Oregon School Boards Association Annual Convention
November 12, 2011
It really is a privilege to be here today and I appreciate the invitation. I can only imagine the hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of hours that all of you in this room have dedicated to the future of our children and to our communities.
Thank you for volunteering to lead in such a critical role for the future of our state.
Your motivation, I expect, is similar to mine, and our goal, as confirmed by the Legislature earlier this year is simple, yet ambitious.
By 2025, Oregon should be a state where all children are ready to learn when they get to kindergarten; will be ready to ready when they go to first grade and will be reading at level in 3rd grade. A state where they have the resources and attention to learn and our teachers have the time and support to teach; where drop out rates are steadily falling and graduation rates are steadily rising; where all Oregon high school graduates are prepared to pursue a post-secondary education without remediation; and where 80 percent of them achieve at least two years of post-secondary education or training, with 40 percent earning a baccalaureate degree or higher.
Oregon must change the way we do business to keep up with our changing world. We want our graduates to feel confident that they have career paths to family wage jobs that can drive our per capita income back up above the national average in every corner of the state. We want them to be ready to contribute to our economy and our communities.
To succeed we must invest in an educational system better designed for the realities of the 21st century -- one that integrates early childhood services, K-12 and post-secondary education and training.
The shortcomings of the current system — for students and teachers — are all too familiar.
Every September too many students show up at your kindergarten classrooms not ready to learn. Each June, too few of your students earn their diplomas, and even fewer go on to pursue post-secondary training, or a college degree. Our community colleges spend 20 percent of their resources on remediation – rebuilding the skills and knowledge we would hope they mastered in high school.
The end result is a generation of students – not just in Oregon but across the nation -- less well educated than their parents’ generation. Just as our global economy demands higher skills and education than ever before, we are sliding backwards.
Can we do a better job? That is not the question. We have to do a better job.
That may be a controversial statement in a room filled with school board members. I know that each year, the painful budget decisions come down to you and your votes, often in crowded rooms full of unhappy students, staff and community members, your friends and neighbors.
There is absolutely no doubt we could do a better job if we had more resources. I’ve said before and I continue to believe that our system of public education is underfunded at all levels. I have recently convened leaders from both the labor community and the business community to try to rebuild the coalition to put the whole issue of our public finance system back on the front burner.
But if we do better with the resources we have during tough times, we set the stage for doing even more, better, in good times.
Because I firmly believe that better times will come.
Our economy willrecover – and will bring more resources back to our schools, our colleges, universities and early childhood programs.
We willbend the cost curve on health care. We are already doing that now, in this state budget, and I will continue to relentlessly push on health care reform so we can spend our dollars on prevention and health care, not on a broken sick care system.
You all know that our corrections system is cannibalizing our budget – as we pour millions and millions of dollars into corrections and less and less into children and families and into the education that could actually address the social ills that lead to criminal behavior the first place.
In the last eight years, state spending in those two areas, human services and public safety, grew three or four times as fast as our state investment in education. That must change. We must turn that around – for our children, for our communities, for our economic vitality – and we will.
But economic recovery, cost containment in health care and corrections, and even revenue reform – they are all longer term prospects.
Today, we have what we have. And in lean times, times of limited resources, where we invest matters.
You all prove that daily.
In the last 10 years, you have regularly been asked to cut your school district budgets. But you have also invested in new programs and practices, shifting your dollars to invest in what works for kids.
Let me offer a few examples.
In Woodburn, in Parkrose and other districts, you are spending your general fund dollars on full-day kindergarten – because you know that dollars invested in a great start for all kids helps to close the gap and cuts the expenses of remediation later in school. The number of Oregon students in full-day kindergarten has more than tripled in the last seven years.
Starting in Tigard-Tualatin and spreading throughout the state, school districts are investing in Response to Intervention efforts – with professional development and a system of interventions that help keep kids on track academically and behaviorally. Tigard-Tualatin’s special education identification is significantly below the state average, and they are leaders in spreading that best practice to other districts. Again, this is a strategic investment in student success, in a time of tight resources.
In many, many districts you have carved out time for your teachers to collaborate in professional learning communities, again despite budget cuts. You know that vital planning and professional development time helps our dedicated teachers to do their best for students.
Two-way language immersion classes – showing real results in helping English language learners in reading and math – are cropping up in Portland, Woodburn, Canby, Salem, North Clackamas and more.
And you all have protected and even expanded critical supports to help high school students graduate and go on to college – through dual-credit courses, summer and extended day programs, and programs such as AVID that help first-in-their-family students head to college and so much more. You have invested in those programs even as high school class sizes have crept to previously unheard-of levels.
Even within our inadequate education budgets over the last decade, you have carved out resources for efforts that are working. You may not have been calling it outcomes-based investment – but in essence that is what it is – and that’s the direction we’re trying to move our entire system.
We have islands of excellence throughout our public education system – now we need to create a culture of excellence across the system.
Oregon must create a seamless education system – stretching from early childhood through our public schools to our community colleges and universities. We must create pathways for our students that motivate and pull them along to reach their highest potential. We must break down the silos between our institutions. And we must invest strategically throughout our education system to deliver the outcomes we want for students.
At the state level, we know that every investment in early childhood pays off many times over down the road – in greater educational success, higher employment rates and less likelihood of incarceration and need for human services.
Forty percent of children born in Oregon 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. Under the plan being developed by our Early Learning Council, those families and others with needs would have case workers – known as family support managers – to make sure they have access to the services they need so the children are ready for kindergarten.
This year, 11 percent more children are attending the state’s Head Start prekindergarten program but there is more to do. The Early Learning Council will integrate and streamline existing state programs, and we have applied for a federal Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge grant. That grant would help Oregon increase the quality of early learning and development programs, make sure that families with the highest needs receive those services, and ensure that all children enter school ready to learn and to succeed academically. You know the difference that will make for your students.
And I am seeking a waiver from the punitive aspects of the No Child Left Behind Law.
We can do better. There are good aspects of the federal law: The accountability that can rightfully expect from the investment of public dollars, and the call to educate all children, no matter their ethnicity, home language, disability or family income. But those ideals have been twisted under NCLB, with its single-minded focus on high-stakes standardized testing. It has narrowed the curriculum, labeled schools and students as failures, and prescribed “solutions” for struggling schools that all too often only compound the damage. It also targets the schools and staff working most directly with the students with the greatest needs – laying a heavy and unwarranted responsibility on our schools for solving all the social ills that accompany their students through the doors.
We look forward to working with the U.S. Secretary of Education on a waiver that establishes school accountability based on meaningful information about student progress and delivers appropriate support for schools – and students – that are struggling. We don’t believe in failed schools in Oregon. We don’t believe in failed students.
I want to steal a line from Dennis King, a professor who recently visited Oregon to offer training to Astoria teachers.
“How do we use assessments to help kids learn?” he asked. “A test is an autopsy; an assessment is a physical.” Or from my background, I would say it should be a diagnostic tool.
I am done with NCLB’s autopsies and I’m sure you are, too. The outcome measures we adopt – and the achievement compacts that we develop – will use assessments to diagnose our educational ills, and then to prescribe the right solutions, student by student.
These compacts between the Oregon Education Investment Board and each of Oregon’s educational institutions are not abstractions; they are, in my view, key to our success in teaching and learning and building success for our students. They will define the outcomes we expect for students, given our state investment.
The compacts will embody a “tight-loose” model. We will be tight on outcomes as investors of state dollars. But we will be loose in providing the flexibility our school districts and our institutions need to achieve better outcomes for all students–no matter their race, home language, disability or family income.
This is a sea change for our state and it’s also a sea change in our relationship. I see these achievement compacts as living documents, signaling a new partnership between the state board and each of your boards, as we negotiate the goals, assess the progress and hold each other and ourselves accountable.
With compacts in place by next year – 2012-13 school year – to establish the first year of the data -- we will be able to measure progress in the 2013-15 biennium. School districts and post-secondary institutions that are achieving these goals may be rewarded through increased flexibility. Those who are not will receive support, rather than punitive measures, that could include help implementing best practices, peer-to-peer mentoring, leadership and professional development support and capacity building. Your role as local boards is more important than ever as we develop a suite of supports that targeted to your specific schools, your specific school districts. Targeted to be sure we lift the entire system up, and that we don’t punish individual districts, individual schools, individual students.
I am asking educators at every level to think of themselves not in silos, but connected to the entire enterprise of education from early childhood to post-secondary, as active participants helping pull students along on their educational path.
How well are you preparing students not just to accumulate enough credits to graduate, but with the content knowledge, cognitive skills, academic behaviors and motivation to enter college truly prepared? And how well do your students fare in their careers and colleges once they have crossed the stage and received their diplomas?
How well are your local community colleges and universities reaching back down the pipeline? Are they working your high schools and even younger students to build that college-going culture, to ensure a seamless transition from grade 12 to freshman year, and to help them graduate high school with college credit – perhaps even an associate’s degree – under their belt?
These are urgent challenges for Oregon. In times like these, we have to stay focused on our students. This is their one shot at a high quality preschool, their one chance at earning their high school diploma and their opportunity to gain the postsecondary training and education they need and to launch themselves as adults into their careers. They cannot wait until our economy recovers, or until Oregon finally reforms its system of public finance.
These are very, very challenging times for Oregon. I don’t need to tell you that. But I hope you also feel a sense of opportunity, a sense of excitement, a sense of possibility.
This is a remarkable point of time, I think, a once-in-a-generation convergence of policy and politics. We have the opportunity here, in the next few years, to do something profoundly important for our children, for our state and for our future. We have to seize this opportunity.
Thank you for letting me come down here today. I look forward to working with you, now and in the future. Thank you for all you do for your students, thank you for all you do for the state of Oregon.