Wanted: Education Chief to Fix Oregon’s Graduation Rate

By Daarel Burnette II — January 25, 2016 3 min read
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Oregon’s dismal graduation rate—dead last for white students and second to last for black students, according to the U.S. Department of Education--MB—has rankled politicians and educators in the Beaver State for years.

Now, according to an interview that her staff conducted with the Oregonian newspaper, Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, says she will task the next “education innovation officer” with figuring out why the state’s overall 72 percent graduation rate is so low and come up with ways to fix it.

It’s a big task, and the state’s record of hiring and keeping education chiefs isn’t so great. Oregon has struggled to figure out who should oversee the state’s public school system and what their tasks are. Brown hopes to hire someone this spring.

I’ve written a bit about the evolving role of state chiefs and their departments under the recently passed federal Every Students Succeeds Act. In the coming years, state education agencies will be tasked with creating their own accountability systems, certifying and evaluating teachers, and intervening in their worst-performing schools.

But there are some structural issues states will have to address first. In most states, it’s more financially lucrative to be the superintendent of a large urban district than it is to lead all of the state’s school districts. And most education departments for decades now have been focused on making sure schools comply with federal regulations rather than helping solve some of the problems that plague them. The new law will usher in a big culture shift.

Oregon is no exception.

The state’s new “education innovation officer” will oversee Oregon’s department of education, public colleges and the Chief Education Office, a research leg of the government that sets goals and which spots and helps duplicate best practices.

But the innovation officer “won’t manage any staffers, won’t have money to hand out and is expected to listen to Oregon school districts and communities, not order them around,” according to the Oregonian.

The average salary of the top 30 officials in the state’s education department is just $110,000, according to the Oregonian. The last chief made $225,000 a year.

The state’s first governor-appointed “chief education officer,” Rudy Crew, the former chief of New York City and Miami-Dade schools, resigned in 2013 after just a year on the job after racking up thousands of dollars in travel expenses. As chief education officer oversees public higher education, early childhood and the department of education.

The next chief education officer, Nancy Golden, a homegrown superintendent, had lofty goals but not much time to accomplish them after Gov. John Kitzhaber abruptly resigned early last year.

The legislature last spring dialed back the role of the state education chief and abolished the board that oversees that position. Golden soon retired and former teachers union leader Lindsey Capps has been filling the seat on an interim basis.

The new education innovation officer, instead of attempting to fix everything that’s wrong with education in the state, including its funding formula, will work on “smoothing students’ entry to kindergarten, getting more students to graduate high school with the skills they need for college, and improving students’ transition into postsecondary education,” according to the Oregonian.

Nationally, the average tenure of education chiefs is just 3.2 years.

The Oregonian’s Betsy Hammond has done an impressive job writing about the state’s chronic absenteeism and abysmally low graduation rate. A lot of the state’s education troubles can be partly attributed to the plight of the timber industry, which mostly collapsed in recent years, leaving a high unemployment rate and entrenched poverty in the rural parts of the state.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.