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School reforms repeat mistakes of past efforts

The governor's plan is a classic 'trust me,' top-down approach by those who have no personal experience in the classroom.

While I applaud Gov. John Kitzhaber's intent to free Oregon from the onerous grasp of No Child Left Behind and his desire to create a seamless student-centered, birth-to-college educational continuum, I have concluded that these efforts at reform will lead us down a 'bridge to nowhere.'

It's the same path Oregon chartered with the 'Katz Plan' in 1991 and NCLB has done at the federal level since 2001.

The governor's early-learning plan focuses on integrating and streamlining nutrition, health care and preschool services for 108,000 at-risk children to enable them to be ready for kindergarten and beyond.

However, the enabling language of House Bill 4165 does not specify how 'integrated services' will be delivered by 10,000 'school based' case managers working with at-risk children and their families. Nor is it clear how these case workers will be recruited, trained or certified.

His K-12 initiative, found in Senate Bill 1581, is designed to create accountable 'achievement compacts' committed to improving outcomes and tailoring outcomes to the circumstances of individual districts.

The language of the bill does not spell out a transparent description of how these goals are to be achieved. What prevents this process from resulting in a cacophony of different goals and objectives district by district with no comparability of standards or outcomes?

The devil is in the details but the governor's 'conceptual' scaffolding in both initiatives is a work in progress. And like previous reform efforts, the governor has left the funding of his proposed reform, aside from some pilot projects, for another day. The dust-up last week between the governor and the legislature over the budget shows how hard full funding could be in 2013.

Despite Oregon's 1991 Educational Act for the 21st Century and the federal government's NCLB Act, Oregon is faced with an achievement gap, truancy issues and a 23 percent drop-out rate.

Outcomes-based education trumpeted from the Reagan administration's 'A Nation at Risk' to the Obama administration's 'Race to the Top' has failed to deliver.

I see no reason to believe the governor's version of reform will end any differently. I'm convinced we will be back here in 20 years debating why, where and how this plan went south on our kids and Oregon.

The governor's plan is a classic 'trust me,' top-down approach advocated by those in the political and business elite who have no personal experience in the classroom.

They operate within a 'group think' policy bubble without benefit of first-hand classroom experience or knowledge of extensive research on this subject.

Education author Jonathon Kozol warns that an '…expansive academic industry has now evolved around the elements of what is known generically as 'standards-based reform.'

Graduate schools of education offer courses in accountability reform, not for future teachers but for future leaders in the world of education policy, which are often taught by people who have no experience in education but whose expertise lies in the world of systems management.'

The governor's plan mis-diagnoses the problem we face in helping young people succeed in school. The reason Oregon's 1991 reforms and NCLB failed to close the achievement gap is that 'teaching to the test' doesn't alter the economic, social and family circumstances from which students come when they go to school.

With 1 in 5 children in Oregon living in poverty, more Oregon families are facing hunger or homelessness and with so many Oregonians being un- or underemployed, children come to school not ready to or able learn because their families are struggling with securing basic economic necessities of life - adequate food and shelter.

What Oregon kids and families need is a state that directs its resources toward ending homelessness, hunger, poverty and unemployment, not a government that in effect blames the 'victims' - the children and families of the working poor. The challenge we face is not a school-design problem; it's an economic justice problem.

Instead of tinkering with the governance system of Oregon's 197 public school districts and its college and university system via implementing an unfunded mandate of 'achievement compacts.' we need to reinvigorate the 'social compact' to create a level playing field for all our children, families and communities.

Bringing socio-economic justice to Oregonians is the best education reform plan.

The heart of the governor's plan is essentially a scheme that moves the deck chairs of Oregon's educational Titanic. It doesn't melt the iceberg of socio-economic marginalization that is at the heart of the so-called achievement gap.

Instead of taking a top-down approach to education reform and accountability, the governor should host a day-long conference at Portland's Convention Center where scholars can share and compare 'evidenced based' best practices with parents, teachers and school board members.

In the meantime, tell your state legislators you are tired of this game of political dodge ball which risks sacrificing another generation of Oregon students on the altar of a theory in need of a reality check.

- Russ Dondero is Professor Emeritus, Department of Politics and Government, Pacific University. Read his blogs at russdondero.squarespace.com.




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