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Ore. Bill Would End Traditional Schooling After the 10th Grade

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A controversial and potentially revolutionary plan to end traditional schooling after the 10th grade and allow students to choose between two years of vocational or college preparation is headed for its first test in the Oregon legislature this week.

The bill before the House Education Committee represents the most detailed state response so far to a 1990 report by the National Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which called for radical changes in the way schools usher youths from the classroom to the workplace.

Mirroring the report, "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages," the Oregon plan would require students by the end of 10th grade or age 16 to obtain a "Certificate of Initial Mastery." After that, they would move either into two- to five-year technical training and apprenticeship programs leading to skilled work, or a two-year college-preparatory curriculum.

The bill also incorporates the report's call for learning centers to help dropouts attain the mastery certificate and would prohibit hiring workers under age 18 who have not received the school certificate.

"It is the most ambitious effort to take a look at the employment and training recommendations of the report," said Hillary Rodham Clinton, a board member of the National Center on Education and the Economy and a co-chairman of a panel urging implementation of the proposals. (See Education Week, June 20, 1990.)

"Other states are moving on pieces, but in terms of specific implementation of the commission's report, Oregon is the furthest along," she added.

Observers say the Oregon bill has a solid chance of becoming law. It is sponsored by Representative Vera Katz, a former Speaker of the House and the current vice chairman of the Education Committee, and roughly half of the membership of both the House and the Senate have signed on as co-sponsors.

The legislation also has faced strong criticism in the state, however, particularly from those who say it will "track" young people into career choices too early in life.

Ms. Clinton and others noted that the findings in the "America's Choice" report have sparked wide debate and led to task forces in many states contemplating school-to-work changes.

Vocational educators have endorsed the call for reforms, which emphasize more apprenticeships and job-related courses.

"This is something we've been very concerned about for a long time,'' said Dale Hudelson, a spokesman for the American Vocational Association. "The response has been fairly positive to the 'America's Choice' report because it focuses on the need to put greater efforts on school-to-work transitions."

The report also has inspired legislation currently before lawmakers in Washington State and New York.

Gov. Booth Gardner of Washington this year proposed a bill that would replace many traditional school requirements with new performance standards for elementary and secondary students. (See Education Week, Jan. 9, 1991.)

Washington lawmakers last week were attempting to work out a compromise between a House-passed bill that would phase in regulatory and assessment changes and a substantially different Senate plan that focuses on matching and block grants.

In New York, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo last month proposed legislation that would use funds from the federal Job Training Partnership Act to establish a network of "skills opportunity centers" to provide academic and vocational courses for 16- to 21-year-olds who have not received a high-school diploma.

An aide to Mr. Cuomo said last week that the bill is expected to be considered during the current session, but not until lawmakers finish a tense budget debate.

While Oregon leaders said they were optimistic about their reform bill's chances, they acknowledged that the radical plan faces significant political and budgetary pressures.

The bill also would expand Head Start programs, establish ungraded K-3 primary schools, revamp the state's assessment system, gradually lengthen the school year to 220 days, and implement parental-choice enrollment options.

But Ms. Katz, who serves on the ncee board, noted that the bill's provisions taken from the "America's Choice" report have become the targets of most of its critics.

"There are people taking potshots at it, and, as soon as people realize it may pass, there will be more of the potshots," Ms. Katz said. "It is not going to be an easy battle, but I feel pretty good about it."

Observers said that popular reaction to the plan has been favorable, and that legislators and business leaders have also shown interest. Thirty-two of 60 representatives have signed on as sponsors, as have 13 of 30 senators.

Much of the skepticism, Ms. Katz observed, has come from educators.

"It's very difficult for the education establishment to change their paradigm and difficult for many of them to have a vision," she said, recalling a recent note from a superintendent asking her to withdraw the bill as "too revolutionary."

Much of the opposition to the Ore8gon bill has centered on its proposal for separate college and vocational paths, which many see as formalizing a strict "tracking" system.

But educators and business officials who helped develop the bill are quick to counter the criticisms.

"I think tracking is already taking place," said Michael Kaiel, deputy commissioner of the state labor department, which coordinates apprenticeships across the state. "This creates informed choices and an education that's a lot more comprehensive than what we're getting today."

The bill's certificate of initial mastery would require students to pass a test that would be benchmarked to a national 10th-grade standard by the year 2000 and to an international standard by 2010.

Teenagers who passed the test would qualify either for a professional and technical curriculum that would eventually lead to an associate's degree in a chosen occupation, or to a college-preparatory curriculum leading ultimately to a bachelor's degree.

Unlike the current system, Mr. Kaiel argued, a redesigned school system would not produce a large pool of unskilled high-school graduates.

"The way schools are teaching today doesn't connect with kids," he argued, repeating business leaders' complaints about the low skill levels of current high-school graduates. "They don't see any relevance to careers. We have to start much earlier with career education where kids go out and see people working and talk to people in business and labor."

Added Ms. Katz: "My answer is that now there is one track to failure. We currently have a de facto, insidious tracking system and have had for years. What we're trying to do is give every youngster the ability to succeed."

In addition to the tracking complaints, questions have also been raised about the proposal's cost. Superintendent of Public Instruction Norma S. Paulus, who assigned nearly a dozen staff members to work with Representative Katz on the bill, said that officials are seeking $2 million to begin implementel15ling the program.

Oregon currently is struggling with major school-funding problems as a result of a property-tax-limitation measure approved by state voters last fall. Efforts to win public support for higher state taxes to respond to those problems, Ms. Paulus suggested, will have to be accompanied by significant school reforms.

"I think there is very strong support for it from the public because they recognize the school system has to be changed," she said. "We all recognize that."

Deanna Woods, a teacher at Wilson High School in Portland and a co-vice president of the Oregon Federation of Teachers who also served as a member of the working group on the reform plan, agreed that the bill has received wide popular support.

Teachers will become more supportive of the plan in the weeks ahead, she said. "Right now, there's not a lot of information about the bill that's out and clear, but the more they know, the better they like it."

"I've gotten letters from all over the state saying things like, 'It's about time,' and, 'Whatever I can do,' from people I don't even know," Ms. Katz said. "It's been overwhelming. I've never gotten this kind of response, and I've sponsored some pretty tough pieces of legislation."

The bill could face a vote in the House committee this week. Even if it passes the full House, however, observers expect the measure will face greater opposition in the Senate.

Ms. Clinton said that, while the "America's Choice" report is being approached differently in each of the states in which it has spurred active interest, the Oregon bill's fate may play a key role in influencing the school-to-work debate nationwide.

"Every state that's working on this will develop a response base on that state's needs and profile," she said. "But what happens in Oregon and New York and Washington will influence the deliberations in other states."

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