SCHOOLS

Who: The Zoom Schools program aims to boost academic achievement at schools with the highest populations of English Language Learners. In the 2016-2017 school year, 108 schools with nearly 46,000 students are involved. Of those, about 18,000 are English language learners.

What: Zoom Schools are given money to add programs including pre-kindergarten, full-day kindergarten with reduced class sizes of 21-to-1, reading centers where students can get extra help and and summer academies or intersession programs so the school year is longer.

When: The program was authorized through SB504 in 2013 and expanded through SB405 in 2015. The number of schools participating has more than doubled since then.

Where: About two-thirds of the students in Zoom Schools are in Clark County, although it’s also in other counties and in charter schools.

Why: The state wants to ensure English language learners don’t fall behind. The graduation rate among students designated English learners is about 43 percent, well below the 74 percent of the general population.

How much? Lawmakers designated $100 million toward the program in the current biennium, and Sandoval proposed putting $142 million toward it in the next biennium to expand the program to 25 middle and high schools. Of that, Sandoval proposes designating $15 million for bonuses to recruit and retain teachers in needier schools where vacancy rates are higher.

How is it going?

  • Participants in ACS’ survey indicated Pre-K students showed more oral language proficiency and literacy
  • Focus group attendees said they were frustrated by more testing and the introduction of new curriculum with very little instruction.
  • Administrators liked that the program allowed new staff to help existing staff and provided new resources to help English learners.
  • 83 percent of respondents said the educational programs improved their teaching practices.
  • Participants said the lack of pay raises and bonuses, coupled with increased workload, has demoralized teachers. Administrators said teachers are stressed about the new standards, although teachers who are trained on the standards feel more comfortable implementing them.
  • Teachers said they felt pressured to produce results and not contribute to the school getting low marks. 79 percent of survey respondents reported the implementation process affected their motivation and stress.
  • Teachers said high transiency rates affect student behavior.
  • 79 percent of those surveyed thought the public was aware of the Zoom Schools program. They cited campaigns, letters to home and parent nights.
  • Participants think it’ll take more time to determine if the programs are working. They also want to see higher salaries to match the higher workload and clarity on expectations, such as how “student achievement” is defined.
  • Average scores between the first two years of the Zoom program show improvement in English learners’ listening, speaking, reading, writing, literacy, and composite scores.
  • The largest gap in linguistic scores among English learners is at the high school level.

What’s next?

Schools’ ability to use Zoom grant money for teacher bonuses was strictly limited compared to the policy for Victory School grants. Sandoval’s budget aims to address that concern and attract more teachers to Zoom Schools by allocating $15 million just for teacher incentives.

Evaluators recommended continuing funding for the program, while noting that adequately supporting English language learners continues to be a challenge.

“Findings suggest that implementation of the program is reaching its target population, but because the program is in its early stages, more time is needed to observe the effect of the program on English learners,” they wrote. “The preliminary gains on English language proficiency described in this report reflect the beginning of a program with potential to orient the state’s English learner population onto a college-bound and on-time graduation route."

Graphic via Nevada Department of Education

VICTORY SCHOOLS

Who: The program targets students in Nevada’s poorest 20 ZIP codes and currently includes 35 schools.

What: Victory Schools are asked to spend the majority of their funds on one or more of the following programs: Pre-K, full-day kindergarten, summer learning academies, after-school programming or tutoring, professional development for teachers, incentives for hiring and retaining teachers, teacher’s aides, and a reading skills center.

As long as a majority of the funds were spent on those programs, Victory Schools can spend the rest of their funds on one or more of the following activities: programs to improve the social, psychological, or physical health of students and their families, programs to engage parents, and programs to improve school climate and culture.

When: The program was established in 2015 by SB432.

Where: Twenty-six of the schools are in urban areas in Washoe and Clark counties, while four of the Victory Schools are in rural areas and five are in heavily Native American communities. Virtually all of the students in Victory Schools are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Why: Poverty is one of the factors that correlates with lower academic achievement.

How much? Lawmakers approved $50 million for the current biennium. Sandoval has proposed budgeting $80 million for the upcoming biennium to add 30 more schools and about 27,000 students to the program.

How is it going?

  • Teacher transiency has dropped significantly. Victory Schools had a nearly 9 percent vacancy rate in December 2015 but that fell to 4 percent in November 2016. Officials hope to restructure teacher bonuses in other programs to replicate Victory Schools’ successes.
  • Focus group participants said Victory Schools funds allowed schools and teachers to be flexible in the way that they designed interventions
  • Participants were concerned about the ability to find qualified people to serve as interventionists when the funding is only available for a limited amount of time
  • Participants were also concerned about aligning Victory Schools initiatives with other programs happening on school campuses and wanted guidance on how to direct different funding streams toward improving student performance.
  • Respondents felt that the state should continue funding Victory Schools and believe it will have a long-term impact on student performance.
  • 88 percent said the program has helped students perform better on statewide tests.

What’s next?

Evaluators recommended continuing funding for the program.

“There was strong agreement among stakeholders that Victory Schools funds were having a positive impact on the outcomes of students and the educational environments on Victory Schools campuses,” they said in the report. “In both the focus groups and on the survey, there were positive perceptions of Victory Schools plans and support for continued funding of the Victory Schools initiatives. This excitement for the program bodes well for the continued impact of the initiative over time.”

READ BY GRADE THREE

Who: The Read by Grade Three program was designed for all Nevada students with the goal that they can read proficiently by the end of third grade. While its mandates touch all elementary schools in Nevada, only some schools received grants. It’s now branded as Nevada K.I.D.S. Read, to reflect the goal that all Nevada K-3 students are “Keeping (their) Individual Dreams Strong.”

What: Each school district and charter school board in the state had to create a local literacy plan that was submitted to the Nevada Department of Education for  review  and feedback. Each school had to designate one teacher as a K-3 learning strategist who trains and assists other teachers in helping students who struggle with reading. Competitive grants were awarded to develop and implement Read by Three programs. The measure also requires schools to hold back children who can’t read at grade level by third grade, but that won’t start happening until mid-2019, when students who were kindergartners during the program’s first year (2015-2016) reach third grade.

When: The program was created in 2015 through SB391. Phase 1 projects began in January 2016, while Phase 2 grants were announced in June 2016.

Where: All schools in Nevada fall under a local literacy plan developed by the district, and all schools must designate a learning strategist.

Why: Sponsors say children learn to read through third grade, and read to learn after that, so it’s important that they master reading by third grade to avoid falling behind.

How much? A total of $4.9 million was awarded to ten school districts during Phase 1, and another $22.3 million was awarded to 23 applicants in Phase II. Sandoval's budget calls for $44.5 million for the program in the upcoming biennium -- an increase of $17 million over the last two-year budget cycle.

How is it going?

  • 73 percent of respondents agree that the initiative is offering professional development opportunities. 75 percent think that the training has led to changes in the classroom, and 70 percent believe it has improved their classroom practice.
  • 75 percent of people surveyed believe that the program has been beneficial to students.
  • Schools that received grants appreciated that it supported hiring additional staff or bringing in new or better instructional resources.
  • Respondents raised concerns about the time needed to implement the program and whether staffing and professional development were enough to support the initiative.
  • 56 percent of educators agreed that the program has helped improve student performance on statewide tests.
  • 62 percent of respondents said they thought their students’ skills have improved because of the program.
  • Participants frequently answered an open-ended question about the program by saying it was too early to tell how it would affect student achievement.

What’s next?

Evaluators recommended continuing funding for the program.

“Although the program is still in its early stages of implementation, there is evidence of progress that the program is building capacity for success,” the report said. “RBG3 is a mandate for all schools that offer K-3 services in Nevada, but not all schools receive funding specifically for development and implementation of the program. Not surprisingly, schools that received grants had a generally more favorable impression of the program and the additional support they received.”

SOCIAL WORKERS IN SCHOOLS

Who: To help fight against bullying that’s been blamed for bad grades, poor attendance and self-harm, Nevada created the Office for a Safe and Respectful Learning Environment within the Department of Education and has been placing mental health professionals in many of its schools. Those hired already include people with degrees in social work, marriage and family therapists, psychologists, social work interns and registered nurses.

What: Social workers implemented educational programs for families and students as well as professional development for staff. The programs include outreach to help parents recognize bullying, raise awareness about the pitfalls of social media, and develop parenting skills. For students, the social workers held book study groups and counseling sessions and designed programs to help students cope with social anxiety and academic stress. For staff, it included training on how to develop relationships with students, recognize the signs of bullying, prevent suicide and support students with difficult home situations.

Social workers also said they worked to create a culture of openness through home visits, coordinating with teachers to provide more emotional  support, creating clubs such as a Gay/Straight Alliance and create a physical space that is welcoming for students receiving services.

When: Lawmakers authorized new anti-bullying legislation in 2015 through SB504 and funded social workers through SB515. In late 2015, the American Institutes for Research developed and conducted a School Climate/Social Emotional Learning screening customized for Nevada. Officials used the results to rank schools on the basis of need, and grants to schools were awarded in January 2016. In the first round, 161 positions were awarded and only 118.5 were filled. About 52 percent of funds were returned at the end of the 2015-2016 school year because schools had trouble filling positions. The second round of grants was more successful. As of September 2016, 204.5 positions had been funded at 158 schools across the state. By November 2016, 92 percent of awarded positions had been filled.

Where: Of the 158 schools who had received funds to fill the social worker position, 34 percent were elementary schools, 33 percent were middle schools, 20 percent were high schools, and 13 percent had multiple levels of schooling. About 136,000 of Nevada’s children are eligible to receive services from this program.

Why: Officials say investing in the social and emotional health of students will help them better succeed academically.

How much: The state has issued $10.2 million in grants for the program so far. The governor's budget calls for $22.4 million for the program over the upcoming biennium. State officials also plan a budget bill so unused funds can roll over to future years.

How’s it going?

  • Evaluators say metrics for the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years should be considered baseline data because “it is unlikely that social worker activities would have had sufficient time to be reflected in outcome data from 2015-2016.”
  • The report says potential improvement could come in attendance, truancy, and disciplinary actions.
  • There is a notable increase in the number of bullying and cyberbullying incidents reported in 2015-2016. Evaluators say it’s not clear why, but it maybe because increased awareness of bullying is leading students to report it more consistently.
  • Respondents said social workers are providing services that were previously being patched together by other educators, freeing them to more effectively fill their own roles. Teachers said they often noticed non-academic issues hindering students’ academic success and wanted to address them but didn’t have the time or didn’t know how. Social workers helped teachers build their skills in addition to directly assisting students.
  • Participants said social workers have helped school counselors spend more time on career and academic guidance.
  • Educators didn’t necessarily observe that the program directly improved academic performance, but said the additional social and emotional support meant students spent more of their classroom time focused on learning.
  • 79 percent said student learning behaviors had improved because of the program.
  • 88 percent said that the implementation of the SWS program has been beneficial for students.
  • Respondents said families may not be aware of the program or resist social worker suggestions. They said the state may need to work to dispel the notion that the social  worker is a watchdog or an agent of the Division of Child and Family Services rather than an agent of positive change.
  • Students were surveyed on how emotionally secure they felt about school, meaning how excited they were to try new things, how confident and trusting they were of others at school, and whether they were free from fear of humiliation. Emotional security has been associated with deeper levels of school engagement and academic learning. Scale scores could range from 100 to 500, with higher scores indicating a more positive perception of that element of the school climate.
  • Emotional safety scores were available for 125 schools in December of 2015 and 144 schools in June 2016. The average level of emotional safety was 328 in December and 352 in June, indicating a moderate level of perceived emotional safety.
  • For the 124 schools that participated at both survey points, perceived emotional safety improved from an average of 328 to an average of 355. This result may provide an early indication that the social worker initiative is working, but the results should be interpreted conservatively because the early efforts to hire social workers varied so much.
  • Students were surveyed on physical safety, including their perception that people at their school are free from threats, actual violence and harsh punishment. Data were more limited in June 2016, making it harder to make a reliable comparison. The average level of perceived physical safety of the 125 participating schools in December of 2015 was 335, and the average score among the 72 participating schools in the June 2016 data set was 334. Only 55 schools reported the change between the two points  in time and they revealed a slight decrease in physical safety scores from 343 to 335.
  • In general, findings for emotional safety can be considered relatively representative of the program, but physical safety findings were more limited and may not be representative of broader attitudes.
  • Some schools, especially those in more remote rural areas, had trouble attracting and hiring qualified social workers. Barriers to hiring included an underdeveloped workforce, low pay and just one year of guaranteed funding for the position.
  • The requirement for an annual funding request made planning difficult. Many respondents said they worried the school community may not fully invest space and resources to the social worker if they didn’t know whether it would continue the next year.
  • The surveys found little or no relationship between class size and perceived emotional or physical safety.

What’s next?

Evaluators recommended continuing funding to the program.

“The SWS program has been positively embraced by many educators throughout the state,” the report said. “Although the implementation has not always been smooth or met without resistance, the program appears to be providing educators with tools to better meet student social and emotional needs, while at the same time creating a more integrated system of support for students. Educators provided specific instances of social worker impact on the school community and these descriptions are supported by responses on the evaluator-initiated survey and statewide climate data.”

This story was updated at 3:48 p.m. on Monday to add information about Gov. Sandoval's proposed budget allocations for social worker and Read by Grade Three programs.

Sandoval Education Initiatives - External Evaluation by Michelle Rindels on Scribd