Surveying the road to the state's '40-40-20' goal

In 2011, the Oregon Legislature passed a law that includes the "40-40-20" goal. This goal states that, by the year 2025, 40 percent of adult Oregonians will hold a bachelor's or advanced degree, 40 percent will hold an associate degree or postsecondary certificate, and the remaining 20 percent will hold, at the very least, a high school diploma or equivalent.

As a teacher, I have two reactions to this legislation, reactions that are almost diametrically opposed to each other. The cynic in me can't imagine 40-40-20 ever succeeding. On the other hand, my "inner optimist" believes that 40-40-20 is not only possible, but is actually a viable goal that can, I hope, be accomplished without diluting the curriculum or lowering our expectations for students.

For me as a teacher, this is an important issue, one I think of often. Each morning when I arrive at Rogue Community College, where I have taught for 15 years, I perform what may seem like a silly ritual. I pause at a bulletin board in the hallway where the school's Core Values and Core Themes are posted, and I take a moment to contemplate these guiding ideas. At RCC our core values include: excellence, integrity, respect, innovation and stewardship. Core themes are: advance student learning, promote student access and success, strengthen our diverse communities, and model stewardship.

Possibly I'm a Pollyanna, but I believe my morning meditation on values and themes provides me with a good grounding and focus for the day ahead. At the same time, though, there is some discomfort and a subliminal question that nags me: Are these goals realistic, and do they conflict with each other?

What may not be apparent to non-teachers is the contradiction embedded in the school's stated philosophy, a paradox that challenges the faculty to walk a razor's edge between our longing for student success on the one hand and a quest for excellence and personal integrity on the other.

This struggle is not unique to RCC; it is already evident in high schools, colleges and universities throughout Oregon. In the years ahead, particularly as we strive to fulfill the goal of 40-40-20, the tension between excellence and success will only intensify.

To get the flavor of the challenge faced by educators, follow me or one of my colleagues into a classroom for a day or two. What will strike you is the range of student ages, personalities, attitudes and skill levels found in the typical college classroom.

Many of our students arrive strongly equipped with the skills, personal qualities and positive attitude that predispose them for success. On the other hand, a minority of students, but a large and significant minority, arrive having never experienced success in a classroom. Their attitude toward school is nothing if not jaundiced, and they don't seem to know why, or even whether, they should be sitting in a college classroom.

These particular students constitute what amounts to a collective cliché in the way they present themselves in class. For example, if mere surliness seems insufficient, they may express their disdain for the educational process by sitting in the back row of the classroom, or by arriving late or unprepared.

But unexpected things, both positive and negative, can happen in college classrooms. For example, some of those bright-eyed, enthusiastic and skillful students previously referred to may end up dropping out of college, never to return — the sad truth is, that does happen. On the other end of the spectrum, and perhaps even more surprising, some of the "back-row slackers" change course, get with the program, discover their inner scholar and eventually graduate, sometimes with honors.

My fear is that we may be tempted to lower our academic standards so students can graduate just for the sake of graduating. Clearly, we should avoid that pitfall. Instead, if 40-40-20 is destined to succeed, we need to address the aspirations of all students and find ways to prevent them from slipping through our fingers.

We shouldn't take those skillful and highly motivated students for granted — they need encouragement and recognition just as less-skillful students need that kind of support. Conversely, we need to find a way to seduce those "back-row slackers" into changing their behavior and, most importantly, their attitude about their own worth and abilities. If we can do that, then 40-40-20 is a goal we can achieve.

Greg Marton is an instructor in the social science department at Rogue Community College, where he has taught for the past 15 years.

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