State of the Schools - Springfield
September 6, 2011
This week, more than 550,000 children are returning to public schools here in Springfield and throughout Oregon. And more than 50,000 teachers, leaders and support staff will be here to engage them in another year of learning and participation in a tradition that our founders recognized was the cornerstone of our democracy.
The debate about how best to educate our children predates even the first schools of the New England colonies in the 1600’s, and continues even today. But this much is beyond debate: Public education and the nobility of teaching as a profession have been and will continue to play an essential role in making America a successful democracy and more egalitarian and just society.
I applaud you for being a part of that tradition, and I am proud to be part of a family of educators who taught me the importance of public education to enrich our lives; to strengthen our communities; to offer individuals a pathway to careers that are fulfilling – and to offer a paycheck that will support their families.
And if, as I believe, it is the promise of opportunity that lies at the heart of the American Dream – then public education is the vehicle through which that dream is most directly fulfilled in the twenty first century.
I want to take just a few minutes this morning to talk to you both in your role with Springfield Public Schools – and also as Oregonians.
We find ourselves at a moment in time and facing a set of economic circumstances that requires us to focus not just on how managing through this uncertainty affects us as individuals or as professionals — but how our choices and actions will affect our children and grandchildren for years into the future.
To do that I think we need two things. First, we need a North Star, a compass heading, a destination on which we can focus our aspirations.
Second, we need a context in which to frame the often difficult choices that lay ahead of us.
So let me give you the compass heading – our destination as a state.
And to do that, I want to share a few numbers.
The first number is 100. We want every single student – 100 percent – to earn a high school diploma. For some this may take five years; some may accelerate their learning and take fewer than four, or graduate 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 Oregonian graduates 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.
Allow me to provide a context for the challenge of reaching that destination with a personal story.
My parents were part of what Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation: the people who weathered the Great Depression; and who fought and won the Second World War.
My father was drafted in 1943 and on April 3th, 1944 he boarded the U.S.S. Robert Sherman in New York Harbor for the perilous two-week trip across the Atlantic to Europe. Just before the ship left the harbor, a Red Cross volunteer came aboard to tell him that his first child had been born — a daughter, my older sister Ann, who he would not see for almost two years.
My father entered France through Normandy and marched all the way across Europe through the Battle of the Bulge to Berlin. And before he died five years ago I used to call him up every year on June 6th — the anniversary of D-Day — and I would thank him for saving the world.
Because in a very real sense that is exactly what that generation did, and when we talk about sacrifice and difficult choices, it pales in comparison to what that greatest generation of Americans accomplished.
When my father came home from the war, a grateful nation gave him a free college education through the G.I. Bill – perhaps the greatest social program of the last century. It lifted up a whole generation of Americans who repaid that debt many times over through higher incomes that came with greater knowledge and skill. It made possible the incredible prosperity and innovation that built the American economy and the fabric of our society over the decades that followed.
Because not only did my parents’ generation win the Second World War, they built our system of higher education; they created the interstate transportation system and the electric grid. They eradicated small pox. They cured polio. They went to the moon. They gave us the Civil Rights Movement and the great social programs of the last century, not just the G.I. Bill, but Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well.
And they gave us something else. They gave us the American Middle Class. They gave us the opportunity of working people to experience the American Dream: the promise of opportunity; the promise of upward mobility; the promise that if you worked hard you could build a better future for yourself and your family. And the great army in that cause was the labor movement – and we should never forget that.
Now, these remarkable accomplishments of that remarkable generation made the world a better place for their children and their grandchildren. And as a result of their foresight – of their willingness to invest and to sacrifice; their willingness to rethink how they did things – my generation, the Baby Boom generation, has enjoyed more promise and opportunity than probably any generation in the history of our nation.
Both my parents were teachers, at the University of Oregon, at the end. They are both gone now. They taught me the importance of public education; and they also taught me that the vehicles – the policies and programs through which each generation seeks to build a better world for next – have got to evolve to meet changing circumstances.
The healthcare system offers one example. The modern U.S. healthcare system – or, more accurately “sick care system” – was created in the 1960’s and has evolved very little since that time: consuming 17 percent of our GDP while producing population health statistics that or only slightly better than those in Cuba. Clearly this system is clearly incapable of addressing the needs of an aging population at a price our nation can afford.
By the same token, the public institutions on which we rely to educate our children – and to re-educate a growing part of our workforce – are struggling to meet the demographic and economic and technological challenges of the 21st century.
I am not saying that our system of public education is “broken” – because there are many things going on out there. But I am saying that, like our health care system, public education has not evolved to meet a rapidly changing set of circumstances.
We must reset our course to reach our North Star.
The challenges facing the current system — for students and for 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 children ages 0 to 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 African American, Hispanic and Native American students graduate.
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.
And for many reasons – including inadequate preparation and the increasing cost of tuition – many students who do enter community college or university programs leave without earning the credential or degree that will allow successfully compete in today’s economy.
The end result: a generation of Oregonians who are now less educated than their own parents – less educated than the U.S. average; and less educated than in many of the leading countries with which we compete in the global economy.
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 that our educators or our students don’t care: or that they aren’t talented or aren’t working hard enough. I am simply pointing that we are not achieving the results we want and need for our students, and for Oregon’s future.
Before I go on, let me say a word about funding. Our system of public education is underfunded at all levels – from early childhood to post-secondary education. I know that Springfield, like many of our school districts across the state, has felt the pain of deep budget cuts during this national recession; that you have had to bid farewell to many valued colleagues.
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 that fact, that we do not currently have all the resources we need, does not negate the imperative 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. We must improve our systems and invest in proven practices that can improve results from students today and increase resources for teachers. As more resources become available, we must be prepared to reinvest in an education system better designed for the 21st century — one that integrates early childhood services, K-12, and post-secondary education and training.
That is part of the new context we are trying to create.
Indeed it is a stretch to call what we have now a “system.” The way we seek to fund and govern our programs for early learners, for 197 school districts, for 17 community colleges and for our universities all too often throws up barriers to collaboration. Our system offers the wrong incentives – or worse – pits institutions against one other. That is a far cry from the seamless public education system we need to reach our destination.
What would it look like – how would it feel to you – if we had a system that supported you in your critical work with students? What if, rather than allowing our institutions to ossify, they remained dynamic, supporting and encouraging innovation, and you as professionals?
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.
I am very pleased that Nancy Golden has agreed to be my alternate as chair of the board – even though she has returned to be your fulltime superintendent. I will continue to lean on her as a lead thinker and innovator working with me on this critical issue.
Thank you, Nancy.
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. 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 invested achieve the results we need.
And 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.
As Hanna Vaandering, a teacher, incoming Vice President of the Oregon Education Association and member of the Oregon Education Investment Board has said on numerous occasions: “Tell us what you want and hold us accountable. But don’t tell us how to get there.”
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.
We’ve often referred to this work as 0-20, and, indeed, for this new approach to be successful, our efforts must begin at birth. It all 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 as teachers, too many of you are feeling demoralized and indicted by the current, test-centric way we are educating our kids. We cannot succeed without excellent teachers in every classroom— and we need to treat them as the professionals they are, giving them the training and trust that will help them — and our children — be successful. We need to be mentoring our new teachers and providing fair 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:
First, 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.
Second, 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 much of the 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; and, ultimately, extract 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.
What would this new, seamless education system – with its focus on outcomes and proficiency – look like on the ground and in our classrooms?
Parents: Imagine if more communities followed Lane County’s lead in establishing integrated early childhood programs through Promise Neighborhoods, like the one just east of here, at Brattain and Maple elementary schools. Currently, 82 percent of their kids do not meet early literacy benchmarks and more than half are at high risk of reading failure. But through coordinated programs that focus on getting kids ready for school and creating effective child-care networks – while giving parents the skills and support they need to help their children reach developmental milestones – they will get these kids on the path to success.
Teachers: Imagine the power of greeting your incoming kindergarteners at elementary school knowing that many – or most – of them were ready to learn, and having good information about their varied skills to help them accelerate their learning. How much time and effort do you now spend in trying to help those students catch up – and how much could you save?
Imagine having 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 having the tools and professional development to help you reach each student at their level and accelerate their achievement.
What if all incoming ninth-graders, like those from Hamlin Middle School, had access to support like the University of Oregon’s Summer Academy to Inspire Learning – which helps low-income students with academic skills and empowers them to envision their path to higher education?
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.
What if we were more flexible in our high schools? What if we could grant proficiency 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, to 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, 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?
These are all questions we must ask ourselves, and offer opportunities for 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 Oregon educators know will work for our students. Every one of the ideas and practices I just mentioned 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.
There is one final number I want to talk about today: 2012. The 2012 Legislature will take the next steps to implement the early childhood, outcomes tracking and education investment strategies I’ve outlined. I urge you to weigh in with my office, with the new Oregon Education Investment Board and with your legislators to help ensure we stay on track.
Let me close with a story – a true story – by Kim Stafford. It’s called Lloyd’s story, and I want to leave it with you as food for thought as we go into the school year.
Lloyd Reynolds, the international citizen of Portland, spent his last days silent, unable to write or to speak, lying in a hospital bed. In his last day at home as his wife scurried to pack his suitcase for the hospital Lloyd made his way outside to the garden, and there she found him on his knees awkwardly planting flower bulbs with a spoon.
“Lloyd,” she said, “you will never see those flowers bloom.” He smiled at her.
“They are not for me,” he said, “they are for you. Salmon coming home, they are for you, the calls of the wild geese, they are for you. The last old trees, they are for you and your children, for the seventh generation and beyond, they are all blooming into being for you.”
I want you to remember that story over the next six months – because that is our challenge: to use the next six months to plant the seeds of tomorrow… to take charge of our lives, to take charge of our state.
Not as captives of the past, not as victims of the status quo, but as proud, confident, united Oregonians – the architects of a new and better future.
Thank you very much.