Editorial: OregonLive.com, August 2, 2009

Time for Oregon schools to stretch

By George Rede, The Oregonian

Will Oregon be among the recipients of the Race to the Top Fund, $4 billion in stimulus package money that the Obama administration has set aside to encourage new ways of teaching?

Join a live chat from noon to 12:30 p.m. Monday to discuss Oregon's prospects for a share of the money. Innovations in Oregon schools?

Lost in the clatter of the health-care debate, President Obama quietly launched his plan to transform America's schools in late July. Fed up with sluggish learning gains and stubborn gaps in achievement between rich and poor kids, the administration has leveraged the stimulus package to create several well-endowed venture funds aimed at entrepreneurial states, school districts and nonprofits eager to test new ways of teaching.

The grand prize is the Race to the Top Fund, $4 billion being dangled in front of perhaps as few as a dozen states. The prospect of being among this elite group of innovators has unleashed a cascade of legislation across the country as lawmakers scrambled to align state laws with the Obama vision. Already the fund has altered the K-12 landscape before it's awarded a single dollar.

Unstable school finances, solidly average achievement levels and a slowly emerging record of innovation make Oregon a dark horse in this race. Not a once-in-a-century long shot like Mine That Bird, but we'll have to work hard to challenge the leaders.

To handicap Oregon's chances, we need to take a closer look at Obama's thinking and our state's middling reputation for change.

Among the administration's core beliefs is that schools evaluate their work too little and change course too often. Consequently, the book of practices proven to drive achievement is thin. We know high-quality preschool is crucial, and reading tutors and small class sizes for the youngest kids help. A few, specific curricula are better than others. But that's about all we know. Best practices are really more of a brochure than a book.

The Race to the Top Fund is designed to dramatically accelerate our understanding about what drives learning. To start, Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, believes states need to mine much more from the mountains of test data they gather each year. Every state, including Oregon, has spent much of the past decade using those scores to demonstrate student progress, rate schools and measure gaps.

But Duncan and his boss see something far more valuable still hidden in the data: evidence about teacher quality. Research says the difference between a very good and very poor teacher is a full grade's worth of growth for students. Teacher quality easily trumps class size or well-designed curriculum in importance. So, states willing to take a hard look at growth in student achievement to evaluate teachers get a big head start in this race.

But great teachers are a necessary but insufficient condition for the K-12 transformation. Duncan also expects big innovations in delivery. Far too many of the nation's schools are organized in precisely the same way: 180 days (or, in Oregon's case, 170) of instruction, summers off, class of 25, teacher in the front.

Charter schools are the preferred vehicle to break the mold, experiment broadly and learn quickly. Duncan wants nimble, well-managed charters to prove (or disprove) the value of particular teaching practices, after-school programs and extended school years, especially in chronically underperforming schools and districts. States that have blocked the creation of public charters, or have caps on their enrollments, may struggle to get to the starting line.

Oregon's pros and cons
So, why does Oregon fall outside the lead pack?

The state's wobbly finances -- typified by the one-of-a-kind kicker law -- have created a challenging environment for innovation. As the tech and housing bubbles burst, Oregon stumbled from an above- to below-average spending state. Many superintendents, unsure of their future budgets, have been hesitant to unveil bold new initiatives. Far too much energy in the past decade has focused on simply securing full school years and adjusting class sizes up or down as revenues surged and collapsed.

A lost decade. Almost.

Look closer, and some promising stories emerge. Redmond, Scappoose and Beaverton are national pioneers in credit-for-proficiency models that allow students to earn credits based on what they know rather than how long they've sat in class. Knowledge, rather than time, dictates advancement.

In Sherwood, Tillamook and Forest Grove, administrators and union leaders are designing new career paths for teachers, adding rigor to evaluations and changing the way teachers are paid.

Portland has developed a data-driven, early-warning system that identifies kids at risk of dropping out and gives the district a three-year head start on interventions.

The challenges ahead
These and other innovations should resonate with the Obama team and get Oregon to the starting block. But to go from a contender to a leader, Oregon has some serious work to do.

First, the state must stop using its budget woes as an excuse to stay the same. Duncan won't accept it, and several states that spend less per student than Oregon nonetheless have stronger records on innovation.

Second, Oregon must show some willingness to systematically incorporate data on student learning gains into teacher evaluations. Teachers fear that too much will be made of test scores, which are driven by factors both inside and outside their control. That's why test gains should inform, not determine, an evaluation. Student scores coupled with the findings of multiple, well-designed classroom observations make a fair and reliable gauge of job performance.

Third, the state needs an actionable plan to turn around its most dysfunctional schools: the bottom 5 percent. The 2007 Legislature sketched a framework for the state takeover of chronic underperformers, but implementation stalled. Lawmakers may need to finish the work during next February's special session.

Meanwhile, state schools chief Susan Castillo has enlisted a sharp and diverse group of teachers, superintendents, entrepreneurs and philanthropists to build the state's case. But to develop a competitive application, they'll need the help of the Oregon Education Association, the state's most potent political force. Teacher unions have been cautious about Duncan's calls for expanded charter schools and new ways of evaluating and rewarding teachers. If OEA gives Castillo's team room to maneuver in addressing Duncan's core interests, especially on stronger teacher evaluations, Oregon has hope.

A winning application also will require the leadership and personal involvement of Gov. Ted Kulongoski -- the kind he demonstrated while expanding health coverage for children and the poor in the depths of this recession. He'll sign Oregon's Race to the Top application. He has to own it.

The importance of the work in the coming months can't be overstated. Conceive and commit to a competent set of cutting-edge reforms, and Oregon could find itself at the center of learning during the Obama era. Philanthropic dollars, from inside and outside the state, would chase and enhance the White House investment. Students would benefit, especially those in struggling schools.

Alternatively, if Oregon's education leaders avoid the hard questions and settle back into the comfort of the mediocre status quo, the state will find itself on the outside looking in. And our students will watch their peers in other states pull away.

John Tapogna is the president of ECONorthwest, an Oregon-based economic consulting firm. He consults on education issues with the Chalkboard Project, the Oregon Business Council and Washington's League of Education Voters. The views expressed here are his own.

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