Roundtable: The education fix

It’s going to take some new thinking to make Oregon’s schools competitive. A roundtable of education leaders offers a cross section of solutions for the ailing education system.


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Oregon schools aren’t making the grade. Here’s a telling barometer: At least 40% of high school graduates are unprepared for college. This in an era where even an entry-level millworker needs a two-year degree to hit the job running. The consensus is that a few tweaks here and there won’t fix what’s wrong. But what will? Oregon Business convened a roundtable of civic, education and business leaders to ask how they would cure the ailing education system.

Education relations manager, Intel Linda Flores
State representative, Clackamas
Chair, House Education Committee Barbara Rommel
Superintendent, David Douglas School District, Gresham Doug Stamm
Director, Meyer Memorial Trust
Board member, Foundations for a Better Oregon (Chalkboard Project) Ken Thrasher
CEO, Compli
Senior director, Oregon Business Council

OREGON BUSINESS: Ken and Morgan, how well does Oregon’s education system serve your business needs? For everyone else, how healthy do you think the system is?

MORGAN ANDERSON: We’re heavily dependent on technical graduates coming out of the Oregon system. We primarily hire technicians, which requires a two-year degree, and engineers at the bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. levels. We love to hire Oregon students, but frankly we just can’t find enough to meet a fraction of our workforce needs. We’re getting at best 20% of our technicians from the Oregon community college system; the rest we hire from out of state. And these are $40,000-a-year starting-wage jobs. They can make up to $100,000 a year with overtime and experience. Unfortunately, we’re not attracting Oregon students to this career field. The other challenge is hiring engineers.

KEN THRASHER: A challenge in the business community is finding students who can come in and do the basic skills and also have a little more advanced capability in problem solving, communications, working in teams. What we find today is a disconnect between the relevance of the workplace and what is taught in schools. Combined, businesses today spend more on training than does the entire education system in America. That’s pretty amazing.

DOUG STAMM: We all recognize that if we’re going to compete globally we need to ratchet up math, science and engineering. But there are a lot of kids that, frankly, just need to be inspired to be successful students and life-long learners. Hopefully then they will come to your workplace not only better trained, but inspired to learn.

BARBARA ROMMEL: I see the picture as much more positive. When Oregon schools were in Doonesbury because of reduced school days, students were ranked second in the country on their level of SAT performance. It’s a dichotomy: There is concern about the problems with the system, but we also are getting some good results. One of the things we’re seeing is that when we have really high expectations for performance, students are rising to meet those expectations. It goes back to what Doug was saying about having an inspirational teacher.

LINDA FLORES: My concern is that when you look at statistics, only 69 out of every 100 ninth-graders graduate from high school four years later, 33 immediately enter college, 22 are still enrolled in their second year, and 15 graduate with either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree in six years. Those numbers are not all that stellar. We need to revisit how we do business.

ANDERSON: If you were to look at the statistics of how many Oregonians already possess a four-year degree, it would be substantially higher, which shows us that we are bringing in talent from other states. That’s something to really pay attention to because we’re not preparing and attracting our own students to the high-paying professions that require four-year degrees; we’re going out of state to find them.

STAMM: I think our schools are doing a lot of things right, and so I don’t want to say there’s a crisis, but it seems both in this state and in this country, unless there’s a crisis or a perceived crisis, people will not respond. For the majority of our school children, their needs are not being met and they are not being adequately prepared to compete effectively [in the workplace].

THRASHER: One of the issues about quality of schools is a perception that quality is based on funding. A lot of people think we’re spending enough, but a lot of people also don’t understand the underlying facts that we have built-in mandates, we have built-in fixed costs, such as PERS, special education, ESL. Those costs are growing much faster than inflation. It requires administrators to spend much of their time managing the budget instead of managing programs and effectiveness. That’s what the challenge is.

We need to step back and reassess the whole continuum of education, pre-K to the workplace. We need to ask how we streamline it to make it relevant from a jobs perspective all the way back to those pre-K kids who need basic skills just to get ready for school. We need to look at the whole system, not just at the silos, which are separately broken. The biggest challenge we have is finding a new way to manage education so it’s more effective.

Ken, you’ve suggested looking at education as a continuum. What do others think?

ROMMEL: I would make sure there was a guaranteed educational program from pre-kindergarten, particularly for low-income students, to guaranteed attendance at an Oregon college if students meet some minimum achievement standard. One of the things I’ve noticed is that students tend to remain in the area where they go to college. If we are able to keep our best and brightest students in Oregon, then the concern that Morgan shared would lessen.

ANDERSON: I agree 100 percent with Ken’s comments about a continuum. One of the challenges we’ve had over the past decade is lack of funding. So there’s been a battle on the K-12 front, the higher education front, the pre-K front. It’s resulted in winners and losers. And higher education has taken the brunt of the cuts. That is such a short-sighted decision on the state’s front, because it’s higher education that fuels our economy. We need to stop fighting and look at funding as a whole, instead of looking at the silos.

THRASHER: If we started with the end in mind, which is improving student outcomes, the first question you would ask is what’s the benefit or loss of the student who drops out of high school versus one who finishes college. At the Quality Education Commission, we looked at four categories and compared the amount of taxes paid in Oregon against the amount of average services consumed, which included the Oregon Health Plan, food stamps, state-run social programs and being in the corrections system versus in a college. If you were a dropout, you cost Oregon $8,500 a year on average; if you were a high school graduate, you cost us $6,000; if you took a couple years of college, non-degreed, you cost us $1,300. But if you were a college graduate or you had some degreed program, you paid back $8,250. If I was looking at the system, my whole goal would be to create a heck of a lot more diverse, affordable access so more kids, more kids in need, could access the system.

How do you do that?

THRASHER: You need one database that follows kids through. You need a personal education plan starting no later than middle school, when the student’s interests and needs are starting to evolve. They might need a mentor. They might need a relationship. If we don’t do that in a very pragmatic way, many kids will fall out and become the statistics that Rep. Flores pointed to.

STAMM: We do need radical change. But I think Oregon and most of this country has been afraid of fairly radical change around public education. We need to look at the standards required to become a teacher, to become a principal, and we need to look at the whole employment structure. Do we need to talk about more competitive pay? Do we look at collective bargaining or do we look at employment at will? We need to provide the teachers the right tools. We need to give them continuing education opportunities and they need to be compensated and evaluated on their performance rather than their time in the position.

How do you break the logjam of vested interests?

FLORES: I think we should pick up the Nike mantra and just do it. It is not a friendly situation. We’ve had so many years of competing special interests that we just need to move forward and be willing to partner at every level, whether it’s with business, a university system, community colleges, K-12 advocates or the elected officials who have to implement policy. Everybody needs to be at the table.

THRASHER: The only way that will ever work is if the CEO, the governor of this state, says, “I am going to make it happen.” It has to start there because he controls all the departments. And the only way you can make change, and I really don’t care if they’re Democrat, Republican or Independent, is to bring all the parties to the table and provide a level of responsibility that makes action happen. We spend too much time in committees. You don’t see any corporations around here with 30 people running the ship. Somebody has to make a decision, and that’s the CEO — the governor. It’s got to happen there.

STAMM: Amen, brother. You have to have an education governor and you have to have a legislature that says, “I’m not making my decisions based on my next election.”

ANDERSON: There are definitely two issues, though. The first is funding; schools need to know what they’re working with. The second is what’s happening inside the classroom. They’re very much two separate issues. It’s important to keep the funding issues on the table and to keep working on them, but we can’t wait for that to be solved completely before we work on strong programs in the schools.

What is working now?

ROMMEL: I see instruction in the classroom improving. I see students at the high school level and even the middle school level getting some hands-on experience that is truly making a difference.

THRASHER: The Center for Advanced Learning in Gresham has three career paths for high school students. It has a nursing, technology and a manufacturing focus, and a consortium of schools working together to provide a curriculum for industry-based competency. The key there is competency. It’s performance. It’s not just taking a test in math, it’s how to apply it.

And that’s where a lot of the breakdown is and where kids drop out. The challenge we had early in the move toward a career-based program is that it was an add-on. When the first budget cuts came and they had to eliminate something, what did they eliminate? School-to-work programs.

If those programs are not integrated with the curriculum, four-year universities, the community colleges and [trade] schools, we’ve missed the boat. We have to determine what is quality education across the continuum, pre-K all the way through post-secondary.

Then we need to see what levels of accountability should be built in. They have to be understandable, because the common citizen has to understand how much is budgeted for their school down the street. They want to know what’s closest to home, how is that money being spent and how are their kids doing?

What else needs to be done?

ANDERSON: We need to make sure that we’re not missing [an employment] gap. We all hear about nursing shortages. But if you go to any of the nursing schools, you’ll find they have a lot of applicants. The high schools are probably doing a very good job encouraging students in that area. But there’s only about one spot for every nine applicants. So there is a disconnect.

THRASHER: We also have the issue of capital. There is no capital program in the system to effectively build and manage technology, the infrastructure, new school buildings. [We just can’t do] an operational budget analysis; we also need a capital analysis of the system and what it would take to make it more effective. We don’t use our capital very well.

ROMMEL: I don’t believe we’ve ever had enough money in schools to do the things that we as educators know would be good for students. But it’s a hard sell. The average person wants a good system, they want to support students and all the wonderful programs that might be possible, but they don’t know how much they can really contribute and they would like more done with less. Which is what we’ve been doing for quite a long time.

If only one thing should be accomplished in the next year to improve education, what should it be?

STAMM: The Oregon Department of Education, along with all school boards, should find a way to build in a transparent and accountable reporting system for every aspect of education from student performance to revenue and expenses.

FLORES: It’s pretty fundamental: regain the trust not only of the public, but of the Department of Education, those in the teaching areas, and the business community. And all of us should work together to do something very positive and move this whole education discussion forward.

ANDERSON: I would love to see every citizen get engaged in schools or with students in some way, shape or form, whether it’s hosting a job shadow as a businessperson, or signing up as a Smart Reader or a Big Brother/Big Sister.

THRASHER: Well, it’s an election year. But regardless, I would want the governor to come out with a strategic plan that addressed all the key elements in an integrated model. [I would want him] to bring all the key players to the table and reach some level of consensus so that we would at least have a road map.

ROMMEL: I’d like to see full-day kindergarten for all students in Oregon. Many states around the country are doing it. It would be an excellent start to reaching those high standards we’ve discussed today.

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