By Joe Rodriguez
September 19, 2015
Another school year has begun for Oregon students exactly as it has for decades. And nothing really has changed, much less improved, even though significant resources have been expended on school improvement and reform.
The Oregonian/OregonLive's David Sarasohn in May commented that Oregon's school reform efforts over the past 25 years have seemed "to end up with the same initials: DOA." One of the reasons almost all school reform has failed is that such efforts occur while schools are operating. This is like changing tires on a moving car. Major businesses that retool their operations scale back and even close certain operations in order to reform. In Oregon, school reform has involved improving schools systemwide, a recipe for failure. Reforming schools should be done from the bottom up over time.
This is the first year Oregon is, finally, fully funding kindergarten. Previously almost all districts provided half-day kindergarten because they were only reimbursed that amount.
When school reform in the early 1990s began with the Certificate of Initial Mastery and the Certificate of Advanced Mastery, the goal was simultaneous reform across all grades and schools. If only all of this fiscal effort had been focused first on the kindergarten level with full-day programs, teacher training, improved curriculum materials and a longer school year back in 1990.
After the focus on kindergarten, each grade level would then be addressed until reform impacted all grades over 13 years. Using the resources on each grade level over time would have resulted in more effective and lasting school improvement.
School improvement has been elusive because it has relied on systemwide imposed efforts and on simplistic solutions like high-stakes testing and scripted instruction for school improvement. Emphasis should have first been placed on principal and teacher professional development.
Oregon's Chalkboard Project has emphasized professional development and mentoring for school administrators and teachers. Effective schools have successful, entrepreneurial principals who empower teachers, students and parents to be involved in decision-making. Effective schools have teachers who deliver curriculum by working together on shared, successful instructional methods. Training principals and teachers to be successful instructional leaders is essential for school improvement. However, the most significant impediment to public school reform has been and continues to be the lack of adequate funding.
The Oregonian/OregonLive's Betsy Hammond in June provided an excellent analysis of Oregon's school performance and spending in a national context. Her conclusion: "Oregon schools produce results that rank in the bottom third nationally, partly because Oregon lags far behind the national average in classroom spending." But lagging "far behind" in funding really is the main reason for the low performance level.
The article highlights that Oregon's average per-student spending level in 2011-12 was $8,900 compared to the national average of $10,700. Using this figure would have resulted in approximately an additional $1 billion for Oregon students. This disparity to a national average is magnified when considering the per-pupil spending expenditures for America's very wealthy school districts.
The following data is from a study done by 24/7 Wall St's analysis from 2006-2010. Some of the high-expenditure, wealthy school districts include: Bronxville, New York, $27,980, Weston, Connecticut, $20,718, Scarsdale, New York, $26,742, San Perlita, Texas, $19,413 and Darien, Connecticut, $15,433. Student performance levels, test scores and graduation rates in these and other wealthy school districts far exceed those of less wealthy schools.
Surprisingly, Oregon has one of these high expenditure school districts, Riverdale. But, not surprisingly, Riverdale's per student expenditure of $16,807 also results in a 95 percent graduation rate, high-test results and a college enrollment rate of 86 percent.
The Oregonian/OregonLive is rightly concerned about Oregon's schools low four-year graduation rate (it was 69 percent in 2013 while the national average was 81 percent), its lower test performance results and high absentee rates. But an editorial agenda that calls for "Smart Choices for Education" without directly addressing the lack of adequate funding is irresponsible. How is it that a few miles from Riverdale School District there are woefully underfunded school districts whose lower performance is castigated?
At some point Oregonians must address tax reform to provide public schools the necessary resources to compete nationally. Significantly increasing funding for Oregon's schools really is the smart choice for education.
Joe Rodriguez is a former superintendent of Hillsboro Schools.