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Imagine a high quality educational experience for Oregon students Print E-mail

ben-cannon-headshot.jpgThe following is the text of a February 24 speech delivered by Ben Cannon, Gov. Kitzhaber's Education Policy Advisor, to the Eugene City Club.

In Salem, where I work, the short legislative session is coming to its feverish close, and the fate of two of the Governor’s bills relating to education remain in the balance.  And I’ll touch on those in a bit.  But to understand our efforts this session, and going forward, I hope it will be helpful to draw the camera back from the Capitol and spend most of our time with the bigger view.  So I will start -- not by describing a policy initiative -- but by describing the characteristics of what I think most of us would agree would be a high quality educational experience.  I’m going to ask you to imagine with me, if you will, an elementary school:

  • Where students move at their own pace through engaging curriculum;
  • Where “hands-on” learning is emphasized: with students engaged in making, designing, acting, presenting, doing;
  • Where teachers are supported in designing and adapting curriculum and assessments to the unique needs of each child and each class;
  • Where art, music, physical activity, and woodworking are understood to be necessary components of education, and the primary avenues for engaging many students;
  • Where students are responsible for helping take care of the buildings and grounds; and for taking care of each other;
  • And finally, and most importantly, a school where relationships are understood to be the key to good outcomes.  Every adult is there to support students – to know them, advocate them, inspire them, love them.  School schedules, policies, assessments, and standards, are captive to this idea – the primacy of relationships – and not, as is so often the case, the other way around.  

I think you get the picture.  For me, it’s a very concrete one.  That’s because it’s a picture of the K-8 school where, for eight years before taking this job, I taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade.

I taught at a small private, independent school.  And although in my current job, focused as it is on the public system, there’s some incentive to run away from my teaching experience, I think it’s probably more instructive to run towards it.  Not because it was a private school, but because it’s a good school.  And it seems to me that one way to think about the task facing policymakers – facing all of us -- is to define a realistic approach for helping all of our schools look more like the really good schools, both public and private.  And while my concrete examples here are drawn mostly from K-12, the larger points stand for our early learning programs, our community colleges, and universities.  What will it take to make Oregon’s system of public education great?

For many of us, our instinctive starting point is resources.  And with good reason.  To cite one of the many examples of budget cuts I have heard about this year just from Eugene, a half-time counselor is woefully insufficient to serve a high-needs middle school of nearly 500 students .  As the Governor has said every time he speaks about education, our system of public education is underfunded at all levels.  Oregon will not meet its ambitious goals for education attainment without additional funding.  The Governor’s efforts to lower the growth of spending in corrections and health care – spending that has grown at four times the rate of state spending on education over the last decade – reflect his commitment to increase the state’s investment in education.  The Legislature took a significant step in that direction this week when it approved Medicaid restructuring that will save the state nearly $250 million in health care costs this year alone – funding that our education budgets are depending on in order to prevent still deeper cuts.  What is more, an independent consultant estimated that continuing health care transformation will save Oregon more than three billion dollars over the next five years – dollars that we will capture and reinvest in education.  

But while the funding conversation is a necessary one, it cannot be the only one we allow ourselves to have.  We must also figure out how to do better with the resources we’ve got.  

Let me first say what this is not.  This is not about scrutinizing budgets for inefficiencies and so-called waste. It is not about narrowing the focus of education by triaging programs and activities in order to get more students to pass narrow tests.  While these may seem like inevitable consequences of short-term budget cuts and a K-12 system dominated by NCLB, they are a disastrous recipe when what is needed instead is transformational change.  

Instead, here’s what it is about.  It is about learning from schools and districts that are beating the odds.  It is about identifying, adapting, and scaling up best practices.  

It is about establishing a shared vision for the future. It is about aligning state policies and practices with the intrinsic motivation of students, educators, and the community.  It is about redefining the role of state in driving improvements.  And most importantly, it is about challenging long-held assumptions about how people learn, and what constitutes achievement.  Where those assumptions are found to have been lacking, we must have the courage to “un-build” some of the structures – features of public schools, community colleges, and universities that we have come to take for granted – that have grown up around them.  

By doing this – by beginning to transform ourselves, by unleashing more of the awesome human potential that exists in Oregon’s students, teachers, and communities –  we’ll make a powerful case for more investment in education.  

Let me give you a little more detailed roadmap:

First, a North Star.  A simple, clear, measureable goal for our education system.  Not to express everything that matters in education, but an overarching goal that can align business and labor and educators and students and community leaders in a sense of shared purpose.  Fortunately, we have it.  Last year, the Legislature, with widespread support, adopted as state law a 40-40-20 goal last year (40 percent four-year degrees, 40% two-year or technical certificate, 100% high school graduation or its equivalent by 2025).  40-40-20 isn’t important because it’s perfect or because we won’t ever adjust it, but because it gives us a common objective to hang on to, together, even as we’re tugged in different directions about how we get there.

Second, we need to abide by the principle that the key to better results is to situate the energy of educators and students as the central driving force.  Historically, state policymakers have acted as if they think we can hammer the system into improvement, blow by blow.  Students not learning enough?  Adopt a new standard.  Need more college opportunities for high school students?  Pass a law requiring it.  Need better facilities?  Adopt regulations requiring districts to provide them.  As a former legislator, I understand the temptation of attempting to regulate performance, and I was sometimes guilty of promulgating it.  But the state doesn’t have the time or the resources or the understanding to rely on a top-down, outside-in approach to improvement.  Today’s third-graders can’t wait for the next legislative session -- and to hope, with fingers crossed, that a law passed to deal with a problem in Portland applies equally well in Paisley.   When a baby wets its pants, we don’t put the whole family in diapers.  We need a different premise for statewide policy for education.

Third, an alternative premise.  It should be based on the understanding that human beings and human systems thrive on autonomy and feedback.  Whether we’re in the classroom or in a business or in a family or trying to master a computer game, we want freedom to choose our course of action -- and then we want information, preferably quickly, to help us improve.  Good teachers know this about their students – they thrive when they operate with a high degree of control over their learning and copious feedback to help guide their decision-making.  Good school districts know that the same is true about their teacher workforce.   The state must understand that these same conditions – high autonomy and copious feedback – are the conditions under which most school systems (and colleges and universities) will flourish.  Fewer regulations, fewer reporting requirements, fewer standards and mandates.  More supports, more data, a better mirror.  And for those that struggle – perhaps five, ten percent – our first response should be to ask, “What do you need to succeed?” and our second, if they persist in failure, should be to intervene.

To review: A North Star, a shared vision.  An understanding that the energy of students and educators must be the central driving force.  Autonomy and continuous feedback.  

Fourth, redefining achievement.  For too long, and especially as a result of NCLB, we have understood K-12 performance principally in terms of math and English language arts.  A narrow-minded focus on these subjects represents an impoverished view of education’s purposes.  It is not consistent with the interests of employers, of colleges and universities, of parents, and of civic society.  We need a much richer understanding of achievement.  The good news is that the Oregon high school diploma adopted by the State Board of Education should, over time, represent not just credit accumulation in high school and demonstrating basic proficiency in reading, writing, and math, but also active listening and clear speaking, thinking critically and analytically, using technology, demonstrating civic and community commitment, demonstrating global literacy, and demonstrating personal management and teamwork skills.  This is not a perfect list, but it is a much better one than NCLB’s single-minded focus on math and reading.  

Having established the diploma, our larger challenge is to make it relevant to students both up and down the education continuum.  A student cannot have the belief that it is enough merely to hang on, filling a seat, through twelfth grade – and under the Oregon diploma, it will not be.  How can we help a fifth-grader see that by accomplishing a particular set of tasks and demonstrating certain understandings he will obtain an eighth-grade certificate that signifies readiness for high school?  How can we help an eighth-grader see the skills and tasks that will be necessary for him to earn a high school diploma?  How can we embed the idea of promises at each stage of a student’s learning?  A promise to learners: “Do this, and you will get that.”  Get a high school diploma and you will be ready for college or career – for the life and work you hope eventually to pursue.  And a promise to the community: that students who complete their educations, receiving a high school diploma or college certificate or degree, will be ready for work and for civic life.  

Finally, fifth, redefine learning.  Part of what makes education policy and politics difficult is that we all – or most of us at least – carry around in our heads an archetypal school based largely on our own personal experiences.  I began this talk with my own personal version of that ideal.  But if we’re going to succeed in this ambitious project, we have to be willing to challenge deeply-held assumptions about how education will be experienced.  Krista’s work at Kennedy High School in Cottage Grove is a great example.  Students there work exclusively in mixed-age groups.  Their schedules are organized around projects, not courses.  They spend entire terms guided by a single teacher.  Students are in charge of their learning, rather than being the passive recipients of teacher wisdom.  The Kennedy model is just one example of disruptive but powerful innovations in education.  At the Native American Youth and Family Association in Portland, staff take complete responsibility for the educational success of 1,000 or so Native American youth who they serve principally through afterschool programs, sports, and family activities.  If there’s a problem with a student’s attendance or achievement, NAYA gets to the bottom of it.  Because very often at the bottom of it is an issue of family instability, transportation, housing, health, or poverty – and tools to address these issues, too, need to be part of our system.  At a policy level, how we propose to do this is by focusing the system away from institutions and toward outcomes.  We must recognize that our central project is not schooling, but education, and we must adopt budgets and policies that relate less to institutions and more to outcomes.  

Okay, so these are big ideas that beg a lot of questions.  And to be clear, we haven’t answered all of them.  There are a lot of details to be filled in.  But we are attempting to establish a framework that at least begins to address some of the questions that matter.  How should schools be organized?  What forces will drive systematic improvement?  What outcomes matter?  What is the state’s role with respect to school districts, community colleges, and universities?  What should be the principles of a high-functioning accountability system?

The Governor, the Oregon Education Investment Board, and the Legislature have only begun to translate these big ideas into proposed budgets, policies, and practices.  The bulk of the work lies ahead -- in the remainder of 2012, 2013, and beyond.  For this short legislative session, though, the Governor and the Board proposed two modest but important bills.  The first would bring greater coordination, clarity, and accountability to our very fragmented system of state-funded early learning programs.  We know that students who are ready for school at age 5 are students who begin with immense advantages and require much less remediation in K-12.  So we are redesigning the system to help ensure that kids get off to a great start.  

The second bill would do two things.  First, it would establish achievement compacts between the state and all 197 k-12 school districts, 17 community colleges, 7 universities, and OHSU.  Achievement compacts would begin to express a new type of relationship between the state and its educational partners.  One where the state clearly defines its interest in a small number of core outcomes, such as high school and college completion; works with districts, colleges, and universities to set ambitious but achievable targets in those areas; and identifies the flexibilities and supports that it will provide to help districts achieve them.  For K-12, achievement compacts represent a departure from the top-down, punitive, “assume the worst” model of accountability represented by No Child Left Behind, and they are a core component of our application for a waiver from that law.  

The second portion of the bill would give the state’s Chief Education Officer, a new position established by the Legislature in 2011 and yet to be hired, the authority to work on building the system, pre-k through higher ed, whose principles I have tried here to describe.  Unlike any other education official in Oregon, this person would not be responsible for running a department or an agency, with their inevitable focus on siloes, but on building a coordinated system of funding, standards and pathways, supports, and interventions, pre-K through higher education.  

As I close, let me address for a couple of minutes an issue that I’m sure was on many of your minds as I described our vision.  It is an issue that we’ve got to face directly and honestly in this state if we’re going to move forward together on education.  Basically, you’re thinking this:  “Sure, it sounds good, but Oregon has had big plans for education before.  We’re pretty decent at the vision thing, but when it comes to implementation, we’re lousy.”  An Oregonian columnist, himself a longtime champion for higher education in Oregon, editorialized along these lines last weekend, and his readers could have been excused for thinking that he believes our history dooms us to repeat past mistakes.  It is true that we are not investing sufficient resources today to achieve 40-40-20.  And absent quick action this year and next, our system will not be dynamic or innovative enough to produce the achievement gains we need.  

But we must not allow these facts – the reality of the present – to turn us away from the future we imagine.  We must not allow the forces of cynicism to overwhelm our sense of the possibilities for change.  In 2011, the Legislature passed 14 education bills that, collectively, represented the most significant steps that Oregon had seen in a generation.  And unlike past efforts with lofty goals for improving education, our model does not depend on a top-down, outside-in approach.  While state-level leadership will be necessary to produce significant changes in how we budget and set policy for education in Oregon, the mission will be kept alive not by the Governor, or the Chief Education Officer, or the Legislature -- but by the students and families and teachers and support personnel who are working daily to make a difference.  The real action will be in the classroom, not the Capitol.  Finally, people like me need to approach the project differently than perhaps we did in the past.  I was grateful to receive some good advice from an ESD superintendent in Southern Oregon, a veteran of the CIM/CAM and NCLB wars, who shared four important lessons from his experiences:

  1. Genuinely listen
  2. Speak the truth (budget pressures/scare resources, Common Core Standards, Challenges that so many students bring with them)
  3. Honor effective work (Cottage Grove, Woodburn, Tillamook, Roosevelt)
  4. Build high trust cultures: “In almost every instance of sustained improvement, I saw a leader who was trusted and followed, a staff who knew how to, communicate and resolve conflict successfully – a system where people felt safe to risk and innovate.”

Thank you for the opportunity to spend this time with you today, and I look forward to Q&A.

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This page was last updated on Monday, February 27, 2012 .