Oregon races toward the bottom
By applying for federal money under President Obama's "Race to the Top" schools fund, Oregon accidentally outed itself as a state ambling toward the bottom.
This is embarrassing for a state that, not long ago, prided itself as a true education innovator. It's also expensive, since Oregon will help pay for the $4 billion federal program and receive none of the benefits.
Mostly, Oregon's public failure is a red flag for parents worried about the quality of their children's education and for employers concerned about the strength of the local hiring pool. Oregon is slipping badly on the education front — and this time, money is not to blame.
Forty states applied for grant money under the Race to the Top fund, a major program intended to leverage change in local schools by tying money to specific improvement strategies, such as replacing ineffective principals and doing more effective teacher evaluations.
The most ambitious states worked overtime to earn a place at the innovators' table, even passing special legislation to position themselves for success.
Oregon dutifully applied for $200 million. Its application was ranked as 7th worst, also known as "34th best" in more affirmative circles.
Federal reviewers saw Oregon's plans as vague and unfocused, as The Oregonian's Betsy Hammond reported more than a week ago. Reviewers also noticed that the state seemed to lack authority to intervene in the state's lowest performing schools.
No matter how much the state tried to puff up its innovative prowess, the feds managed to size up Oregon fairly accurately as a small-hat, some-cattle state.
To be clear, this lack of boldness and urgency is true only at the state level. Many districts and individual schools in Oregon have shown signs of true innovation. The Tillamook School District in coastal Oregon, for example, has made breakthroughs with students by embracing a grass-roots program called CLASS, intended to help schools define and reward effective teaching.
This program, a brainchild of the ever-persistent nonprofit Chalkboard Project, has expanded to 12 districts in Oregon with eight more reportedly on the waiting list. Done right, bottom-up efforts like this can help compensate for inertia at the top — and even spark systemic change over time.
But for now, Oregon schools have a quiet crisis on their hands.
The state schools superintendent and governor have focused more on money than quality. The state school board seems almost sheepish about raising expectations. Parents and teachers are worn out by the state's volatile style of school funding. The Legislature's Democratic majority takes its cues from the state teachers union, which listens mostly to itself.
The Oregon Education Association signed onto the Race for the Top application, but with no measurable enthusiasm. The Portland Association of Teachers took pains to oppose the application and publicly express irritation at the idea of "reform."
This is the Oregon we've become.
It's hard to believe we'd want to stay this way.