To Sell Vision of Student Mastery, Oregon Fights Finances, Skepticism

By Lynn Olson — June 10, 1992 17 min read
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The “foot-draggers,’' she suggests, “will very quickly get the picture.’'

Norma S. Paulus, Oregon’s feisty superintendent of public instruction, has come to this coastal community to sell an audience composed largely of senior citizens on one of the most ambitious school-reform efforts in the country.

By national standards, Oregon’s “best and brightest children’’ are the equals of anyone, Ms. Paulus explains at the community center here. “The problem is that the national average is a joke.’'

When compared with students in other industrialized nations, she warns, American youngsters “are almost dead last’’ in mathematics and science performance.

Worse still, she continues in the measured tones of a doctor bearing bad tidings, approximately 25 percent of Oregon students never complete high school. Of the 55 percent who go on to postsecondary education, 30 percent drop out in the first year. Too many children leave school unprepared for either advanced academic study or work, she contends.

“People don’t have a really good picture of what’s happening to children in this state or how it’s going to impact their lives if their neighbor’s child isn’t taken care of,’' she cautions.

But the implications are obvious. While economists estimate that it takes four wage earners to support one senior citizen, Oregon is already down to two young people for every retiree. The state ranks 10th in the nation in the number of people over 65, but 42nd in those under age 18.

“This state,’' Ms. Paulus warns, “can’t afford to lose one child ... to an unproductive life.’'

The solution, Ms. Paulus tells listeners, is the Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century. The bill, passed by state lawmakers in 1991, reflects the recommendations of a 1990 report by the National Center on Education and the Economy entitled “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages.’'

That document argues that Americans can either strengthen the academic preparation of all students and create high-paid, high-performance jobs to employ them, or settle for low-wage, low-skills jobs and a declining national standard of living.

Marc S. Tucker, the president of the national center, describes the Oregon law as the “most comprehensive response’’ to the report’s findings. As such, it is being watched closely by other states that believe the quality of their schools and their economy are tightly linked.

But the act still must overcome some substantial hurdles here at home. Chief among them is Oregon’s hard-pressed school-finance system, which could make it difficult to fund new reform efforts. Critics also fear that the law could rigidly track students, by forcing them to choose between a college or a professional-technical program in grade 10.

Redesigning High School

The heart of the law lies in its redesign of the high-school curriculum to raise expectations for all teenagers, especially the non-college-bound.

Under the act, youngsters will be expected, beginning in the spring of 1997, to earn a “certificate of initial mastery’’ at about age 16 or grade 10. The certificate will ensure that students can read, write, solve problems, think critically, and communicate across all academic disciplines at national levels by the year 2000 and at international levels by the year 2010.

Once students have earned the certificate, they will spend the remaining years of high school working toward a “certificate of advanced mastery,’' with an emphasis on either college preparation or professional-technical courses and on-the-job training.

The “general track,’' which now encompasses the majority of Oregon students, will disappear from the curriculum.

The act also expands Head Start and other early-childhood programs to cover all eligible children by 1998; encourages the creation of ungraded primary schools; requires performance-based assessments in grades 3, 5, 8, and 10; gives teachers and parents a greater say in running their schools; and creates alternative “learning centers’’ for students who have dropped out of high school.

In addition, the measure mandates a state report card to track the performance of individual schools; allows for a modicum of public-school choice; and extends the school year from 175 days to 220 days by the year 2010.

The goal is to provide all Oregon students with a “world-class educational opportunity’’ that will enable them to compete in a global marketplace, says Representative Vera Katz, a member of the national center’s board and the Portland Democrat who was the bill’s chief sponsor.

Ms. Paulus emphasizes, though, that “We’re not trying to take 3- and 4-year-olds and use them as economic fodder.’'

“We expect all children to be proficient in the basic disciplines before they branch out into one of the career strands,’' she says.

Human-Investment Strategy

The legislation dovetails with the state’s broader human-investment strategy, which extends far beyond the education department.

In 1989, lawmakers created the Oregon Progress Board to set long-term policy goals for the state in such areas as housing, health care, natural resources, and education. The seven-member board, chaired by the governor, is also responsible for devising measurable benchmarks for achieving those goals.

A separate bill, passed in 1991, created a 21-member Oregon Workforce Quality Council, which is charged with developing a comprehensive strategy for creating the “best educated and prepared workforce in America by the year 2000, and a workforce equal to any in the world by 2010.’'

The council includes representatives of all the major state agencies involved in education and training, along with local officials and representatives of business and labor.

In 1991, the state dedicated $8 million in lottery funds to support 20 education, training, and evaluation programs designed to improve the quality of the workforce. An additional $2.3 million was appropriated to support tech-prep programs.

Despite such ambitious goals, the state’s most immediate challenge is to convince the public that it wants or needs such changes.

“The biggest frustration we have is that we don’t have any way in which to get the message out instantaneously to a broad group of people,’' Ms. Paulus says about the law.

Oregon has 287 school districts, but only Portland enrolls more than 30,000 students. The rest range from small coastal communities, such as Lincoln City, to rural farming towns on the eastern side of the mountains.

In recent decades, the timber and agricultural industries that have long been the bulwarks of the state’s economy have been supplemented by a number of high-tech firms. But these are still clustered around a few locations in the state.

Since last fall, Ms. Paulus and members of her staff have conducted dozens of informational meetings across the state for thousands of teachers, administrators, parents, and citizens.

Ten separate committees--comprised of educators, parents, and business representatives--are also working on recommendations for carrying out specific aspects of the law, ranging from school choice to the employment of minors.

The committees are expected to finish their work this summer.

In addition, a handful of schools have received grants to pilot-test models for nongraded primary schools, performance-based assessments, and a redesigned high-school curriculum that would lead to a certificate of initial mastery.

Slim Public Understanding

Even so, says Chris Dudley, the executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, “I don’t think there’s a very deep understanding by community people about what kind of commitment it’s going to take ... to support these changes.’'

“Most people understand that there’s a need for reform,’' agrees Julie Brandis, a legislative assistant for Associated Oregon Industries, which strongly supports the act, “but they don’t associate it with their own school district.’'

When the Oregon Education Association held 24 community hearings about the law last year, audiences expressed as much apprehension as enthusiasm, according to Karen A. Famous, the organization’s president.

“A lot of people were kind of thinking this was shoved down their throats,’' she says, “and why weren’t these discussions held prior to its enactment?’'

In fact, the bill underwent more than 30 rewrites and 100 hours of testimony before it passed. Its nearly unanimous approval by the legislature represented a model of political strategy.

The proposal was endorsed by a powerful bipartisan coalition that included Ms. Katz, a former Speaker of the House; Ms. Paulus, a former secretary of state and an aggressive Republican; Senator Shirley Gold, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee; and Representative Larry L. Campbell, a conservative Republican who is currently Speaker of the House.

Ms. Gold and Ms. Paulus, in particular, backed the bill on the condition that it included a strong early-childhood component.

The bill also had the support of the Associated Oregon Industries and the Oregon Business Council.

But the failure to involve large numbers of educators from the outset left some, particularly members of the state’s teachers’ unions, bitter. The Portland Association of Teachers, for example, has refused to support Ms. Katz in her bid to become mayor of Portland, where she is now engaged in a runoff campaign.

A ‘Two Track’ System?

One of the primary concerns raised by the teachers’ unions and other critics of the law is that it will result in a “two track’’ system that prematurely shuttles poor and minority children into vocational programs.

“We’re picking up an idea from a European school system and implanting it in America’s egalitarian, democratic society,’' says Ms. Famous of the O.E.A. “And we’re not certain that’s the way that people really want to go.’'

Such allegations make Ms. Paulus “so mad I could spit.’'

“The present system that we have in Oregon tracks kids,’' she fumes. “The present system assumes that poor kids can’t learn as much or as fast or as well.’'

In one coastal town she visited, “there was actually a printed paper that said one of the goals of the high school was to make absolutely certain that every high-school graduate could read at the 6th-grade level,’' she recalls. “I mean, now are we in trouble or what?’'

According to Ms. Paulus, the intent of the law is to create a flexible system in which all students are held to high standards--but in which the non-college-bound are not left to flounder, as they do now.

“What we see is a professional-technical curriculum that is integrated for all students, along with academic rigor, so that students don’t get less math, less science, less English, because they choose something that doesn’t require a college degree,’' says J.D. Hoye, the associate state superintendent for professional-technical education.

‘Upside Down’ Curriculum

Six state-level task forces are currently fleshing out the education and training curricula and achievement standards that would be required for professional-technical endorsements in six broad areas: arts and communications, business and management, health services, human resources, industry and technology, and natural resources.

The idea is to enable students to shift from one professional-technical area to another, or from a college- to a non-college-bound path, as their interests change.

Dale Parnell, the state commissioner of community colleges and one of the creators of the tech-prep concept--which offers students a coordinated sequence of high-school and community-college courses that culminates in a certificate or associate degree in a technical area--refers to Oregon’s plan as an “upside down’’ curriculum.

“Almost all of the students in this program would have an applied-physics or an applied-chemistry course as a basic high-school course,” he explains, “and these are good rigorous courses. But they all start with practical and concrete examples. You never start with theory.’'

For too many students, “we’ve allowed there to be a disconnection between real life and education, and somehow we have to remedy that,’' he argues. “We tell students, ‘Put this concept in the freezer and some day you might need it.’ There’s a good deal of research in cognitive science that shows all people learn better in context.’'

According to Mr. Parnell, the expectation is that most students would continue their education beyond high school, either through tech-prep programs that lead to an associate’s degree, apprenticeships, or other structured work experiences.

In 1991, the state passed the Oregon Youth Apprenticeship Training Program to pilot-test occupational training for up to 100 high-school students.

The trick, according to Hilary C. Pennington, the president of Jobs for the Future, will be for Oregon to create paths that are truly “permeable’’ for students who want to leap from a technical to a college-bound track. Jobs for the Future is a national organization that specializes in the relationship between education and economic development.

“Like anything, the devil is in the details,’' she notes. “But I have not seen a more committed or more energized group anywhere in the country than the people in Oregon trying to work out those details.’'

The logistics involved in pulling off such an arrangement, however, have left some skeptical. “I don’t believe that’s realistic,’' Ms. Famous says. “If you have a very rigorous academic, college-preparatory program, how could a child come from a vocational program into that without a loss of time?’'

The O.E.A. would like most vocational training to continue to take place within the existing four-year high-school structure.

The teachers’ union also asserts that placing the certificate of initial mastery at the end of 10th grade could encourage students to drop out, by creating an artificial “stopping point.’'

‘Not Good Enough’

Even its supporters concede that Oregon will have to create a huge number of structured work experiences, in collaboration with business and industry, to make the certificate of advanced mastery a reality.

Although the state’s business organizations have been very supportive of the act, Ms. Brandis notes, their work is just beginning.

“The average business person has no idea that this is afoot,’' Ms. Paulus concedes. “They don’t understand what’s expected of them.’'

“The bulk of business and industry that you talk to today,’' Ms. Hoye agrees, “they’ll still tell you, ‘Give me somebody with a good work ethic, who will show up on time, and I’ll teach them the rest.’ And that’s not good enough.’'

Some school districts and schools are already one step ahead of the state. At Roosevelt High School in Portland, teams of teachers and business and industrial representatives are working to create six “career pathways’’ for students that would combine academic and technical training.

Next year, they hope to test their model by providing 90 to 100 students with structured work experiences. They also plan to provide a yearlong introduction to career options for freshmen, beginning this fall.

In Albany, a blue-collar community in the Willamette Valley, the school district has task forces of educators and business leaders that are working to modify the curriculum based on the skills that employers say they need.

Superintendent Robert D. Stalick says he hopes that by 1995 at least 35 percent of the district’s high-school students will be involved in “meaningful work-site interships.’' Currently, fewer than 5 percent of the district’s students are in a vocational-technical track. Roughly 70 percent are in a general-education track.

“We’ve got kids who believe they’re going to college when they’re freshmen, sophomores, and juniors,’' Mr. Stalick says, “and it isn’t until they’re seniors that they realize a 2.5 grade-point average isn’t going to get them there, and they have no idea what to do.’'

With the help of local corporate executives, the district has identified six broad areas in which skilled work will be available in the future and in which it plans to concentrate its efforts. They are electronics and electronics technician; millwright and mechanics; medical secretary and transcription; nurse and medical careers; chef and chef training; and computer-aided design.

Funding Problems Ahead

State efforts to design a certificate of initial mastery are proving no less challenging.

“We did not understand, as we went into this, how very difficult it is to define world-class standards,’' Ms. Paulus says. “No one’s done it.’'

The state has been coordinating its efforts with those at the national level and has held a number of symposia with educators from other countries.

But by far the largest black cloud looming over the reform law is Measure 5, a constitutional amendment adopted by voters two years ago that sets limits on local property-tax rates.

The amendment requires lawmakers to replace most of the local revenues lost by the schools as a result of the caps with monies from the state’s general fund. The mandate will put severe pressure on the whole state budget over the next few years, however, giving rise to fears that there will be cuts in that portion of public-school funding already provided by the state.

Gov. Barbara Roberts has spent much of this year barnstorming the state, asking people in face-to-face meetings and cable-television hookups what services they want from the state and how they would be willing to pay for them. But the real test will come next winter, when the legislature convenes for the 1993-94 biennium.

Ms. Roberts has already sent out an order requiring all state agencies to plan for budget cuts of up to 20 percent.

“The school-reform law presents a grand vision of what we ought to do,’' Mr. Parnell says, “but the real challenge will be trying to figure that out in a Measure 5 environment.’'

Without an assured revenue source, observers say, many school districts are reluctant to forge ahead and take risks.

“Until they see some kind of light at the end of the tunnel on funding,’' says Mr. Dudley of the school-boards association, “they’re hesitant to make massive investments of emotion, energy, and money in trying to quickly implement this.’'

“On the other hand,’' he says, “it may be that we, as an education community, need to show that we’re going to do things differently before voters are willing to provide the money.’'

‘We’re Not Going To Do It’

At present, most observers predict, there is little chance that lawmakers will come up with an alternative revenue source during the coming session.

“What I hear from some of my cohorts,’' Mr. Stalick says, “is, ‘It’s just one more thing the state has told us we’ve got to do. And there’s not enough money to do it. So, by God, we’re not going to do it.’''

But, Ms. Paulus says, “There are a whole lot of things school districts are doing now that we don’t want people to do anymore. So the first thing that we’re asking school communities and school boards to do is to take existing resources and use them in a different fashion.’'

In some ways, she asserts, Measure 5 provides the lever she needs to fight the “entrenched administrative system’’ in the state.

As districts’ money increasingly comes from the state, rather than from local property taxes, she explains, discretionary funds can be directed to “the people that are willing to take a more progressive viewpoint.’'

The “foot-draggers,’' she suggests, “will very quickly get the picture.’'

So far, lawmakers have appropriated more than $42 million for the act, primarily for early-childhood education. Another $2 million was appropriated for research and development last biennium.

Ms. Paulus plans to ask the legislature in the next session for money for staff development, which has been identified as crucial to the law’s success by everyone involved.

Vicki Barrows, the president of the Portland Association of Teachers, cautions: “The training is astronomical. We’re talking about major, major amounts of money that are going to be needed to appropriately train staff and administration, and that has not been allocated anywhere.’'

Observers also worry that the law’s lengthy phase-in period (most of its provisions do not take effect until 1996-97), combined with a provision that says nothing will be mandated “without adequate funding,’' could doom it to extinction.

But Ms. Paulus says the time lines are, if anything, too short. “I know that there’s no way you can take an entrenched institution such as education and snap your fingers and change it overnight,’' she says. “I know from my experience that it is much easier to change a law than it is to change an attitude.’'

And attitudes and expectations are ultimately what Oregon’s school-reform law is all about.

“We continue to have a society that values the unemployed sociologist above the employed electrician,’' Ms. Hoye of the state education department says. “And it’s no different in our office.’'

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A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 1992 edition of Education Week as To Sell Vision of Student Mastery, Oregon Fights Finances, Skepticism


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