Good morning. I am, like many of you, back to work this week after a little summer vacation. It’s that time of year when stores start advertising school supplies, yellow buses are back on the roads, and kids are back to school after their summer break.
For me, it hasn’t been all vacation this summer. I’ve been traveling the state, talking to educators, administrators, parents, and civic and business leaders about Oregon’s system of public education – about the gains we made in the 2013 Legislature to increase school funding, and about the gaps that still remain.
And I know that all of you have been working hard this summer, too, addressing many of those gaps and working hard to make public education in Oregon accessible, affordable, and effective for kids, for teachers, and for our state as a whole.
I’ve lived in Oregon for a long time, and the story of how I ended up here is intertwined with my views of education, particularly the education reforms that are going on today.
I was born in Colfax, Wash., but we lived for a while in Kansas – my father was teaching at KU. This was the 1950s, and in 1957 the Russians launched Sputnik. We bought our first television set so we could watch the news coverage of the launch. I remember sitting with my mother on a white shag rug in our house in Lawrence, watching the news, and just being mesmerized, and then going out in the evening and seeing this little speck of light going across the Kansas sky.
To me it was just amazing, but to the U.S. it was a terrible wakeup call. We were in the depths of the cold war, and the military implications were that the United States was number two to Russia. So there was this big re-evaluation of our public school system. This is going to sound familiar: people said, we really need to lean into math and science – this was way before STEM.
As a result of that, the Portland Public School System, like many places, wanted to re-evaluate their curriculum to see if it was getting kids ready for those disciplines and college. My father applied for the job and was hired, and we moved to Portland in late 1959. This was a time when, each month, every siren in town went off to help us practice for something dropping on the Rose Garden. It was terrifying at my age.
So we came to Portland, and my dad worked on a curriculum study that was put out in 1960; it was called the Kitzhaber Report. Like deja vus all over again, right? This focus on math and science was part of a report, and my father was invited to the White House to meet the then-equivalent of Arnie Duncan in the Johnson administration. He was a man who believed that this focus on math and science was lowballing English and the humanities. We didn’t want just a society of technocrats. We wanted good citizens as well.
For my father, this led to an NEA grant at the University of Oregon to work on what was called Project English, which rewrote the English curriculum for the Oregon public school system for grades 7 through 12 – things like structural linguistics and transformational grammar, and Noam Chomsky came out and there was a lot of controversy.
It was essentially trying to do with English and literature what was being done with math and sciences. About a year ago, I was going through my dad’s papers – he died in 2007 – and at one point I read about “The Short Happy Life of the Sputnik Education Reform Movement,” which is very interesting when you read it, because it takes us to where we are today. We’re re-evaluating our curriculum and how we teach programs, there’s a cry for STEM so we can keep up with the Chinese, and there’s obviously a concerted effort to ultimately transform our schools and universities.
It makes But I think there’s a much more practical reason why we need to be and why we are going through this re-evaluation of how we organize and deliver education.
It’s not just about methods. Teachers are clearly the most important resource in the classroom. Instead, it’s about the fact that there’s an increasingly close correlation between education and economic attainment. When I was elected to the Oregon Legislature in 1978 from Roseburg, kids were dropping out of Roseburg High School in 10th and 11th grade and getting great jobs in the woods with super benefits and good wages and the expectation that they’d be able to do that for the rest of their lives.
Those days are just gone. In the last two decades, the relationship between earning power and education is much more closely aligned. In 1978, the average college grad made 38 percent more than a high school graduate. Today, that’s 75 percent. The fact is, 60 percent of the jobs we expect coming down the pike in the next decade will require at least an associate’s degree.
So this is really about how we rebuild the American middle class and how we fulfill the American dream. If you believe, like I do, that at the heart of the American dream is the promise of opportunity, and the belief that there is that upward mobility, and if you work hard you can move yourself up and leave your kids better off than you were, then public education is the vehicle by which the American dream is most directly fulfilled today.
For going on three years, we’ve been changing the policy infrastructure to ensure that every Oregonian gets their shot at the American dream. We’ve begun to break down the silos and improve the connections between early childhood and K-12 and post-secondary education and training.
You’re experiencing this change directly as we integrate the Childcare Division, the Early Learning Council, and other early childhood supports into the Department of Education.
I want you to understand that this is about more than reducing the number of boxes on the organizational chart and gaining some administrative efficiencies. Ultimately, it’s about the type of conversations that we hope that you’ll have and the type of work that you’ll do to reinforce the connection between early childhood health and nutrition and the ability to be ready to learn in kindergarten, between kindergarten readiness and third grade reading proficiency, and so on.
The stories that I hear from pre-k teachers when they meet – sometimes for the first time – with their kindergarten counterparts, are amazing. And vice versa. They begin to see their work and their responsibilities in a different and more interconnected way, and it’s motivating for them. The work going on now at ODE is modeling this for the entire state.
So we’ve freed ourselves from the restrictive nets of No Child Left Behind and replaced the punitive labels with a legitimate and authentic way to evaluate our schools, and a tailored, homegrown way to actually improve. We’ve created achievement compacts with school districts, colleges, and universities. We’ve bent down the cost of health care and retirement and passed a budget that prioritizes kids by adding nearly $1 billion in new resources for public schools, including $75 million of strategic, targeted investments – investments that ODE will deploy in order to ensure that we have a measurable impact on third grade reading, transitions to college, STEM, and the effectiveness of our teachers. We’re implementing the Common Core and new teacher evaluations.
Cumulatively, all of this is really an effort to try to align our public education system around the 40/40/20 goal.
Now, I sometimes hear that 40/40/20 is the wrong goal because we don’t have an economy to match it. The concern, I think, is that we’re going to produce a lot of over-educated baristas. And it’s certainly true that when you survey Oregon’s employers about their workforce – as our Employment Department does regularly – today’s workforce does not require 40/40/20.
But this goal has never been about today’s workforce needs. It is instead about the type of economy we want Oregon to have by 2025 and beyond. One where a highly educated citizenry is innovating new products and services, founding new firms, attracting investment from other states and countries, and putting Oregon on a virtuous economic cycle that’s able to withstand a global downturn like the one we’ve just experienced better than most. It’s the story of states and countries that have made a conscious, smart investment in education, the way our country did for returning GIs after WWII … a choice that helps increase prosperity for generations.
So that’s the economic rationale. And I will be the first to admit that the 40-40-20 goal is extraordinarily aspirational. But if you dig down to what it really means, it means that every child in Oregon has the capacity to be successful – regardless of race, home language, income, immigration status, they have the ability to succeed. The job is for us adults to meet them where they are and create pathways for success in college and career.
That’s the work that you’re up to – the mission you’re on. I share that mission. It’s motivated me to stay hard at work this summer fueling our statewide conversation on how we get more dollars into classrooms, how we reduce the amount of per-pupil spending that goes to the public employee retirement system, and we turn the corner once and for all away from teacher layoffs and lost school days toward investments in professional development, in effective learning programs, in electives and career training, and in a seamless and integrated system, from early learning to college and career prep.
I won’t pretend for a moment that there are easy or immediate answers. This is about long-term investments, planning, and implementation. But I do want you to know how pleased I am that we’re getting there one step at a time, thanks in large part to the work of this Department. I’ve been deeply impressed with your work over the last year, and I’m excited about the work that is to come.
We are fortunate that Rob Saxton took this position. His conviction for the work, his practical experience at all levels of K-12 education, his unwavering commitment to equity … surrounded by other leaders we’ve brought on board like Jada Rupley and David Bautista, is benefiting all children of the state.
I’m proud of what you’re accomplishing here, and I hope you’re proud, too. While this concludes my prepared remarks, I’m happy to answer your questions and continue this conversation about the future of education in Oregon.