Goals 2000 (Certificates of Initial and Advanced Mastery).
Quality Education Model.
No Child Left Behind.
Race to the Top.
Oregon Education Investment Board Achievement Compacts.
All of these initiatives were designed by well-meaning, smart people working for needed educational reforms in order to strengthen our country and communities.
In general, these reform efforts share a “top-down” philosophy. Federal and state policy-makers determine an ideal standard, establish a policy paradigm in order to showcase the viability of the approach, and then spend time (with varied success) “selling” the newest reform program to the local governments responsible for implementing them: the 197 local school districts.
Truth be told, the newest reforms appear to hold promise. Our system is broken and ignoring the problems is the surest path for failure. But the process unfolding in Salem is worrisome for those of us that have served in local government – more requirements without adequate funding and organizational flexibility to implement reforms will cause more harm than good.
Oregon schools need the following: 1) smaller class sizes; 2) stability in funding; 3) expanded curriculum to include more than the “core” tested subjects; 4) sustained professional development for teachers; 5) increased partnerships with employers, parents, and volunteers; and 6) systemic student wellness investments. In other words, every student in Oregon should be provided a learning environment with sufficient attention and support to succeed.
We can rearrange the deck chairs – again – and make some measurable improvement on the margins. And we should continue to do this. But the fundamental challenges for this reform effort (and those before it) remain: a fragmented educational governance structure, and an unsustainable revenue system. These are the twin elephants in the room. Lasting improvement in public education will be elusive until these two core issues are dealt with.
With respect to New York, Oregon is different. Not only are our school districts the responsible parties for educational delivery for K-12 education, but the funding system reflects this “local” authority – at least it did. Ballot Measure 5 and then Ballot Measures 47/50 turned our structures inside out. The Oregon Legislature now pays the majority of the bill for public education delivery – even though the 197 independent school districts remain responsible for outcomes.
School districts receive money from the state, the federal government, and the communities they serve. In fact, most of the capital construction/maintenance revenues are still derived from local taxes. Add-on duties from well-meaning federal and state policy-makers have complicated matters immeasurably over the past decade. It is worth the time of any state (or federal) policy-maker to attend a few school board meetings (the whole meeting, not just the “meet-and-greet” photo opportunities) to understand the sheer magnitude facing our schools.
Once the Oregon Legislature returns in January to review the Governor’s educational agenda, there will be an interesting (hopefully positive) clash of ideas. School board members across the state have been watching the process from afar and there will be a reckoning. They want to know how this newest reform effort can realistically be implemented by local governments already stretched past reasonable expectations.
Mr. Crew and his team can demand increased expectations from local superintendents all they want – without the tools to accomplish them – setting higher expectations is merely another bureaucratic circus act. Improvements should be made, but talk is cheap. The changes in education over the past eighteen months are massive – at least in theory. It will be telling how these ideal standards survive the vetting that will come.
Sometime ago, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Sam Rayburn said, “They may be just as intelligent as you say. But I’d feel a helluva lot better if just one of them had ever run for sheriff…” Years later, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Tip O'Neill added, "All Politics, is Local." These two men understood the value of keeping local concerns in mind when making big decisions; it is a truth that endures.
The best public policy is an outcome of a thoughtful blend of ideas derived through a rational, transparent process. Fast-tracked agendas implemented in isolation (for fear of obstruction) are the “Fools Gold” of politics: it always appears to be easier, but in the long-run it proves the opposite.
Oregon needs an educational reform effort that transforms our schools as well as our understanding of what they do, why they do it, and how. Perhaps Mr. Crew is working towards that kind of reform. Let us work together to listen carefully to the newest reforms and then work towards making the good ideas even better.
Let us all commit to a rational debate about how best to serve our children and prepare our communities for the future.