Something is Wrong with This Picture

This week, InterMountain Education Service District Superintendent Mark Mulvihill made some interesting comments to My Columbia Basin, a news organization that covers Eastern Oregon. Here's an excerpt from the story:

InterMountain Education Service District Superintendent Mark Mulvihill is tired of hearing politicians on the campaign trail playing politics with public education. He says it’s become popular to complain that Oregon’s education system is bad.

“You can run on a platform to say, ‘I’m going to improve it, because it’s so bad,’ when in fact, that’s not an accurate statement,” he said. “Evidently, it’s politically advantageous to make that statement, but it’s also crippling.”

Mulvihill went on to use the example of high school graduation rates. Oregon has one of the highest bars to graduate from high school, so it's an unfair comparison to say we're the worst, he argues. He also said that "decrying public education" hurts the people who work in schools and makes for a toxic atmosphere for students.

Mulvihill makes a good point about graduation rates. He's right about Oregon's standards; they are higher than most other states. That's a choice we, via our state government, made over the last several decades. Other states have made a different set of choices. However, I do think there is some value in comparing our outcomes, including our graduation rate, against the outcomes of other states -- regardless of where each of us sets the bar for our students (the bar can be moved, and it often is) -- while keeping in mind the context of the outcomes. There's also the fact that, while no state has a higher credit requirement than Oregon, nine other states have the same requirement. We would be at or near the bottom of that collection of states, too. 

Besides, regardless of what other states decide to do, Oregon has decided what we think a high school student ought to demonstrate in order to graduate (our graduation requirements) -- and only three out of four of our kids are able to achieve that. That should tell us something. 

But even if we take out the comparative piece on Oregon's graduation rates, Oregon, by statute, has set its own goals for education outcomes: 40-40-20. By 2025, 40% of students with a bachelor's degree or higher, 40% with an associate's degree or post-secondary credential, and 20% with a high school diploma or equivalent. That's the state's goal. There is an ongoing debate in Oregon about whether 40-40-20 is a strategic goal or "a vision without a plan" or a charade. That debate aside, 40-40-20 is on the books today and not many people think we're on track for 100% graduation by 2025. Whether this is an indictment of an underfunded education system, an incoherent education system, or an ineffective education system (or some combination of the three) is unclear, but it is clear that something is wrong with this picture. 

There's also measures that are more consistent across states, like chronic absenteeism. Oregon is near the bottom in that, too. There's also the length of the school year, another place where Oregon ranks near the bottom. There's also class size, where Oregon again ranks near the bottom.

I don't think teachers or administrators should be scapegoats for a system that isn't working -- or at least isn't working as well as we want it to. Teachers are already more stressed than the average person, because they have incredibly difficult jobs. Teachers don't control how much money is invested in the State School Fund. They don't control state education policy. They don't even have much say in the allocation of resources. 

However, I do think we need to face the facts. I'm somewhat ambivalent about whether our disappointment ought to stem from how we perform relative to other states, or from how we perform relative to our own expectations, or simply from data that is not good enough. It is important, however, that we are disappointed, and we don't sugarcoat reality. One out of four students not graduating on time should be disappointing. We should also channel that disappointment into something more productive. We should want better investments and better outcomes for our students.

We should expect more from our system of education -- and we should be willing to criticize that system and its outcomes without pointing fingers at each other and fighting amongst ourselves. That's how we'll get better.