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political priorities ’
It’s the middle of summer (OK, not quite the middle, but it feels that way) and I feel tired, a bit cranky, and frankly, lacking inspiration. Witnessing the never-ending and farcical tragi-comedy being performed in DC, I feel more than ever that we are a nation—and state—of silos.
Many of us hide in our narrow ideological bunkers, and peek out only long enough to lob disdain on our neighbor in their own tidy little world. “You said this, so you must be anti-teacher”; “Oh, you said that, so you’re one of those who want to stick with the status quo”; “You’re rich and want to support schools? You must be trying to corporatize and do away with public schools”; “You’re a parent advocate? Well, you’re just being a pain in my butt”; “Raise taxes in this economy—are you kidding?”
I have spent a little more than a year sharing on this blog what I think and believe in. Hopefully I’ve challenged some of you and made you think—it certainly has caused me to think more deeply. Now, I want a thought experiment from you, those reading this blog. What do you believe in? What do you want to talk about? What inspires you? What are you passionate about? Frankly, I don’t want to hear what you’re against, I want to hear what you want and what you’re for. What do you want for your kids, and for all of our kids? What gets you excited and keeps you up at night?
Tell me. Respond. Help me as I struggle not to stay cozy in my own silo.
While my posts over the last couple weeks have only engaged a portion of the education reform program that Marc Tucker suggests in “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants,” I nevertheless hope that more of you take the opportunity to tackle the text on your own. When I finished reading the entire report (online here), I was part enthralled and part enraged by what he was intimating.
On the one hand, I share Tucker’s passion for wanting to make our system stronger—and I was captivated by the daring he suggest in attempting to reboot the system. At the same time, my enthusiasm was tempered at points by his comparisons, as I believe at times he simplified the reasons that other national systems are so successful, and that we cannot—mainly because of politics—adopt the reforms he suggests (to be fair, my dismay there is partly directed at those who would rather remain fighting than moving toward a real solution). Nevertheless, in recognizing my ambivalent feelings, I realized that Tucker’s plan may ultimately be what the American public needs as a blueprint for true educational reform.
What I have found empowering about Tucker’s approach is that it contains elements that both reassure and challenge any group involved in American education.
Last week Chalkboard joined several partners and national leaders in a powerful and lively panel discussion at the Capitol in Washington, DC.
Judging from the passion of our panelists and thoughtful questions by our audience, “Developing Great Teachers and Leaders: What’s Working and How That Should Inform Policy Decisions” appears to be a timely topic.
Chalkboard President Sue Hildick capably launched the morning, and President Tom Carroll of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future successfully facilitated the discussion. I felt very fortunate to join our panelists Rob Weil, Deputy Director of the American Federation of Teachers; Dr. Tabitha Grossman, Senior Policy Analyst of the National Governors Association; Janice Poda, Director of Education Workforce for Chief Council of State School Officers; Joellen Killon, Deputy Executive Director of Learning Forward; and Bend CLASS Project Co-Leader Dan Jones.
Several themes emerged during our two-hour discussion. First, we should note this is a time of exciting change, with many powerful developments unfolding on the national level. We are reminded that Oregon will be well-served to stay dialed into this important national discourse. Our failure to track developments and anticipate these national drivers will leave us vulnerable. Now, more than ever, we must stay connected to this crucial conversation.
Other topics received strong attention. Performance evaluation is emerging as a high stakes initiative in several states, with many moving forward to align with the new InTASC teaching standards. Like Oregon, most states have enacted some form of legislation to add impetus to this effort. The opportunity to align these reforms with concurrent adoption of Common Core Learning Standards will result in a more closely aligned K-12 effort. Teacher preparation, and specifically the quality of college and university programs, will be under the microscope in coming years. And, perhaps most important, all of our panelists reminded the audience that this work must be thoughtful. We cannot sacrifice quality of implementation for political expediency.
Of all the discussion, most rewarding to us is the growing national recognition that teachers want and deserve the opportunity to be at the heart of this reform effort. Indeed, every panelist commended the work of the CLASS Project and pointed to our collaborative model as the best path to pursue this complex work. Dan, Sue and I came away from this event knowing our teachers have pursued the right path, and with the humbling recognition that there is great hope placed in our Oregon-grown CLASS efforts.
State Senator Mark Hass (D-Raleigh Hills) is currently the Chairman of the Senate Education Committee. After teacher Jennifer Singleton discussed summer learning loss and pros and cons of year-round education on the ChalkBloggers last week, Hass further explores the topic and the pending national TIME Act.
In the dog days of summer, it’s great to be a kid. Lazy, sunny days. Family Trips. Summer camps. Not a care in the world.
Actually, this is a myth threatening America’s future in the global economy.
The truth is, more than half of the students in Oregon public schools (50.1 percent) come from “economically disadvantaged” homes, according to the Oregon Department of Education. These students are not spending their days at OMSI Camp. And without the kind of enrichment activities enjoyed by wealthy families, the “summer slide” is deeper.
The “summer slide” is how educators describe summertime months when students forget some of what they learned the previous school year. Research not only confirms this, but reveals that its takes its biggest toll on low-income students.
As Chalkboard’s state government relations team, Phil Donovan and I believe this was an incredibly successful session for Chalkboard Project and its parent foundations. Our partnership with the Oregon Business Association and Stand for Children served us well and resulted in a formidable advocacy team of business, grassroots and research entities. Despite a devastating state budget, CLASS Project and mentor dollars were achieved and a new teacher evaluation system was put on a timeline for implementation in 2013.
You have probably all heard about the “education package” that passed and the concerns that many have voiced about the politics that engineered the seemingly disparate group of policy reforms. It is this kind of “horse trading” that turns so many off from politics, but such is the basis of how things get done, especially with close margins in the party makeup.
The new annual sessions and the House divided 30-30 for the first time made this session part of Oregon history on two accounts. Politically, the House makeup and the very close margins in the Senate (16 Democrats and 14 Republicans) led to “bipartisanship” being the term most used by the media, pundits and the legislators themselves.
But to many, “bipartisanship” connotes a friendliness and agreement of important issues—a common sense, middle-of-the-road route to public policy. Publicly that may have been the image portrayed, but others describe the drama behind the scenes more along the lines of a hostage situation where bills advanced that one party did not like in order for them to see their own issues move ahead. Is this a strong-arm strategy, rather than a philosophical meeting of the minds?
Education policy was the key area where one might ask this question. But certainly it cannot be denied that the legislative leaderships’ choreography of the process was masterful, the trading intense, and even the purported strong-arming effective in leading to significant changes for Oregon.
It’s been a dramatic time for education in Oregon. We have seen lots of change, coming fast and furious from the Legislature, and much of it remains to be sorted out in terms of its actual impact on student achievement. But it certainly gives us hope—hope that Oregon can have a public school system among the best in the nation.
We give thanks to our state’s leaders for feeling the urgency we believe has been building all across this state for a higher quality system of K-12 schools. We give thanks to the teachers and leaders who are on the front lines of our schools every day, helping point the way to the supports children need to learn to their full capacity. We give thanks to the parents and citizens of this state who continue to send their children to public schools and have a collective will to make them strong. Together, we make up a community that has faith that every child can learn, and now, more commitment and momentum to make that goal a reality.
Our task ahead is perhaps harder than pushing these reforms through the legislative process—we must work together to implement them in a way that improves the learning experience for each child. We are delighted that among the reforms passed to do this are two of Chalkboard’s priorities to ensure we have an effective, quality teacher in every class, every school day.
. . . Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Lately I’ve been thinking back to an earlier part of my life and using those experiences as a lens for our current efforts around school system change. For about ten years, I was a teacher with Outward Bound. OB’s name has nautical roots—when a ship leaves the safety of the harbor and heads out in to the unknown it is said to be outward bound. Their motto “To Serve, To Strive, and Not to Yield” comes from the amazing Ulysses by Tennyson (as does the quote above). It is about balance—between self-reliance and being part of a larger community; between tenacity and sensible self-denial; and between compassion for others and taking care of one’s own. So, with that in mind…
Let’s take a moment to celebrate. I am truly excited by our opportunity to begin the process of public school system reform that is possible through SB 909. All is not fixed, everything didn’t go our way, there is so much to do, but there are moments of beauty in small victories. As I often find myself saying these days, we now have the possibility of possibilities. Once we’re done with this brief self-congratulation, let’s get to work.
One thing I know is that commitment is not enough. In my heart of hearts I believe that we are all committed to our kids—the work ahead will require determined single-mindedness, and it will certainly take a deep collaboration that is unusual and unlike any other we have attempted. It is not left and right, rural and urban, black or white, across this or that aisle—it is a moral imperative and it is for our kids. We are leaving the safety of this moment, the security of this small but important victory and heading into uncharted waters. We must build and maintain unwavering collective capacity for systemic change and we can accept no excuses. The legislative session that brought us to this time was filled with moments of political will, charismatic leadership, and fierce advocacy, while we also glimpsed petty infighting, fear mongering, misinformation, and other devils of our nature.
The latest federal data show what parents who care about education in our state already know: Oregon is underfunding public schools compared to the rest of the nation, by a significant seven percent.
Combine this with a lingering, abysmal economy that is creating desperate circumstances for many, untenable PERS retirement benefits, and falling tax rates—Americans are paying the lowest tax rates since 1950—and here’s what it looks like on the ground in our schools.
Fields of study that provide the skills students need for 21st century jobs are being eliminated, and teachers of that coursework let go, meaning it will take years to restore them, if stable funding is ever restored. Given the last hired, first fired logic of our system, talented young teachers are reading the tea leaves and getting out of the education profession. “Non-essentials”—things we used to take for granted such as school sports, art, music, foreign language, vocational classes—are becoming dependent on private funds or going the way of the dodo.
Source of table at right: USA Today, 5/12/2010
At Summit High School in Bend, a seven-period schedule is being considered, up from a block schedule with four daily periods. Teachers who taught six out of eight periods this past year would now teach six out of seven, reducing their prep time while their work loads increase. Due to layoffs, one high school math teacher will be teaching four separate subjects—calculus, contextual geometry, financial algebra and Math 1—in six classes with roughly 210 students. A science teacher will be loaded up with an electronics section, two biology courses, and three physics sections, including an AP course.
In the middle of our nation’s major recession there are signs of an upturn here and there, but in the meantime, we are struggling to fund the most valuable piece of our future: Education. Unemployment is high, inflation is real and people are having trouble making ends meet. Simply put, there is less money to go around. So is it really any surprise that recent ballot measures asking Oregon taxpayers for even more money have failed? Where do Oregonians draw the line? To hopefully find an answer, I decided to take a look at our past.
As I reviewed Oregon’s ballot measures for the past 40 years, I noticed some not-so surprising patterns. Schools only asked for more taxpayer dollars during tough economic times. Schools suffer when people are making and taking home less money. Accordingly, during times of economic prosperity, Oregon would go years without a mention of educational funding on the ballot.
In general, voters have failed nearly every measure that proposed a tax hike to cover education costs. Since 1970, voters have failed at least 10 such ballot measures. Most recently last month, two local measures to fund education failed. Oregon City voters overwhelming turned down measure 3-376. It’s failure has forced the district to cut two school weeks from the 2010-2011 year in addition to numerous other deep cuts they have already made. Portlanders failed measure 26-121, which was earmarked for improving and repairing facilities.
I should note that voters have made some exceptions. Some measures have passed to keep schools open, keep class sizes down, and retain teacher jobs (Oregon Ballot Measure 2 in 1987; Oregon Ballot Measures 66 and 67 in 2010; and Portland Public School Measure 26-122 in 2011, respectively). But what did taxpayers really agree to? Measure 2 continued levies that were already in place; Measures 66 and 67 taxed businesses and the wealthiest Oregonians; and two other measures in the 1990’s allotted lottery funds for education. In most cases, the average citizen wasn’t giving up much.
With much of the education and political news grim, with gridlock and pettiness the norm—how are we to move forward? How do we move past the wringing of hands and gain or re-gain our belief that we can do this? (“This” is doing every damned thing we can to prepare our kids for what lays next in their lives—and through them, our own lives.) I have two suggestions.
First, we must be bold and move forward with new ideas that place our kids’ interests at the very heart of our processes and systems. Business as usual must go, gridlocked politicians and political processes must be chiseled apart and forced in to the bright sunlight (please, give us some bright sunlight!). We must find a balance between our need for local control, and the clear and convincing reality that the larger system is broken.
How do we solve a school funding crisis when the decisions of how the state doles out our money has little to do with the actuality of what is happening locally in the schools? When cutting school days from our pathetically short school year does not change the amount of funding our districts receive? When local school boards can negotiate contracts that push off to another generation the very difficult conversations that the adults need to have in order to ensure our kids’ success? When our various systems, well intended to help our most vulnerable, are often uncommunicative and dysfunctional silos?