Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Oregon Trail of Education Reform the State Has Launched a Sweeping Plan That Pays Particular Attention to Potential Dropouts

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Oregon Trail of Education Reform the State Has Launched a Sweeping Plan That Pays Particular Attention to Potential Dropouts

Article excerpt

IT'S a delight for Bob McBain to teach his 10th-grade advanced literary analysis class. Instead of slouching in back-row seats, the teenagers crowd toward the front of the room to discuss 19th-century novels and poetry. Discipline is no problem among these academic achievers headed for college.

Unfortunately, as with most high schools in the United States, that is not the full story here in Ashland, Ore.

Another recent snapshot would show Vice Principal Marvin Dunn, in charge of attendance and discipline, encountering a young man in the hall.

"We'd like you to come in for a talk about your career," he says cheerily.

"Huh?" comes the reply from beneath the baseball cap.

"Your plans for the future..."

"Huh?"

"We'd like to discuss whether there's any possibility you could graduate this spring."

"Uh... OK."

Oregon has just launched an ambitious and innovative public-education reform plan aimed specifically at the one in four youngsters who drop out before they finish high school - and, more broadly, the 70 percent of all graduating students whose formal education abruptly stops at that level.

But beyond that, it seeks to invigorate a state-education system that - like those around the country - has seen standardized test scores drop as worry increases about a "crisis" in education, a work force unprepared to compete in a high-tech, global economy.

"The Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century" signed into law last summer reflects the recommendations of a 1990 report by the National Center on Education and the Economy titled "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages."

The legislation goes beyond the goals outlined by President Bush in April, and it is being closely watched by other states now looking for ways to educate a more productive work force.

The plan includes expanding Head Start and other early-childhood programs to cover all eligible children; ungraded primary classrooms through grade 3; performance-based assessments at grades 3, 5, 8, and 10; and the requirement that all students earn a "Certificate of Initial Mastery" at about age 16 or the 10th grade in core academic subjects, plus critical thinking, problem-solving, and communications skills.

After that, students would spend two or three years working toward a "Certificate of Advanced Mastery," with emphasis on college preparation or professional/ technical courses and on-the-job training in such areas as business marketing or health services.

The plan also includes "Learning Centers" to help dropouts up to age 21 attain the Certificate of Initial Mastery; gives a greater policy and management role to teachers and parents; involves private businesses in developing job-training programs; sets up an "Oregon Report Card" to track the performance of individual schools; allows for parents under certain circumstances to choose among public schools; and extends the school year from 175 days to 220 days by the year 2010.

The goal, says state Rep. Vera Katz, the Portland Democrat who was the bill's chief sponsor in the Oregon legislature, is to have "the best educated and trained citizens in the nation by the year 2000 and a work force equal to any in the world by the year 2010."

But in explaining the state plan to parents, teachers, and students at the Ashland Middle School recently, state Superintendent of Education Norma Paulus also emphasized that "it is not our purpose to take our five- and six-year-olds and stick them as fodder into an economic cannon."

"The goal is that every child be proficient in a basic curriculum, that they be critical thinkers," she said. "So let's keep our priorities straight."

The bill passed with little opposition in both houses of the legislature and has the strong backing of Gov. Barbara Roberts. The state school-boards association, the teachers' union, and business leaders around the state also participated in crafting the reform measure. …

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