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If you want to change education, follow the money

Zhao suggests we get off this treadmill that naturally leads to teaching-to- the test.

University of Oregon professor of education Yong Zhao gave an energetic, entertaining and provocative keynote speech on Jan. 10 to launch Forest Grove's 'The Vision in Education Series.'

Zhao, an immigrant American from China, challenged the audience to think outside the box.

Zhao cited data that American students score low on international math tests, but compared to their Asian cohorts, American kids have a high sense of confidence while Asians lack self-confidence. The data begs the question; can each achieve a happy medium between competence and confidence?

The heart of Zhao's speech was that American education has focused on funneling students through a preconceived curriculum based on so-called basics. Fortunately for us, in contrast to Asia, our system is so porous that many students are able to navigate through the system to find their education sweet spots - but many more do not.

Instead of designing a system based on educational benchmarks focused on reading and math, Zhao suggests we get off this treadmill that naturally leads to teaching-to-the-test and develop a more open-ended and collaborative model of education that allows students the maximum freedom to learn. In such a system, teachers would be more coaches and facilitators, not stars on the stage.

Many teachers have been doing this for decades, understanding students have multiple intelligences (learning styles) and being committed to 'active' rather than passive learning models.

Since John Dewey in the early 20th century, a great debate within education has raged over designing schools on an industrial model vs. the open education model.

Zhao is an advocate of global education. He is involved in projects that connect students across boundaries.

Responding to a question about the district's large Latino population, many of them first generation Americans, Zhao suggested we see these young people and their families as a resource, not a liability.

Both our sons matriculated through the Forest Grove district. Both did well and have moved on to successful careers,

Both played soccer. With a majority Latino team, why didn't the coaches get the team to be sports fluent in Spanish to keep the opposition off their game?

That would have been a very teachable and community affirming moment. But Xs and Os blocked out such thinking. This was a missed opportunity.

Zhao challenged the audience to look at the Forest Grove and Cornelius area and assess our strengths and potentials as we design our local education system.

Pedagogically, this makes a lot of sense. In a community dominated by Pacific University and Portland Community College - why can't we create collaborative relationships with each to improve and enrich educational options?

In the Q and A, Dr. Zhao was asked to go to Salem with Superintendent Yvonne Curtis and get a waiver from Gov. John Kitzhaber so the district could be liberated from the latest version of high stakes testing. His answer was a good one - No. That's the community's responsibility.

He's right. It's time Grovers got the message Salem controls our purse strings. It's time to make the trip to the capitol on a regular basis.

Given Zhao's heritage and experience in growing up in China I understand his distrust of a central government designing an educational system, be it in Washington, D.C. or Salem.

And given the long history of local control in U.S. public education, one is inclined to say all power to the locals. But in Oregon, we ceded that power to the state when we passed a property tax limit in 1991. Until Measure 5 is terminated, we have no choice but to follow the money!

I left Dr. Zhao's lecture hoping that Grovers will seize the chance to take hold of their schools in creative and collaborative ways as Zhao outlined.

This will require school administrators and the school board to be less top down as we look for keys to collaboration. But while engaging in a lot of out-of-the box thinking, the political basics must be attended to: follow the money to Salem.

Russ Dondero is professor emeritus of Pacific Univeristy's Department of Politics and Government. Read his blog at www.russdonderoweb.com.



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