Tom McCall's Oregon Spirit and Lucy in the Chocolate Factory

A story in four parts.

Part I: What Makes Oregon Special

Oregon is a special place, and not just because of geography. Mountains, forests, beaches, high deserts -- we have all that. But we also have an identity. Governor Tom McCall, perhaps the greatest Oregonian of all time, put it this way: "There's a spirit here that says, let's dare to try things. Let's see why you can do things, rather than let's see why you can't." That spirit was alive and well when Oregon was led by giants like McCall and Bob Straub. Public beaches, the bottle bill, land use planning, then later vote by mail, the Oregon Health Plan, the Oregon Salmon Plan, death with dignity -- all that started in Oregon. We're a place that crafts solutions to big problems; Oregon doesn't shrink in the face of challenges, we rise to them.

Oregon's history of innovation and imagination was -- and should continue to be -- a source of pride. But it would be a shame if that Oregon spirit became only a chapter of the Oregon story rather than a fundamental part of who we are. It would be a shame if we let mediocrity become normal here.

There's one area where we lag behind the rest of the country.

Part II: Work to be Done

Oregon has one of the worst high school graduation rates in the country. Oregon also has the highest rate of chronic absenteeism in the country, and it's getting worse. One if five Oregon kids are chronically absent from school, which is especially stunning when you consider that Oregon already has a shorter school year than most other states. We also have some of the largest class sizes in the United States. In general, performance on standardized tests range from discouraging to dismal. These challenges disproportionately impact students of color and students who come from low income families.

This is a big deal. It's a massive, complicated, entrenched public policy problem. Decades of disinvestment contributed to this, but it's about more than money.

There's an awful lot of time spent trying to figure out who to blame and not enough time spent trying to figure out how to make things better. 

Part III: Lucy in the Chocolate Factory

My mom is the best teacher I know.

She pours her heart into her profession. It's who she is. Teaching is more of a calling than a job for people like my mom.

She's an English teacher. She lets her students re-write their papers to improve their grades because she knows they need the extra help to get better -- even though it's meant many, many more hours of extra (and uncompensated) work for her. She spends weeknights reading and responding to journals, where she reads secrets that no one else has heard. She stays late after school to help students with essays and college applications, and to provide a safe place for students to hang out. She writes more letters of recommendation than you can imagine -- including for students who have won life-changing scholarships and admission to schools that altered their trajectories in life. She has picked students up in the middle of the night because they needed a ride home and didn't know who else to call. She's also let students stay at her home, with her family, when they were kicked out by hateful and selfish parents. 

My mom has been a high school English teacher for virtually her entire adult life, and she's nearing retirement. A few years ago, she was asked if she wanted her children to follow her path (and her father's before her) into teaching. She said no.

My mom is like Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory, where the conveyor belt churns out chocolate faster than Lucy can wrap them. Every year, new kids walk into her classroom. Some can barely read, others barely speak English. Many face daunting barriers to academic success: abuse, neglect, divorce, addiction, incarceration, and illness. It's my mom's job to prepare these students, all of them, for life after high school -- and she has one semester to do it. She is a single teacher helping as many students as she can during a small window of their lives -- but she's just one person at one small school. She can't save every student. She alone cannot repair a statewide system of education.

Part IV: Now What?

At the macro level, Oregon's education problems are devastating. One out of five students chronically absent? Almost a quarter of students not graduating on time? It's not hard to imagine the negative impacts economically: lower lifetime incomes (and less tax revenue), more incarceration, greater reliance on government services. We know these are the consequences when students slip through the cracks in our system. And what about the impact on our democracy? It's in all of our best interest to have an education system that produces better outcomes. As JFK would say, a rising tide lifts all boats. Today, instead of a high tide, the water is choppy with high peaks and low valleys -- it's not sustainable and, in the long run, hurts everyone. 

But think about the micro level. Think about the kids in my mom's classroom. For a lot of those kids, public school is their last best shot at building a better life. Those kids deserve more than a shortened school year, a crowded classroom, overworked teachers, and a boring class schedule. That's not good enough.

There's an interesting debate about what we can reasonably expect education to do. Are we asking too much of a system that was designed to do much less? Can the education system solve major social problems? Can it help address poverty or racism? Is it even a reliable mechanism for social mobility anymore? I'm not sure what the answers to those questions are. There are very smart people on all sides of the debate.

But here's what I do know: we can produce better outcomes for students. McMinnville High School proves that. With 60% low income students and about one third Latino students (including a large percentage of English Language Learners), McMinnville School District is scoring 20% higher than the state average on standardized tests, and they're graduating Latino and ELL students at a staggering 20% higher rate than the state average. They are doing something right. McMinnville is one example, but there are others. There are reasons to be excited and optimistic about the future of Oregon's education system.

This is the battle that I want to be part of. I want to be on the team that figures out how to do for every Oregon kid what McMinnville is doing for its kids, and what my mom does for the kids in her classroom. That's why I'm studying education policy, organization, and leadership studies at Stanford. That's why my capstone project is about Oregon's graduation rates. This stuff is complex and hard and sometimes discouraging -- but it's also important. There are no easy answers or quick fixes -- and progress in the education world tends to be slow. Sometimes incremental improvement over decades is all you can hope for. No matter how long it takes, building an education system that better serves and prepares Oregon kids is a goal worth pursuing. It's a challenge that warrants Tom McCall's Oregon spirit, which has long defined our approach to solving intractable problems: thinking big, rejecting conventional wisdom, and using imagination to find a better way.