Superintendent of the Year Talks Education Reform

Heath Morrison, Washoe County (Nev.) schools' leader, urges Congress to reauthorize the federal education law.

Washoe County School District
Last week, Heath Morrison, superintendent of the Washoe County School District in Nevada, was named the 2012 Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). In the three years since Morrison took the lead at the 63,000-student school district, the graduation rate has jumped from 56 percent to 70 percent, and students across all grade levels and subgroups have boosted their achievement. The AASA also commended Morrison for his outreach efforts to parents and local businesses.

Governing spoke with Morrison Wednesday for insight into his district’s success and for a local perspective on national education issues, such as the efforts to reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the NCLB waiver program initiated by the Obama administration. His answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Governing: What have you found to be successful in your efforts to improve the Washoe County School District?

Heath Morrison: It started with the school board that hired me and said: We need to have change. Unlike a lot of governing bodies that say “Let’s change this and make it better” and then when you start to make those changes, you don’t get that support. They’ve been right there with me. Their courage and support has been fundamental in making this happen.

Nevada has ranked at the bottom for many of the indicators of quality in education. One of the things that has not been a positive at all for our state has been graduation rates. So when I got to Washoe County, it was at 56 percent and had been that for the last five or six years. It had not moved. So, we decided that was going to be one of those benchmarks. We were going to focus on it.

We got very intentional. We re-directed resources. We asked each school what they needed to do to improve that. We did more during after-school programs. We did credit remediation. We went in September, knocking door to door to get kids back into schools. We got a federal grant called the High School Success grant, where we were able to create a new structure for our alternative programs. We also created five re-engagement centers across our school district, so we were able to go out to those kids who had dropped out of school.

Seventy percent [graduation rate] is right at the national average. It’s about 15 points ahead of the state average, but that still means that three out of every 10 kids aren’t graduating, so we have a lot of work to go.

AASA highlighted the Parent University, where parents learn how to better support their children’s learning, and the Community Compact program, which seeks to connect business leaders with local schools, as examples of successful community outreach. What was your approach in engaging with the stakeholders in your community, and how did that inform your policymaking?

Nevada has been the most negatively impacted state during the Great Recession. We’re in this time of the new normal where your fiscal resources are not going to be what they’ve been, and that’s certainly been the case. We’ve had to cut $123 million out of our budget in the last five years, and $90 million of that in the three years I’ve been superintendent. If those resources are going to be limited, you’ve got to improve your productivity. Then you’ve got to try to look and find efficiencies and innovations, and then you’ve got to find other resources.

We’ve got resources in terms of people who want to help with this work. Parents are critical. They’re the first teachers of our children, so to engage our parents on a level that we’ve never done before was really important. We worked with our business community and our civic community groups to say: Look, a quality education has to be a part of any community, so what are the things that the community needs of public education? And what are the things that we need in terms of help and support from the community? Reinvigorating business partnerships and getting our civic groups to work in unison was critical so that the limited resources we all have could be maximized to their highest potential.

Moving to national issues, the reauthorization of NCLB and the waiver program established by the Obama administration have dominated the public discourse. Generally, after 10 years with the expanded federal role under NCLB, there seems to be a movement toward more state and local autonomy. Most tellingly, the Adequate Yearly Progress system would be eliminated under legislation proposed in both the House and the Senate, replaced with state accountability metrics. What is the importance of local autonomy in public education?

I’m a big believer that the closer you are to the problem, the closer you are to the solution. I certainly appreciate the federal government’s role in trying to improve education, and I respect the state’s role, and I think local governments and school boards all have a role. Trying to figure that out in a very smart way and a very systemic way is critical.

What I like that is happening with [Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s] waiver process is that there is a recognition from Washington that there should be some broad themes that resonate with school reform and accountability and what we have to do to educate children at high levels. Once those broad themes have been established, states and local school districts then adjust those broader concepts, rather than something that’s so narrow and so focused that it’s really hard to make it work across 15,000 school districts across the country. That’s what I appreciate about the waiver process.

I think sometimes [the waiver program has] been misrepresented across the country as a waiver from accountability. There is high accountability. The major themes are adopting Common Core standards and reinvigorating and reinvesting in human capital, making sure we’ve got great teachers in every school, and then creating an accountability that operates at a high level. So it’s not that you don’t have accountability. It’s hopefully much smarter accountability.

I have always said over 10 years that NCLB did more good than it did negative. It put a focus on kids that have traditionally been underserved. It brought accountability to public education when many people didn’t want to see that happen. What happened with NCLB was that it was hard to explain to parents, when there are 36 different measures with math and reading, and you’re at a school where you missed one target in those 36 measures, that the entire school was deemed failing or not adequate. That didn’t make sense. It didn’t pass the common sense test. We have a chance to bring a smarter accountability system. One thing I love that we’re doing in Nevada is we’re really emphasizing not only proficiency and status, but also growth. That’s going to be our way to committing that all kids have to get better.

There seems to be general agreement that the waivers are only a stopgap until full NCLB reauthorization legislation is passed by Congress. How important is reauthorizing the law, and what are you watching for as these deliberations take place?

What is important that the law, which was supposed to be reauthorized in 2008, that needs to get done. States are kind of holding their breath, trying to figure out what’s going to happen. School districts have been in this holding pattern. So, although the waiver process is important, what you don’t want to do is go way down the waiver process path, and then find out that Congress is going to take the law in a totally different direction. So, what you’re trying to achieve short-term in the waiver process ultimately has to change again. In a state like Nevada, we just don’t have the resources to start on one path and then shift in a very short time period to another.

My hope is that Congress will, as soon as possible and in a very responsible way, do the very important work of changing the law and doing the things that need to happen. Dr. Martin Luther King talked about “a fierce urgency of now”, and I think there is a fierce urgency of now to get this right, so that we do have that direction from Washington, so that states can adjust and districts can adjust.

Dylan Scott is a GOVERNING staff writer.