Gov. John Kitzhaber wants to "reset" Oregon's education system, including placing more emphasis on the pre-kindergarten years and changing the way the state pays for English language learners.
SPRINGFIELD — Gov. John Kitzhaber wants to "reset" Oregon's education system, including placing more emphasis on the pre-kindergarten years and changing the way the state pays for English language learners.
In what was billed as a "state of the schools" address, Kitzhaber said Tuesday he wants to get beyond the continual battles over how much money schools get and "have a relentless focus on results for students."
"The fact that we do not have all the resources we need does not negate the imperative for deep systemic changes. In fact, it only increases the urgency," Kitzhaber said. "We may not be able to do more for awhile, but we have to do better now."
The governor's speech at Springfield High School came as most students were heading back to class, and as districts around the state face another year of steep cuts in the number of teachers, school days and course offerings.
Kitzhaber sounded a number of themes, most of them underlining his approach to schools since he was elected to a third term. Among them, he wants schools to zero in on student outcomes and proficiencies, and he wants them to cater more to the individual student.
Students should be tested to determine gaps in their knowledge in a move beyond standardized testing. They should be given the flexibility to fill those gaps, whether that means taking an extra year of high school or finding an internship that does the trick.
"We are taking a 'tight and loose' approach," Kitzhaber said. "Tight in the outcomes the state expects from local educators, but loose on how those outcomes are achieved."
The governor set a goal of 100 percent of students achieving a high school diploma; 80 percent of them going on to spend at least two years in post-high school learning or training; and half of them earning a bachelor's degree or higher.
He said he wants to give teachers more autonomy to reach those goals.
"The state does not run the schools. The state invests in schools," Kitzhaber says. "As long as students are progressing and succeeding, why shouldn't we let go of some of the cumbersome and wearying regulation the state hands down?"
Response to the speech, from those who sat in a stuffy, echoing gymnasium to hear it, and from those who read a copy later, was a mix of enthusiasm for his approach and skepticism that it can happen when districts are so pressed for dollars.
Katy Kingsbury, a teacher at Mt. Vernon Elementary, said she was impressed by Kitzhaber's plan to invest more in early learning so children are better prepared when they enter kindergarten.
"It's really, really important," Kingsbury said. "I work with kindergartners and most of them don't come in with the skills they need to be ready to learn." But, Kingsbury wanted to know, "where's the money going to come from? There's no money. None."
Allyson Hazelhurst, who teaches at Yolanda Elementary School, said the governor said what needs to be said about schools. "My gut reaction is, he was very honest with us. It's discouraging, but it's reality."
Kitzhaber said Oregon needs to look for inspiration back to the generation that fought World War II, created the GI Bill and built the interstate highway system. He got personal, choking up briefly when he talked about calling his father, who fought in Normandy, and "thanking him for saving the world."
On pre-kindergarten, Kitzhaber has established an Early Learning Council that will take the $750 million of state and federal money spent on a host of programs for at-risk children and put them under one roof. His plan is to set up "neighborhood service areas" around elementary schools with a single family support manager whose job is to ensure children who need services are identified early and given the support they need.
On English learners, he suggested that instead of the state paying extra for ESL students, it offer incentives to accelerate their ability to master the language.
Kitzhaber also went out of his way to compliment teachers, saying he knows many feel demoralized about the continual demands for test results. He called for more mentoring of new teachers, and more time for teachers to collaborate during the school day.
Sue Levin, executive director of Stand For Children, which wants more effective schools, praised the governor for talking about specifics and not backing down about the need for big changes.
"He's set a high bar for what he wants to do," Levin said. "He's talking about transforming the education system. It's easy for people to be cynical about that."
Gail Rasmussen, president of the Oregon Education Association, said she found the speech inspiring but is counting on the governor to follow through and find the revenue to support the education system he described. Having all children arrive at kindergarten prepared by quality preschool, increasing teacher collaboration and offering low-income middle school students a summer ramp-up program to high school "seems to reflect what educators really are dreaming about in this day and age," she said.
"But if the governor doesn't take the lead to make these dreams come true by leading our state through some real revenue reform, it is going to be difficult," Rasmussen said.