To Sell Vision Of Student Mastery, Oregon Fights Finances, Skepticism

Norma S. Paulus, the superintendent of public instruction in Oregon, is determined to convince a predominantly senior citizen audience in this coastal community about the importance of a groundbreaking school reform initiative. According to Ms. Paulus, Oregon’s "best and brightest children" are on par with students in other parts of the country, but the problem lies in the national average, which she deems a farce.

She goes on to highlight the dismal performance of American students in mathematics and science when compared to their peers in other industrialized nations. In addition, Ms. Paulus points out that around 25 percent of Oregon students fail to complete high school, and of the 55 percent who pursue postsecondary education, 30 percent drop out in the first year. She argues that too many children are ill-prepared for higher education or work upon leaving school.

Ms. Paulus emphasizes the need to understand the consequences of neglecting the education of children in the state. With only two young people to support each retiree, compared to the ideal ratio of four, Oregon is already facing a demographic challenge. The state ranks 10th in the nation for its senior population but a lowly 42nd for individuals under the age of 18. Therefore, Ms. Paulus asserts that the state cannot afford to let any child slip through the cracks and lead an unproductive life.

To address these issues, Ms. Paulus presents the Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century as the solution. This legislation, passed in 1991, aligns with the recommendations of a report by the National Center on Education and the Economy titled "America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages." The report argues that America can either prioritize academic preparation and create high-paying jobs or settle for low-wage employment and a decline in living standards.

The president of the national center, Marc S. Tucker, praises the Oregon law as the most comprehensive response to the report’s findings. As a result, other states closely monitor the implementation of the legislation, recognizing the interconnectedness between quality schools and a prosperous economy. However, there are challenges to overcome within Oregon itself, such as the strained school-finance system, which may pose difficulties in financing new reform efforts. Critics also express concerns that the law might force students to choose between college and professional-technical programs at an early stage, leading to rigid tracking.

The centerpiece of the law is the redesign of the high-school curriculum to raise expectations for all students, especially those who do not plan to attend college. Starting in 1997, students will be expected to earn a "certificate of initial mastery" by grade 10. This certificate will ensure that students possess critical skills like reading, writing, problem-solving, critical thinking, and interdisciplinary communication at national and international levels by 2000 and 2010, respectively. After achieving the initial mastery certificate, students will focus on earning a "certificate of advanced mastery" corresponding to either college preparation or professional-technical courses and on-the-job training during the remaining years of high school. The "general track" that currently accommodates the majority of Oregon students will be eliminated from the curriculum.

Furthermore, the act expands early-childhood programs, including Head Start, to cover all eligible children by 1998. It also encourages the development of ungraded primary schools, introduces performance-based assessments in specific grades, grants teachers and parents more authority in school management, and establishes alternative "learning centers" for high school dropouts. Additionally, the legislation requires a state report card to monitor school performance, permits some level of public-school choice, and extends the school year to 220 days by 2010.

Representative Vera Katz, a member of the national center’s board and the primary sponsor of the bill, states that the goal is to provide Oregon students with a world-class education that enables them to compete in the global marketplace.

Strategy for Human Investment

The legislation aligns with the state’s comprehensive strategy for human investment, which goes beyond just the education department. In 1989, legislators established the Oregon Progress Board to establish long-term policy objectives for the state in various areas including housing, healthcare, natural resources, and education. The board, consisting of seven members headed by the governor, is also responsible for developing measurable benchmarks to achieve those goals. In 1991, another bill was passed to establish the Oregon Workforce Quality Council, comprising 21 members, with the aim of creating the most educated and prepared workforce in America by the year 2000 and a workforce comparable to any worldwide by 2010. The council includes representatives from major state agencies involved in education and training, as well as local officials, business representatives, and labor representatives.

To support the improvement of workforce quality, the state allocated $8 million from lottery funds in 1991 to fund 20 education, training, and evaluation programs. An additional $2.3 million was designated for tech-prep programs. Despite the ambitious goals, the main challenge for the state is to persuade the public of the necessity and importance of these changes. "Our biggest frustration is the lack of instant access to reach a wide range of people with our message," says Ms. Paulus, referring to the law. Oregon has 287 school districts, but only Portland has an enrollment of over 30,000 students. The rest of the districts vary in size, from smaller coastal communities like Lincoln City to rural farming towns in the eastern part of the state.

In recent years, the state’s economy, traditionally reliant on timber and agriculture, has seen the emergence of several high-tech companies, though they remain concentrated in specific areas of the state. Ms. Paulus and her staff have organized numerous informational meetings across the state, attended by thousands of teachers, administrators, parents, and citizens.

Ten separate committees, composed of educators, parents, and business representatives, are also working on recommendations for implementing specific aspects of the law, ranging from school choice to employing minors. The committees are expected to conclude their work this summer. Additionally, a few schools have been granted funds to pilot-test models for primary schools without grade levels, performance-based assessments, and a redesigned high-school curriculum leading to a certificate of initial mastery.

Lack of Public Awareness

However, according to Chris Dudley, the executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, "I don’t believe the community has a deep understanding of the commitment required to support these changes." Julie Brandis, a legislative assistant for Associated Oregon Industries, which strongly supports the act, agrees that "most people recognize the need for reform, but they don’t associate it with their own school district." When the Oregon Education Association conducted 24 community hearings about the law last year, the audience expressed both apprehension and enthusiasm, according to Karen A. Famous, the organization’s president. "Many people felt like this was being forced upon them, and why weren’t these discussions held prior to passing the law?" she says. In reality, the bill underwent more than 30 revisions and 100 hours of testimony before it was passed. Its nearly unanimous approval by the legislative body was a testament to its political strategy.

The proposal gained support from a powerful bipartisan coalition, including influential figures like Ms. Katz, a former Speaker of the House, Ms. Paulus, a former secretary of state and passionate Republican, Senator Shirley Gold, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, and Representative Larry L. Campbell, a conservative Republican who currently serves as Speaker of the House. Ms. Gold and Ms. Paulus specifically endorsed the bill with the condition that it included a strong early-childhood education component. The bill also received support from Associated Oregon Industries and the Oregon Business Council. However, the failure to involve a large number of educators from the beginning left some members, particularly those from the state’s teachers’ unions, feeling bitter. For example, the Portland Association of Teachers has refused to support Ms. Katz in her mayoral campaign in Portland, where she is currently engaged in a runoff.

A ‘Two Track’ System?

"What we observe is an integrated professional-technical curriculum that caters to all students while maintaining academic rigor. This ensures that students do not receive less education in subjects such as math, science, or English, even if they choose a career path that does not require a college degree," explains J.D. Hoye, the associate state superintendent for professional-technical education.

The curriculum design is being approached in an innovative manner. Currently, six state-level task forces are refining the curricula and achievement standards for professional-technical endorsements across six broad areas: arts and communications, business and management, health services, human resources, industry and technology, and natural resources. The goal is to allow students the flexibility to transition between different professional-technical areas or between college-bound and non-college-bound paths as their interests evolve.

Dale Parnell, the state commissioner of community colleges and one of the creators of the tech-prep concept, describes Oregon’s plan as an "upside down" curriculum. He explains, "Almost all students in this program will have practical courses like applied-physics or applied-chemistry as their core high-school courses. These courses provide rigorous content, but they begin with tangible and concrete examples, never starting with theory. For too many students, we have allowed a disconnect between real-life experiences and education, and we must find a solution for that. Research in cognitive science indicates that people learn better when concepts are taught in context."

According to Mr. Parnell, the expectation is that most students will pursue further education beyond high school, whether through tech-prep programs that lead to an associate’s degree, apprenticeships, or other structured work experiences. In 1991, the state implemented the Oregon Youth Apprenticeship Training Program, which offered occupational training to up to 100 high-school students as a pilot test. The challenge, according to Hilary C. Pennington, the president of Jobs for the Future, will be for Oregon to create pathways that allow students to seamlessly transition from technical programs to college-bound tracks. Jobs for the Future is a national organization focused on the relationship between education and economic development. She notes, "The devil is in the details, but I have not seen a more dedicated or enthusiastic group anywhere in the country than the individuals in Oregon working on resolving those details." However, skeptics express concerns about the logistics involved in making such a system work. "I don’t believe that’s realistic," says Ms. Famous. "If there is a rigorous academic, college-preparatory program, how can a student from a vocational program seamlessly enter that without losing time?" The Oregon Education Association (O.E.A.) aims for most vocational training to continue within the existing four-year high-school structure.

The teachers’ union also contends that placing the certificate of initial mastery at the end of 10th grade could potentially discourage students from continuing their education by creating an artificial "stopping point."

Even its proponents acknowledge that Oregon will need to create a substantial number of structured work experiences in collaboration with businesses and industries to make the certificate of advanced mastery a reality. While the state’s business organizations have been supportive of this initiative, there is still work to be done. "The average business person is unaware of this development," points out Ms. Brandis. "They do not grasp what is expected of them." "Currently, most business and industry representatives will tell you that they want employees with a strong work ethic who show up on time and are willing to learn. However, that is not sufficient," emphasizes Ms. Hoye.

Some school districts and schools are already ahead of the state in implementing these ideas. For instance, Roosevelt High School in Portland has teams of teachers collaborating with business and industrial representatives to create six career pathways that combine academic and technical training.

In the coming year, they have aspirations to test their model by offering structured work experiences to approximately 90 to 100 students. Additionally, they have plans to introduce a yearlong program to expose freshmen to various career options, starting this fall.

In Albany, a blue-collar community located within the Willamette Valley, the school district has established task forces consisting of educators and business leaders. Their main objective is to revise the curriculum based on the specific skills that employers have indicated are necessary.

Superintendent Robert D. Stalick expresses his hope that by 1995, at least 35 percent of high-school students in the district will engage in "meaningful work-site internships." Currently, less than 5 percent of the district’s students participate in a vocational-technical track, while roughly 70 percent pursue a general-education track.

According to Mr. Stalick, there are students who believe they are destined for college from their early years in high school, but only realize during their senior year that their 2.5 grade-point average is insufficient. These students are left unsure about their future plans.

With the assistance of local corporate executives, the district has identified six broad areas that will offer skilled employment opportunities in the future. The district intends to concentrate their efforts in these areas, which include electronics and electronics technician, millwright and mechanics, medical secretary and transcription, nurse and medical careers, chef and chef training, and computer-aided design.

Facing Financial Obstacles

The state’s endeavors to develop a certificate of initial mastery pose significant challenges as well.

Ms. Paulus acknowledges, "We underestimated the difficulty of defining world-class standards." She adds, "No one has done it before." The state has collaborated with national level efforts and has organized various symposia with educators from other countries.

However, the most significant obstacle to the reform law is Measure 5, a constitutional amendment approved by voters two years ago. This amendment places restrictions on local property-tax rates. Consequently, lawmakers are required to compensate for the majority of lost local revenues with funds from the state’s general fund. This mandate will place immense pressure on the state budget in the upcoming years, leading to concerns about potential cuts to public-school funding that is already provided by the state.

Governor Barbara Roberts has spent a significant part of the year touring the state, soliciting input regarding desired state services and how people are willing to fund them. The true test will arise next winter when the legislature convenes for the 1993-94 biennium. Governor Roberts has already issued an order instructing all state agencies to prepare for potential budget reductions of up to 20 percent.

Mr. Parnell asserts, "The school-reform law presents an ambitious vision of what we should accomplish, but the real challenge will be determining how to do so in the context of Measure 5." It is widely believed that without a reliable revenue source, many school districts are hesitant to take risks and proceed with the implementation of the reform measures.

Mr. Dudley, from the school-boards association, points out, "Until they see some kind of solution to the funding problem, they are reluctant to invest significant amounts of emotions, energy, and money in implementing the reforms." However, he also suggests, "On the other hand, it may be necessary for the education community to demonstrate a commitment to change in order for voters to be willing to provide the necessary funding."

Uncertainty prevails, with little chance that lawmakers will identify an alternative revenue source during the upcoming session. Mr. Stalick reveals the sentiment among his peers, stating, "Some of my colleagues simply see it as another obligation imposed by the state without adequate funding. Consequently, they refuse to comply."

Vicki Barrows, the president of the Portland Association of Teachers, warns that the cost of training is exorbitant. It will require a significant amount of money to properly train staff and administration, but no funds have been allocated for this purpose. Critics are also concerned that the law’s lengthy phase-in period, with most provisions not taking effect until 1996-97, coupled with a provision that mandates adequate funding, may lead to its demise. However, Ms. Paulus argues that the timelines are actually too short. She acknowledges that changing an entrenched institution like education cannot be done overnight and believes that it is easier to change a law than to change people’s attitudes. Ultimately, Oregon’s school-reform law aims to transform attitudes and expectations. Ms. Hoye from the state education department emphasizes that our society still values unemployed sociologists over employed electricians, and this mindset persists within their office as well.


  • tobyevans

    Toby Evans is an educational blogger and school teacher who uses her blog to share her ideas and experiences with her students and fellow educators. She is passionate about helping her students learn and grow, and uses her blog as a way to share her knowledge and insights with the world.