Public Education in Oregon: Leaner Rations, Higher Expectations

Paulie Brading

Governor John Kitzhaber recently formed an Oregon Education Investment Team fulfilling his campaign promise to look at cost-savings, a potential comprehensive redesign of Oregon's schools and to find efficencies.

Many school board members remain satisfied with vague outcomes that state, "helping students fulfill their potential" as their main mission. Governor Kitzhaber and his Education Investment Team will examine proficency-based achievement by Oregon's students. Results based accountibility has the potential to stop the conveyor belt educational model of moving students by ages and grade levels forward year after year. Oregon's current high school graduation rate (in four years) is 66%. Obviously, over 30 % of our students are not graduating on time. Many students have dropped out and are now receiving social services. Gov. John Kitzhaber wisely recognizes this is a critical time to review K-20 education.

In a time when too many school boards see themselves as cautious, community-based fiduciaries content to continue their time worn tweaks to the current system they must begin to deal with urgently needed reforms. In general, school boards remain cool to charter schools and online learning and warm to smaller class sizes and agitatied about funding their districts above all. Traditionally school boards cite the "big three" as barriers to raising student achievement.

Sue Levin, executive director of the advocacy group Stand for Children stated:

"We do not have a state system of education. We have 197 districts that do their own business--some well, others rather poorly -- and try to tune out what's going on in Salem."

It is time to tune in to Salem, heart palpatations and all. Many school boards have been wearing suspenders and a belt. It's time to remove at least one to see if Oregon's educational pants will still stay up.

Full disclosure: Paulie is a School Board Director in Medford, Oregon.

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    Paulie, nicely balanced summary of some of the educational issues on the table (although I’m not clear what you mean about the “pants.”).

    Steve Duin noted today (here), and I agree (here), that Gov. Kitzhaber has not made any specific educational reform proposals. It’s really not yet clear what reforms he will support. He has said things that suggest support for more online ed, for shifting to a proficiency based system, and for more early childhood education. I’d support all those. I’ve not heard him mention strengthen foreign language programs (more immersion) nor creating a high school study abroad program (the two make or break issues for me).

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    Paulie, if you got to fill in the blanks of Kitzhaber's proposal what would it look like?

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    As a 43 year school teacher I see Kitzhaber's proposal as a death knell for education in Oregon. He talks about basing money more on performance than enrollment. Major sections of his program are based on more of the failed reform movement which is championed by such groups as Stand for Children and The Chalkboard Project, organizations which are creating an educational plantation-like system where the curriculum is driven by testing in lower socio-economic schools, but not in the schools where their kids go. In effect they are saying a dead, test-driven curriculum is good for you poor kids but not for our children.

    We need to be moving in the exact opposite direction to rejuvenate our schools with interesting, engaging, and vibrant and varied curriculums which prepare kids for life in a complex democratic society with a broad based economy. The top rated educational countries in the world are making sure their testing DOES NOT influence what is taught in their schools.

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      Steve, I'm sorry - but you're all wet.

      Kitzhaber explicitly rejected standardized testing as the basis for his performance-based model.

      From Kitzhaber's (campaign) plan for primary and secondary education:

      Creating – with the leadership of teachers – a fair and meaningful teacher/administrator evaluation tool linked to student performance and growth. Unlike "No Child Left Behind" which relied on standardized testing and failed to account for where students started - we must create a model in which teachers help develop valid criteria to measure learning and progress, and adjust methods. The goal is to recognize excellence and deliver resources and professional development where improvement is needed.

      Restoring instructional time by eliminating redundant high-stakes standardized testing. Our educators now deal with an endless maze of overlapping high stakes tests that often poorly measure real growth. As a result, critical class and preparation time is lost.

      Time and time again, I heard Kitzhaber say on the campaign trail that we have to fund education based on performance, BUT that does not mean performance of individual students or individual teachers. And it doesn't mean based on standardized tests.

      On that same page:

      At those schools, "teachers hold regular grade-level or subject-area team meetings that focus on measurements of what students have learned and how teachers can adapt their techniques to reach more children." This kind of "measuring" is not simply teaching to a test; but rather using various kinds of assessments as a means of evaluating and improving the teachers' own teaching. We need to move primary and secondary education in that direction -- encouraging schools that are already doing so to keep it up; and helping schools that are struggling to make the transition.

      It's critical here to actually listen to what Kitzhaber is saying - and not merely assume that he's picking sides in some long-running (and fairly idiotic) ideological battle.

      Should we evaluate the performance of our schools? Of course. Should we drive policy and funding in ways that reward and encourage high performance schools? Of course. Should we determine high-performance based on high-stakes standardized tests? Of course not. Should we abandon low-performing schools (and the teachers and students in them)? Of course not.

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    Sure, Kari, I am all wet. The difference is that I have spent my entire working life as a school teacher and know how it actually works. The reform movement's buzzwords are all over the in-school parts of this proposal, and the present way these types of proposals get administrated in the schools causes more harm than good. And there is nothing in Kitzhaber's proposal which suggests anything will be different. In fact, what is created is more of the same failure.

    Another thing. The "idiotic" ideological battle (and I am not sure if you mean testing v. teaching or the battle in Portland between the haves and the have-nots, but whichever) is critical to either improving education in Oregon or Portland or both. Neither is "idiotic" unless, maybe someone has a preconceived agenda which says it is o.k. to educate poor kids in an inferior manner. This, of course, is exactly what has taken place in the last 20 years in Portland. We certainly don't need to see that attitude set in stone. So, a death knell? Yep, I stick to it.

    P.S. The answer to all your "of courses" in your last paragraph depends upon how you define "performance" and how you measure it. In general, the reform movement is wrong both in how it defines performance and how it measures it, which is what causes the problem when it get administered in the schools and which is in no way corrected in Kitzhaber's proposal.

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      The idiotic ideological battle is largely one started by loonies on the right -- those who want to destroy public education. They seek to cut funding, and barring that - shift funding to private schools (vouchers).

      Too often, folks on our side have responded by simply saying "NO! STOP THAT!" and failing to present meaningful alternatives to reform.

      Our schools are underfunded. That is true. Funding is a critical piece.

      But in many cases, our schools also aren't working - and they're not working in ways that boosting funding alone won't fix.

      I agree with you that many of the "reform" advocates are wolves in sheep's clothing. They share the same attitudes as the right-wing loonies, but dressed up in less-reactionary language.


      I do not believe that's the case with all reformers. I believe that John Kitzhaber truly supports public education, supports our public school teachers, and wants to improve public education for every student.

      Call me a pollyanna if you like (or, if you're less charitable, a guy who was paid by the campaign in 2010 to build the website), but I honestly believe in and trust John Kitzhaber to make the right moves here.

      Will there be plenty of bad guys trying to get in the room to push the conversation in the wrong direction? Sure. But I'm willing to let Kitzhaber lead the way on this one.

      It's worth noting that OEA is cautiously optimistic here:

      BethAnne Darby, director of public affairs for the Oregon Education Association, said she wants to make sure the new system is built on research-based practices that are good for kids.

      "We're not interested in the flavor of the day," Darby said. "Show me the research and the sustainable funding and we're in."

      And that's EXACTLY what I think. Assuming that Kitzhaber is going to be making reforms that are founded in solid research about what works (as he said he would); focused on encouraging best practices and not punishing teachers in poor districts (as he said he would); and continues to make strides on sustainable funding (as he said he would)... well, then, I think we're on the right path.

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    Thank you, Kari, for a more reasonable response.

    I am hardly a loony, but the assumptions we are making to get to where Kitzhaber's program is (in regard to the in-school education part) are not correct, and in fact, are administered within the schools differently than people on the outside believe. Let's just look at one example.

    We need reforms "founded on solid research". Well, that's the end of it right there since solid (scientific) evidence-based, educational research is pretty much non existent. There is some decent large trend statistical analysis, but it is not very helpful in the classroom. The reason this type of research is faulty is because you can't get control groups where you isolate the variables. This means the "evidence" is all over the map. So educational leaders can pull from anything out there and use it as the new salvation program trend in their school. And they do this all the time. This includes the "best practice" lists which schools use. There is some pretty good social-psychology research, but it is not really directed at the schools and very seldom advocated by educators.

    The real truth is that each child, each classroom, and each school are different with a different set of problems needing a different set of solutions. What we need to attack these problems are schools which are focussed on the needs of their kids and who spend their time and energy there -- not focussed on testing and evaluating, but educating. Along with this goes the need for schools which are oganized to support teachers being successful, not going nuts making minor improvements in teachers themselves. Kitzhaber's plan does nothing to address this fundamental problem. In fact, parts of it make the problem worse. And by not correcting what already exists, much worse.

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    From my perspective, the issues are not just about methods (as something which can develop best practices through research) but about ends. To the extent that we do not have strong foreign language programs (developing fluency and giving student foreign experiences), we are not preparing students either for the global economy or for our future national security challenges. I now find at times that the common vision for our schools is some late 1950’s post-sputnik ideal of a science focused curriculum. That is not enough today.

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    I think there is considerable opportunity to move forward and improve public schools in Oregon, in the near future. Perhaps a benefit of hard times is a willingness to find productive solutions. I take Gov. Kitzhaber at his word.

    Steve, Stand for Children does not advocate for additional testing for students in low income schools. As a matter of fact, we are looking at ways to reduce the amount of time students spend testing, knowing it comes at the cost of precious instructional time in an already too short school year in Oregon. This disproportionally impacts students at low income schools in Oregon. Other states do it differently.

    If you are interested in Stand for Children's legislative agenda, here it is:

    The vast majority of Oregonians support public schools. The vast majority of parents in Oregon send their children to public schools. And many know that maintaining the status quo is not good enough for our students, our teachers or our state.

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    Dena, thank you for your comments. It is hard to make myself clear in such limited space. I know SFC does not advocate additional testing. My concern is that the testing becomes the curriculum in many low income schools. This is different than what happens in higher socio-economic schools where testing plays a much smaller role, since, generally, kids pass the tests without much problem.

    Another point. It is not the time spent testing that is disproportionate, but the time spent prepping for the tests and the way the curriculum is altered to reflect this preparation. One good thing SFC could work on in the Portland School District would be to lobby the school board to take a stand limiting test prep time to a series of lessons with a very strong admonishment to teachers and principals who altered their curriculum beyond those lessons.

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