As high school students across the state celebrate graduation this month, Oregon is three years into a grand reform of its education system that sets a high standard for how many of them should earn that high school diploma.
John Kitzhaber launched the effort at the start of his third term as governor in January 2011, when he described an early version of what became his 40-40-20 goal for education.
In his inaugural address, he focused on the class of 2020 and said at least 80 percent should get two years of post-secondary education and 40 percent should go on for four or more years. By the time the Legislature passed his reforms later that year, the plan had been refined into “40-40-20” and applied to the class of 2025. The goal is for 40 percent to get a bachelor’s degree or more, 40 percent to get an associate’s degree or certificate and the remaining 20 percent to have a high school diploma.
Translation: The goal is for 100 percent of this year’s first-graders to graduate from high school in 2025, this in a state where the four-year graduation rate climbed only a few points in recent years to land at 68.7 percent in 2013.
So is the goal realistic?
The careful response from many educators is that the goal is “aspirational.”
To try to meet that aspirational goal, the state and its 197 school districts have spent untold hours and dollars on dozens of programs.
To mention just a few:
• Increased focus and a revamped system for early childhood education and social services.
• Implementation of achievements compacts in which local districts set goals for graduation rates, third-grade reading levels and ninth-grade credits earned, among others. College and university compacts include targets for number of degrees granted.
• New methods of rating schools, with extra help going to those with low performance.
• Renewed emphasis on helping high school students to earn college credits before they graduate.
• A revised teacher evaluation system with an emphasis on professional development.
New methods to advance the goal continue to be proposed:
• Last week, Oregon schools chief Rob Saxton suggested schools that help low-income ninth graders earn at least six credits should receive extra funding, at the expense of other schools that have fewer poor students. As much as $10 million could be redirected if the Legislature agrees to this approach.
• In Central Oregon, local educators are working on ways to make more college courses available in high schools. Success may depend on lowering the qualifications required for those who teach such courses.
No doubt many of these initiatives will have a positive impact. The risk is that in the drive to grant credits and degrees, the standards supporting them could be scaled back, eroding the underlying education and making the credits and degrees less valuable.