Oregon’s Opportunity to Transform Education

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Ruth Beyer, OBA Education and Executive Committee member, recently co-penned an op-ed regarding education reform.  The article, which ran in the Medford Mail Tribune, is below and you can also click here to read it online.

Oregon’s Opportunity to Transform Education
By: Ruth Beyer, Margaret Kirkpatrick, and Daniel Thorndike
Tuesday, April 5, 2011

This is a critical time for education in Oregon. With the state’s slow climb from the recession and costs for essentials like public safety and health care rising fast, Oregon schools cannot count on increased financial support from the state. At the same time, and now more than ever, the quality of our educational system will determine our future prosperity.

These tough times give us an opportunity to transform our education system to focus on outcomes — for students and the state — instead of focusing solely on the final state funding amount.

So what are the problems that need fixing? Three rise to the top of the list.

First, our funding models are badly out of date. State dollars now are distributed based on enrollment numbers, not on whether particular investments will achieve the desired results. The focus should be on outcomes and proficiency, not on the amount of “seat time” a student has spent in the classroom.

We must take our education budget out of separate “silos” for pre-K, K-12, community colleges and universities. To accomplish this we need to:

  • Create a unified, transparent and student-centered budget that will help decision-makers shape priorities and make effective public investments. Education dollars should follow the student, not the institution.
  • Align curriculum standards, proficiencies and assessments across the education continuum — from preschool through graduation — to prepare each student for the next educational level and to be ready to work and contribute.
  • Develop a uniform, integrated and automated student data system to facilitate the efficient transfer of credits between schools as well as between education segments.

In practice, these changes would mean that a student would have to demonstrate mastery of a subject or skill before he or she could move on to more advanced work. They also would mean that a high school student who is proficient in particular subjects could move seamlessly on to community college and university courses—and have those courses count toward a degree.

Second, we need to recognize the key roles for teachers and principals in these reforms and give them professional stakes in the results. We need to reward and incentivize our strong teachers while also making it possible to move ineffective teachers out of the system. We can establish more accountability and better results in the classroom by adopting meaningful assessments and evaluations, as well as offering coaching and mentoring to help hard-working teachers and principals become even stronger in their professions.

Third, the governance structure for our higher education system reduces the resources available to our universities and creates a barrier to learning and teaching. We support legislation (Senate Bill 242) now moving forward, that would free our universities from the burdens and limits of state agency status. We also think the Legislature should support Gov. John Kitzhaber’s call to combine the funding work of the State Board of Education, the Board of Higher Education and the Student Assistance Commission into one Oregon Education Investment Board.

It’s trite but true: No good crisis should go to waste. Our crisis is a weak economy and an education system that is quickly losing ground. Our opportunity is to fundamentally change that system. For Oregon to compete effectively in a global economy, we must educate our children and retrain our work force to much higher levels than the past has demanded. Oregon’s bright future depends on the transformation of our education system so it can produce an army of well-educated, highly skilled employees and citizens. We call on our legislators to begin this transformation today.

Margaret Kirkpatrick is vice president and general counsel at NW Natural and chairwoman of the Associated Oregon Industries Education Committee. Ruth Beyer is an attorney and partner at Stoel Rives LLP and a member of the Oregon Business Association Education Committee. Daniel Thorndike is corporate counsel at Medford Fabrication and a member of the Associated Oregon Industries Education Committee.