Many variables will drive education plan's results

Jonathan J. Cooper / The Associated Press /

PORTLAND — If it works like the proponents say it will, Oregon’s plan to improve education will force school districts to focus intensely on producing successful graduates and will shine a light on the best — and worst — performers.

Many involved in the education system say there’s a lot of potential to improve that system built into Gov. John Kitzhaber’s plan to require that school districts sign achievement compacts with the state, spelling out results they’re expected to get from their students.

But for it to work, a lot of things will have to go right. Schools will have to set lofty but attainable goals and feel enough pressure to meet them. The state will have to have a solid infrastructure to help struggling schools learn from successful ones.

And looming over the whole discussion is the question of money: Can schools legitimately be expected to improve student achievement without more money? That’s far from a settled debate.

Oregon isn’t alone in experimenting with education reform, but the state is charting its own course and doesn’t have a successful blueprint to follow.

The plan is to force school districts, as part of their annual budget process, to set one-year and four-year targets for improvement on a number of measurements that are believed to be indicators of long-term student success — including third- and ninth-grade math and reading scores, sixth grade attendance, the number of college credits earned in high school and graduation rates.

The compacts also will track progress on closing achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students, and districts will have the option of creating up to three measurements of their own.

Proponents hope the exercise will spur superintendents and school boards to talk about the best ways to meet those specific benchmarks and to build their spending plans accordingly.

The plan is central to Oregon’s application to waive some portions of the federal No Child Left Behind education law, which is under review by the Obama administration. State officials hope they can replace the federal law’s requirements to continually improve test scores with compacts that incentivize a focus on college readiness. They want to replace rigid sanctions from the federal law with a system of support for struggling districts.

“The solution may not be to remove a principal or transfer teachers, but the solution may be that more time for tutoring and interventions for students is what’s needed,” said Tim Nesbitt, who is overseeing the development and implementation of the plan.

Will school districts set high enough standards?

But there are challenges. The districts will be setting their own targets, and it remains to be seen whether they’ll set the bar high enough for themselves. Also, the plan currently has no penalties, aside from public shame, for districts that fall short of meeting their own goals.

That’s fine for now, but “ultimately, there do have to be consequences for the low-performing schools,” said Sue Hildick, president of the Chalkboard Project, an Oregon education reform group that supports the achievement compacts.

Hildick also would like to see the compacts measure teacher quality but said she’s optimistic the compacts will shine a brighter spotlight on school-district decision-making and achievement.

Supporters talk of the potential for eventually asking the Legislature to create financial incentives that reward success or pay for improvement. Some say there’s a chance that negotiations with the Obama administration over the waiver application will require clearer sanctions for low-performing schools or more specific plans for helping them.

The prospects for success hinge in large part on the abilities of the chief education officer, a new education czar who will have broad authority to oversee the education system from prekindergarten through college. The person will be responsible for nudging school districts to set appropriate targets for themselves on their compacts. Officials say they hope to hire someone for the job in April.

The state also will need to have a solid infrastructure to intervene and help improve struggling districts.

“This is going to require a significant systemic change in the role at the Department of Education to be much more oriented around support and resources than it has been for the past number of years,” said Dana Hepper, advocacy director for Stand For Children, an education group.

In general, the concept has the support of a broad spectrum of the education community, including teachers unions, superintendents, school boards and various education reform groups. There’s disagreement, however, about whether it’s reasonable to expect schools to significantly improve their outcomes without more money.

Some legislators, as well as the Oregon Education Association, the largest teachers union, have warned that teachers are stretched thin after several years of budget cuts.

Others, including Kitzhaber, acknowledge that schools are underfunded but say the achievement compacts are designed to ensure the state is getting the best results possible for the money it is able to spend.