Local Politics and Education Reform... It Still Matters

Paul Evans

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…”

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.

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    Yes, Paul, you've identified the problem. Since Measure 5 funding has shifted to the state, decision making stays local. Imposition of standards is useless if there aren't the funds. The state and federal "reforms" (standards setting) didn't have funds following them. The state standards are easily set aside as soon as parents realize their children won't graduate. The truth is that most parents want their children to have the same school experience they had, with a priority on athletics and social life over academics. That is not a recipe for change. It may be that the best school reform is to offer an ever greater integration with local community colleges and the vocational preparation they offer.

    Meanwhile Beaverton School Dist. lays off 1/3 of their teaching staff. Beaverton and Tigard/Tualatin along with many other districts. no longer have any HS or Middle School librarian/media specialists, thus losing their accreditation and their staff responsible teaching and implementing academic research.

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    Paul, from my perspective, current reforms and the list you provided fall far short of what is needed. First, this is an age of globalization and of expanding global markets. Oregon’s best business opportunities are abroad. Like Utah, Oregon should be expanding Mandarin, French, Spanish and Portuguese (and maybe other) immersion programs and we should be creating high school study abroad programs. Both would serve to develop the globally skilled and experienced workforce we need to sell our good and services abroad. Now in the 21st century, graduating from high school monolingual in English is to have received a second-rate education. Yet that’s what most Oregon public schools now provide.

    Second, we could use online education programs to reduce costs at the high school, community college and university levels. We are not, largely, I think, because of politics. So funds are wasted.

    Third, unfortunately I think Bill is right; “most parents want their children to have the same school experience they had, with a priority on athletics and social life over academics.” This is a key problem. Such parents, often forming local majorities, are dumbing down our schools and keeping them from changing with the times. Not only do such parents want traditional neighborhood schools for their children, they want them for all children, thus keeping parents who want their child to become fluent in Mandarin, French, Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, or Spanish from having immersion program or high school study abroad opportunities.

    Fourth, why should I, a member of the tax paying public, pay more for second-rate schools when the system is not using is current funds wisely, equitably (yet another deficiency topic) or strategically?

    Yes, bring on the “rational debate about how best to serve our children and prepare our communities for the future.”

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    Paul, thank you for your comments. But I have followed the new Oregon OEIB, including attending all but one of their meetings,and their solutions for improving Oregon education are way off base. I taught over 40 years and what they are doing in no way addresses the k-12 school problems. There is not room here to adequately explain this issue, but if you go to the Oregon SOS facebook page and begin to read the myriad of articles and arguments we have posted that run directly opposite most of the OEIB work you will see there is no way the Governor's initiatives even come close to addressing the major problems. To begin with most of their work centers around the reform movement, most of which centers around making a lot of money off education to the detriment of children and privatizing public education. How can anyone support that? I am not saying that is the Governor's motivation, but can't he figure it out?

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    I find the remarks of both Paul and David about "most parents" being the problem because they have the wrong "priorities" and are "dumbing down" our schools quite amazing - but also quite revealing.

    This kind of thinking - that "smart people" at the top of the political (and/or corporate) heap know more about what is good for kids than their own parents - seems to me both arrogant and ridiculous.

    We really need to get a grip!

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      Rex, I am not talking about any "top down" or "corporate" approaches to governing schools. I don't know how you came to that conclusion.

      I am complaining that what many parents, probably a majority, want for their children is outdated and inefficient. They're often the ones who think they are "smart" and can tell those who want foreign language immersion programs (or other magnet programs or high school study abroad funding or a whole universe of online courses) that such programs are not possible or available. I'm fine with parents choosing what is good for their children. But let's give them the full range of choices not something the "smart people" have dumbed down to fit their traditional, outdated notions.

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    With all due respect, David, you just did it again - "what many parents, probably a majority, want for their children is outdated and inefficient."

    How is that not you assuming you know more than "probably a majority of parents?"

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      Yes, perhaps, to the limited degree that anyone making an assertion thinks they are right.. But I’m not forcing anyone to live by my views and I’m quite willing to discuss and argue about it, as I am now.

      In an era of globalization and growing markets abroad, the need and case for foreign language immersion programs is quite strong. To not graduate now bilingual from high school is clearly to have received a second-rate education. Immersion programs starting as young as possible are the best way to become proficient in a foreign language. They cost no more than regular English only classrooms. For most students there is little downside. Research shows that students in foreign language immersion programs on average score as well or better on standardize English tests as students studying in an English only curriculum and students that learn additional languages show greater cognitive flexibility, better problem solving and higher order thinking skills. So, if students in foreign language immersion programs learn everything that a students in an English only setting do plus a foreign language, I argue that to insist on an English-only curriculum is to “dumb down” their education and to make it “second-rate.”

      Argue back. I'm not saying you have to accept my views because I am "smarter." But, yes, I think I'm right.

      I am not for forcing immersion programs on any parents or students. But I am for letting immersion programs grow as fast as parental demand permits and do argue to parents that they should so wish if they want the best education for their children.

      I am currently trying to make such a case to the parents and community members on Portland Public Schools Jefferson Cluster Enrollment Planning Team. See Make the Jefferson cluster a leader in 21st century foreign language education And I will be critical of parents who take other views.

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        David, I completely agree with your views on language immersion programs. They are so important to our kids future.

        But I think you make a serious error in blaming parents for the ridiculous "English Only" movement. I am sure that some parents do avidly support it. But, as it appears you know, the demand from parents for the program greatly exceeds the current capacity.

        And in so many other areas, parents are the best advocates for a comprehensive education, something which is rapidly disappearing in the onslaught of the advocates of test based reformers.

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          Rex, the political problem, especially in Portland Public Schools, is not the "English Only" movement. It is, perhaps to coin a phrase, the "Neighborhood School movement." To the extent that parents want each and every elementary school to be an English only (sometimes Spanish immersion if enough Spanish speaking students live in the neighborhood)and capture all the students in the neighborhood, they are preventing the development of foreign language immersion programs, dumbing down our schools, and crippling our economic future. Politically, this is what is happening.

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    The new(est) reform effort - sponsored by Governor Kitzhaber and Dr. Crew has proposed some intriguing ideas - I think that those items should be recognized. The barriers between K-12 and community colleges - and universities - and the workplace/s need to be addressed. Crew is forcing those discussions (a good thing). However, I am concerned (the essence of what I tried to communicate earlier) that the initiatives have been done in relative isolation, without the proper input of the 197 school districts legally responsible for public education in Oregon, and that they reflect a "top-down" paradigm that usually spells problems down-range. I have taught in public colleges/universities since 1997 - I cannot speak to the K-12 classroom experience, but I know the products our K-12 system is turning out. And for 36-months I was 1 of 7 responsible parties for the 1,700 students in our district. My point is this: we need to engage ourselves on these reforms. We need to push our legislators to engage. And we need to remind our statewide leaders that K-12 isn't a state-centric enterprise, unless they are prepared to make it so.

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    A final point, I agree with the arguments that our public schools are structurally and systemically failing students - in terms of preparation for the challenges of the 21st Century... Most teachers would willingly admit this: we need to teach 2nd, and 3rd languages; we need to push critical thinking; we need to push math, science, and reading; we need to push both art and athletics; and we need to push citizenship with enthusiasm and fervor. But these things cannot happen without a united effort at structural/systemic development and sustainability. It is time we make it a shared, statewide priority. Thank you all for the comments, I am encouraged by the zeal - we need it if we are to push the issues in Salem.

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    Our schools are not broken in the least and to think in those terms really puts a false context onto what is needed in the way of change. At worst our schools are hamstrung by an accountability movement that has turned education into an outcome based system instead of process based system.

    Educators know that you cannot demand outcomes in dynamic systems like education, there are too many variables. Educators know that learning is a process that happens within each student and we try to nurture that process. For some students there are significant obstacles to learning and for others fewer and it is the obstacles that we need to try to remove. We should measure which changes we adopt by asking ourselves whether they create obstacles or remove them.

    When I look at my school board and all of the employees of my district and everything we do to make education work for every student I absolutely disagree that public schools are failing students. Politicians are failing students and Oregonians are failing students, but not schools.

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    I agree wholeheartedly with you, Michael. The factory model of education simply doesn't work and doesn't explain the reality of education as process. Leave-No-Child-Left-Behind was a failed policy, a political move by GWB based on falsified data in Texas.In large part schools are fulfilling the expectations of our local culture, beginning with parents and families. The systems barriers like the integration of community colleges with highs schools, work, and four year colleges can be an appropriate focus of reform. But the first thing that state government can do is find reliable funding so local school districts can actually have something to count on. If any of us who have found some success in our vocational path look back, we will say that it was the relationship with competent, committed teachers that made the difference to us. That never changes.

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    The Governor's new program of achievement compacts relies on test scores. But this reliance is only for schools that are not in middle class neighborhoods, so the whole idea of lumping Oregon's schools together when addressing problems is faulty. You can't do it and make any accurate assumptions. Some schools are excellent, some are pretty poor and everything inbetween. Trying to fit all schools into a one size fits all reform is actually rediculous. Yet we continue at the state level in this manner. And in doing so we pretty much guarantee those schools which need real help won't get it.

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