Initiative Background:  Oregon's Education Challenge

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Gauging the overall effectiveness of public education remains a challenge in Oregon. Today’s measurements show mixed results. At the high school level, one in three freshmen won’t earn a high school diploma in four years, if at all. Among graduating freshmen, only two-thirds will be prepared for college-level English, and fewer than half will be equipped for college algebra.

However, not all the news is discouraging. Progress abounds in many areas of Oregon’s education. Oregon has adopted new standards for high school diplomas that instill rigor in math, science and English. Before graduating, students starting with the class of 2012 will have to demonstrate proficiency in a defined set of essential skills. Our state is pioneering the use of data that gives teachers timely access to students’ test results, allowing them to adjust instruction to expedite learning. In 2008, Oregon was one of only five states to receive federal grants to support growth in the area of public charter schools.

In light of this backdrop, it’s critical to bear in mind that the biggest problem we face isn’t that schools are worse today than they were 30 or 40 years ago. It is that success in the 21st century hinges on all students acquiring knowledge and skills that prepare them for post-secondary education, working careers with family wage jobs, and civic engagement. To compete effectively in the global marketplace, Oregon must educate as many of its people as possible at the highest levels to which they aspire.

Driven by a competitive global economy, and information- and technology-based industries, employers now require workers with higher skills and more education than just a few decades ago. In today’s marketplace, all—not just some—students need a rigorous education to prepare them for college, work and citizenship. All high schools need to prepare all students for the high expectations that colleges and the business community hold for graduates. All of today’s young people, no matter their chosen careers, need the capability to master complex skills and commit to a lifetime of learning and change.

Hence, Oregon’s broad vision for education attainment and workforce development is captured in a simple formulation: “40-40-20.” It stipulates that 40% of students will go on to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, 40% will earn an associates degree or technical credential, and the remaining 20% will graduate from high school having acquired the skills necessary to be successful in work and citizenship

Three decades of national research demonstrates the positive effect of small schools, through their personalized learning environment, on improved academic performance and achievement. The Oregon Small School Initiative –  begun in 2003 and concluding when graduating students in class of 2010 accept their diplomas –  has drawn from best practices at the nation’s small schools then designed a program unique to the opportunities and needs of our state.

Based on a variety of measures – including student achievement, graduation rates and drop out rates – small high schools in Oregon can deliver on the promise of education for all students. They offer a viable education alternative and promising results in improving academic performance and closing the achievement gap.