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Cradle to Career (Sept. 9, 2011)

Cradle to Career Council

September 9, 2011


Thank you, Gregg, for hosting us today, for the update on the Cradle to Career initiative, and for the introduction.

And thank all of you here for your commitment to our students. Together, through Cradle to Career,  you are demonstrating the power that a framework informed by credible and agreed-upon data and focused on student results can have in galvanizing a community to support all students. This community has done pioneering work in taking a tough look at our high school graduation success, and in stepping up to improve the record. You have identified and challenged the educational disparities faced by students of color.

You are educators, elected officials, parents, employers, community leaders and youth service providers.

The fact that so many of you are here today and involved in this work is a testament to our share determination to deliver the right kind of support for our students -- so that every one of them succeeds.

And always, students are the focus.

This week, more than 550,000 children have returned to public schools, across the Portland metro area and throughout the state. Later this month, about 100,000 students will start the fall term at our seven public universities, and roughly 180,000 more will be enrolled full- or part-time in our community colleges.

Even without our youngest learners added in, that means 830 thousand Oregonians – 100,000 more than the population of Multnomah County – engaged in public education.

No matter their age, from the youngest toddler in Head Start to the adults rebooting their schooling and careers at our community colleges, they are part of the great enterprise of public education.

Public education enriches our lives, strengthens our communities and offers individuals a pathway to careers that are fulfilling – and which offer a paycheck to support their families.

There is no doubt that our public schools, community colleges and universities find themselves buffeted by the economic times. We face record enrollment and record tuition in higher education, and regular and dismaying cuts in staff, services and even school days among our public schools.

At this moment in time, facing these economic circumstances, we cannot simply focus on the immediate: how managing through will affect our communities and our state right now. Instead, these times require more from us – to manage now mindful of how our decisions will affect our children and grandchildren for decades in the future.

To do that, we need a North Star -- a destination on which we can focus our aspirations.

So let me share the North Star, by giving you a few numbers. 

The first is 100. We want every single student – 100 percent – to earn a high school diploma in 2025. A few may take five years to reach that goal, and many may accelerate their learning and graduate from high school with a year or more of college credits under their belt. But every student should graduate. One hundred percent.

The other number is 80.

That’s the percentage of high school graduates we envision going beyond their high school diploma, and completing at least two years of post secondary education or training, with half of them earning a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Why do those numbers matter? Why should they be our North Star?

Because Oregon must do better to keep up with our changing world. We want employers to know they can locate and grow in Oregon, and find highly skilled productive employees right here. We want Oregonians graduate ready to contribute to our economy, and we want them to feel confident that they have a career path to reach those family wage jobs. And we envision an Oregon where our per capita income is back up above the national average.

I want to live in that state, I think you want to live in that state, and I want our children to live in that state.  And in fact, I believe it is possible,

But I know this: We won’t get there if we hold tight to the status quo, set our sights low and continue to let school funding be the only statewide education debate that matters. The path forward in this new century requires innovation, requires the willingness to challenge assumptions, requires the courage to change.

Our institutions of public education are struggling under huge new challenges – challenges which may also pose new opportunities. Our schools are ever more diverse – with students bringing varied interests, aptitudes, cultures, languages and customs to the classroom. Our schools struggle to help all of them succeed – yet what a gift that diversity can be to students growing up in today’s global community and economy.

Students entering college this year have never known a world without an internet – and many held their first mouse as toddlers. Yet our schools aren’t keeping up with today’s technology and struggle with how to unleash these powerful tools in the service of imagination, exploration and innovation.

For demographic, economic and technological reasons, we must reset our course to reach our North Star.

The shortcomings of the current system — for students and teachers — are all too familiar:

  • Oregon spends three-quarters of a billion dollars in state and federal money every two years on more than two dozen early childhood programs and services. Yet less than half of at-risk kids, from birth t0 age five, receive the support they need to be ready and able to learn when they get to kindergarten.
  • Many of those students who start behind don’t catch up. Only 25 percent of at-risk children meet state benchmarks for reading in the first grade, creating counseling and remediation needs that drain resources from classrooms.
  • We all know that our high school completion rates are far too low: Only about two-thirds of Oregon students earn a regular diploma, and only about half of our black, Hispanic and Native American students on time.
  • Fewer than 25 percent of Oregon students are college-ready when they leave high school, yet 60 percent of Oregon jobs expected in coming years will require at least a technical certificate or associate’s degree.
  • For many reasons – including their poor preparation and the increasing tuition costs – many students who enter community college or university programs leave without earning the credential or degree that will allow them to contribute to our economy.

The end result: A generation of Oregonians now who are less educated that their own parents – less educated than the U.S. average and less educated than in many of the leading countries we compete with in the global economy.

A report just last week from the Oregon Center for Public Policy underscored the impact on Oregon families. Over the last 30 years, real median wages in today’s dollars for Oregon workers with associate’s or bachelor’s degrees rose by 23 and 30 percent, respectively. But those with only a high school diploma saw their wages decline.

I share these facts and figures -- not as a critique of educators, administrators, school boards, parents or students – but rather to stress my sense of urgency,. This is not to say our educators or our students don’t care, or that they  aren’t talented or aren’t working hard enough. I am simply pointing out that we are not achieving the results we want and need for our students, and for Oregon’s future.

It is a stretch to call what we have now a public education “system” at all. The way we seek to fund and govern our programs for early learners, 197 school districts, community colleges and universities too often throws up barriers to collaboration. Our system offers the wrong incentives, or worse, pits institutions against each other. That is a far cry from the seamless public education system we need to reach our destination.

What if, rather than allowing our educational institutions to ossify, they remained dynamic, supporting and encouraging innovation, and every one of those 830,000 students?

I have enlisted some thoughtful educators and leaders from across Oregon to help me design and oversee our new system, as members of the Oregon Education Investment Board.

Several volunteers on the board will be familiar, as longtime champions for education in the greater metro area:

  • Dick Alexander
  • Julia Brim-Edwards
  • Yvonne Curtis
  • Matt Donegan
  • Sam Henry
  • Nichole Maher
  • David Rives
  • Ron Saxton
  • Kay Toran
  • Hanna Vaandering

Several of them have joined us here today.

When the Oregon Education Investment Board first convenes later this month, we will not yet  have a detailed plan to put on the table. But two major principles will drive our work: Investment in outcomes, and an emphasis on proficiency.

Let me explain what that means to me – and for our education system moving forward.

First, we will have a relentless focus on results for students.

With the creation of the Oregon Education Investment Board we have the opportunity — for the first time — to align funding, outcomes, and education strategies across the entire continuum of a child’s development — from birth to post-secondary education and training

The state is the largest investor in public education, spending roughly $3.8 billion each year. Even at that level of spending, our education system, from early childhood through our universities, is under-funded. We have seen class sizes increase, students’ options diminish and fees and tuition rise.

 The issue of securing long term, stable funding for our schools cannot be ignored and I have been having preliminary meetings with various stakeholders to get the issue of Oregon’s volatile system of public finance back on the table.

But the fact that we do not currently have all the resources we need  does not does not negate the need for deep systemic changes – in fact it only increases the urgency. We may not be able to do more for a while, but we MUST do better, now.

Right now, our schools and colleges struggle with their finances, annually calculating the cost of extending current services and fighting to keep at least a stable baseline budget. We must break through the current practice – of estimating costs of current services and calculating shortfalls – to build new budgets that invest our limited dollars in proven practices that can improve results for students today and increase resources for teachers.

As our economy improves and we begin to control the rising costs of health care and prisons, we should be reinvesting in an education system better designed for the 21st century, one that integrates early childhood services, K-12, and post-secondary education and training.

I will chair this new board to oversee that investment, measuring what we value — whether our kids are truly learning at the level they should be — to ensure our dollars achieve the results we need.

When it comes to innovation, we are taking a “tight and loose” approach: tight in the outcomes the state expects from local educators, but loose on how those outcomes are achieved.

The state does not run schools; the state invests in schools. As long as students are progressing and succeeding, why shouldn’t we let go of some of the cumbersome and wearying regulation the state hands down? Creativity and accountability go hand in hand, and only the best, most effective thinking, practices, and innovations will be recognized, rewarded with resources, and replicated throughout the state.

The OEIB will be planning and budgeting around learner groups that mark critical phases of learning. Our youngest learners need to be ready for kindergarten. Our beginning elementary students should demonstrate fluency in reading and elementary math skills by about age 9. Our middle learners must prepare for greater rigor. Students in their late teens – we use the shorthand of grade 11 to 14 – must be prepared to make a seamless transition from high school learning into post-secondary programs. And our post-secondary students should earn the credentials or degree that allows them to move into a career and fully contribute to our society and to our economy.

As those of you involved in Cradle to Career well appreciate, for this new approach to be successful, our efforts must begin at birth. It begins by investing in early childhood success.

A recent Planet Money report called preschool the best jobs-training program we’ve got. I couldn’t agree more. After all, this is the limited window of time when kids can develop soft skills, like how to engage with others, problem solve, and manage anger. Studies show that kids who go to preschool attain these critical skills and, as a result, are more likely to be employed and have better earnings as adults than those who don’t. They are also less likely to get sick, need social supports, or become involved in the criminal justice system.

Yet far too many of Oregon’s children are growing up without the family and community supports to be successful, independent learners. Of the 45,000 children born in Oregon every year, forty percent are considered at-risk: They live in poverty, and may have an unstable family, or a parent who abuses drugs or has a criminal record. Overcoming these challenges early is the key to avoiding and having to pay for the all-too-familiar problems down the road.

We have already taken bold steps to put in place an early learning system that ensures every child enters school ready and able to learn, leaves first grade reading, and is reading at grade level in third grade.

Through our newly created Early Learning Council, we will consolidate and streamline existing state programs and funding streams. We will establish neighborhood service areas around elementary school sites with a family support manager to coordinate support services for families and children—and ensure that the families and children in need are identified early. We will also subject these programs to measurement and accountability to ensure that they are doing what we need.

This framework, by design, will require us to constantly innovate and improve so that we can deliver better outcomes with the resources we have available.

Nothing is more important to our learners’ success than effective teaching. And I know many teachers – and not a few parents -- are feeling demoralized by the current, test-centric way we are educating our kids. We cannot succeed without excellent teachers in every classroom. We need to be mentoring our new teachers and providing fair, thorough and useful performance evaluations, as well as quality professional development to educators throughout their careers, and at every level of education.

We are already seeing a new standards-based system of teaching and learning gradually emerge in classrooms across the state. To foster it, we need to change three key things:

  • We need to deliver more individualized education, through a proficiency model that meets each learner where he or she is and offers the support and rigor to move them at their best rate and pace to the next level.
  • We need to be more flexible with our use of time –so students can progress at their own best rates and so that teachers have opportunities for continuous collaboration and improvement of their practices.
  • Finally, we need to develop assessments at the local level to help teachers determine with more frequency and accuracy where individual students are in their learning — and how they can effectively target instruction.  Ideally, they would also help students, and their families, understand and take charge of their own education. Today’s standardized tests are simplistic and overemphasized. Really, what use is it to anyone when a family receives a student’s standardized test scores in the mail in August?

All of us, not just teachers, need to be involved and help motivate learners. Most of today’s students know how to find any information they need, faster than we adults do. What they need from school is the framework that enables them to sort and judge this information critically and creatively, to create knowledge from information, ultimately, wrest wisdom from knowledge.

This doesn’t just happen in schools; apprenticeships and other work outside the classroom can also contribute. We need to expand our definition of achievement beyond basic reading and math to create a wider path to a range of knowledge and skills that line up with the different interests and aptitudes of learners – and to the jobs that will be hiring in the new economy.

What would this new, seamless education system – with its focus on outcomes and proficiency – look like on the ground and in our classrooms?

  • This summer, 120 incoming kindergarteners in mid-Multnomah County – little kids who may never have been to preschool, or who don’t know a word of English – got a jumpstart in school with a three week program that left them excited and ready for school to begin this week. Piloted in PPS in 2010, this year it expanded to the Centennial and David Douglas school districts, with support from Multnomah County. What would it take to offer that opportunity more universally?
  • Imagine the power of teachers greeting their incoming kindergarteners at elementary school knowing that they were ready to learn, and having good information about their varied skills to help accelerate that learning. How much time and effort do schools now spend in trying to help those students catch up – and how much could they save?
  • What if all schools, like many in this area, offered built-in time during the school day for teams of teachers to collaborate and learn from each other, to review good data – not just standardized test scores – about individual students? And if our teachers all had the tools and professional development to help reach each student at their level and accelerate their achievement?
  • What if all incoming ninth-graders across Oregon, had support from community efforts such as your own Ninth Grade Counts – giving them a vital bridge into high school, with academic support and college and career exposure?
  • Think of the power of a high school classroom where each student understands – and believes in – why they are completing an assignment and has the ability to articulate their own particular gaps that require mini-lessons. Forest Grove High School is already grading students based on their demonstrated proficiency .
  • What if we were more flexible in our high schools? We could grant credit for internships and real-life experiences. If a student failed a course, instead of retaking the entire class, what about offering a proficiency credit, backed by individualized learning modules that fill the gaps in their learning?
  • What if, instead of paying school districts extra for every English learner as long as they stay designated as ESL students, we offered incentives to accelerate their language development and to move beyond ESL?
  • Similarly, how could we support innovative efforts such as Response to Intervention – programs that assess our youngest learners, offer tailored support to succeed and perhaps avoid the need for special education services?
  • Imagine how much more training and higher coursework our community colleges could offer, if they didn’t spend one-fifth their budget on remediation courses.
  • How can we encourage and expand the vital collaborations between our high schools and community colleges and universities, allowing more students to earn both high school and college credit for courses taken in their final years of high school? Portland Community College, Mount Hood Community College and Portland State University have been building those connections – and we should encourage and enable them to go farther.

These are all questions we must ask ourselves, and opportunities I see from a seamless, proficiency-based education system that focuses on investing in outcomes for students.

You know, and I know, that there are no silver bullets in education. And we all experience initiative fatigue, when education reform shifts from one fad of the moment to another.

This is why we need that North Star to guide us and, better yet, a path forward that is shaped by the best thinking of our best educators.

I want to invest in what our Oregon educators know will work for our students. Every one of the ideas and practices above is home-grown, from committed and creative local educators.

Our challenge as a state is to invest in what works, tailored to each community, and to move from “islands of excellence” to a culture of excellence throughout Oregon.

Here in this community, you have already shown the power of collaboration in many way s – whether the kindergarten jumpstart program I mentioned earlier, the Jefferson High School Middle College that launched this week, or the Center for Advanced Learning that offers students from Centennial, Gresham Barlow and Reynolds school districts in depth, hands-on career and technical education.  

And as a coalition you have brought in all the players – educators, service providers, parent groups, local elected officials, community organizations, employers – in partnership to help students meet their goals.

We all want to live in an Oregon where our students receive a great education – one that enriches their lives, strengthens our communities and helps to drive job growth and innovation in our economy.  Together, with support such as I see in this room today, we will get there.

Thank you.


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