35 Years of Needing New Strategies

On February 14, 1982, then-Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer gave a speech to the Portland City Club. The title of the talk was, "If I Were Governor." Frohnmayer would run for governor, but not for another eight years. Until then, he would remain as Attorney General. He said something about Oregon's education system in that speech that I've referenced a few times in papers and assignments in graduate school.

Here's the quote: "We have dedicated teachers and administrators at every level from kindergarten through the community colleges. But we need new strategies. We still have dropout rates that are unacceptable, approaching 30%." He was referring to Oregon's low graduation rate. Since that declaration, many have decried the low percentage and called for new strategies, new ideas, new solutions. That's 35 years of needing new strategies. Oregon has instituted more than a handful of education reforms since then.

So, how are we doing? Today we got an update.

The saga continues. According to today's headline from the Oregonian, "Oregon's Graduation Rate Remains Third Worst in Nation.

This is both bad and unsurprising news. Oregon has been near the bottom for a long time now. The national news on the graduation rate front is more promising; here's a headline today from EdWeek: "U.S. Graduation Rate Hits New All-Time High, With Gains in All Student Groups." The national average is now 84%. Oregon's graduation rate? Almost ten full points lower at 74.8% -- a 1% increase over the previous year.

Betsy Hammond, education reporter at the Oregonian, pulled some damning data that conveys the scope of the problem and how serious it is. Consider the following two points from her write up:

1. "The only states that still have lower rates than Oregon -- Nevada and New Mexico -- both registered more year over year improvement at getting students to earn diplomas than Oregon did."

2. "All told, 8,358 students in Oregon's class of 2016 dropped out."

Hard to read, isn't it? Over 8,000 students who didn't make it past the public school finish line. 

Of course, there will be folks who decry the differences in methodology, and say it's not fair to compare Oregon, a state with relatively high requirements for graduation, with other states. I've written about this before. At some level, they are right that direct comparisons between states leave out critical context -- not just because of varying graduation requirements, but because of varying degrees of poverty, hunger, homelessness, english language learning students, and thousands of other variables, large and small.

At some level though, I think it's important to say enough is enough. Let's forget about the comparisons for a minute. Let's pretend we don't have data from a single other state. It's just Oregon. Don't we believe that 1 out of 4 students not graduating on time is a system failure? 

When I read numbers like 8,358, and when I think about the kids behind those statistics, I get impatient. 

Sure, it's helpful sometimes to frame the issue as a comparison among states. Oregonians don't like being near the bottom of national rankings -- we're not familiar with it because it's not who we are. We're independent. Innovative. We lead, not follow. If using state rankings as a political tool will motivate people to meaningful, significant action, then great (and by the way, I don't think state to state comparisons or overall rankings are useless figures. There is value in knowing where we stack up -- even if we have a different context than other states). 

The point, though, is this: 1 out of 4 is too many. 8,358 is too many. We have to do better.