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A Cautious Celebration

Oregon education advocates are celebrating a political victory as House Bill 3427, the Student Success Act, is on its way to the Govenor's desk for her signature. The passage of this hard-fought legislation represents a multi-billion dollar landfall to help address some of the challenges faced by public education in our state. It is being heralded as "a turning point for education in Oregon" and "a new day for education." These new funds will supplement the approximately $9.0 billion bi-annual State School Fund. Beginning in 2020, half of these new dollars would become grants to local school districts and twenty percent going to serve the educational needs of toddlers and pre-schoolers. The balance would be split between full funding of a 2016 voter-approved measure to expand career/technical offerings and anti-dropout programs and initiatives to improve schools’ performance statewide.

Raise your glass! Such a promising accomplishment is worthy of celebration. In a state that has been known for its pathetic funding prioritization of public education, one with one of the shortest student calendars in the nation, it's about time that we make a substantial move to adequately fund something that we hold dear. There is no downside to this feat. Class sizes will likely decrease, the opportunity to hire qualified teachers will likely increase. Finally, we have the real opportunity to reinstate programs that lean economic times have severely hampered: music, art, technical electives, world languages. Maybe (hopefully) some of these new dollars will find their way to the service of the mental and emotional health crisis that plagues many of our students. And, no one in their right mind would argue about the needed investment in pre-K and early childhood education. Lift your glass! It's "a new day for education" in our state.

I support all of these things. They're critically important. I'm pleased that we might, finally, have an opportunity to make some real inroads into the challenges and dilemmas that public education has faced. So, why am I not jumping up and down? Why is my hollering a bit muted? In the face of this incredibly great news and all of the possibility it holds, why is my response cautious, even reserved?

I'm worried.

I'm worried about what local decisions will be made regarding the use of the grant funds to districts. I'm worried about the direction of anti-dropout programs and I'm worried about what statewide initiatives to improve the performance of schools might look like. Here's the foundation of these worries. As human creatures, we cling to what we know. The educational experiences we traditionally hold in common serve to draw us toward a nearly affectionate idolization of the status quo. So, what if these new dollars are invested to merely bolster what we currently have? What if we don't look beyond what we know, and are already comfortable with, and invest in a robust arsenal of 20th century approaches, technologies and beliefs? What if, in our enthusiasm, relief and zeal we overlook that we are no longer in that century, and that the needs of students and the requirements of our systems have changed? We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us. And, we have only one chance to get it right. What if we don't?

The demands of a global economy in the 21st century require a different set of skills and a new definition of what it means to be "well educated", as compared to our beloved status quo. Efforts to improve school performance cannot be focused on raising the scores on standardized tests. Not any longer. The research on this is abundant and readily accessible. The evidence is clear. Collectively, we know what should be done. The question remains "will we?"

Here's a compelling example. The publicity surrounding HB 3427 suggests a portion of the funds would be applied to anti-dropout initiatives. That makes sense given that Oregon's 2017 on-time graduation rate was 77%, the second lowest in the nation. In 2018, 3.55% of our students dropped-out statewide. That translates to more than 6,400 students who simply elected to quit and disappeared from our public education system. Is this a problem worthy of attention? Absolutely! Caution, though. Simply throwing money at the problem may not guarantee improvement. Hiring a larger army of intervention and recovery specialists, a status quo approach, might yield modest results. But, would this, alone, be enough to offer anything greater than disappointing progress in stemming this tide? I'm not convinced it would.

Have we stopped to consider why these kids are throwing in the towel? Like you, I recognize the reasons are as varied and complex as the students themselves. But, I am just naive enough, fueled by decades of experience, to suggest that there may be some common themes. If we were to boil down the multitude of reasons to their lowest common denominator, what might we find? One common theme, I'm convinced, would sound something like this: "It's boring. There's nothing there for me. I just don't connect with what I'm expected to learn, so it feels like a waste of time. I've got better things to do." Of course, this is code for "it's not relevant." (Don't trust my assessment? Ask some kids.) This is something we could work on if we have the will, along with this new financial support, to alter our instructional approaches toward a more personalized and relevant experience for all students, including those who might otherwise just quit. (Please take the time to review previous posts on this website addressing the related topics of relevance and student engagement.)

Changes in professional practices are both hard and necessary. Shifts in the prioritization of key outcomes, and the subsequent investments required, is both challenging and essential. Our new reality demands a shift from monologue instruction to engaging in authentic dialogue. To assure the experience students require in today's social and political environment requires a deliberate move away from standardization toward personalization. In my book, The Education Kids Deserve, I suggest that we know what to do, that the strategies needed are in front of us and that the potential pay off in student achievement is well worth the effort. What is missing in this equation is the willingness to recognize, embrace and move toward "a new day for education."

To all leaders and classroom practitioners, I offer this one imperative. You have a moral and a fiduciary responsibility to find the professional courage to do what's right. Today! Your students are counting on you and your constituents are watching.

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