Oregon's graduation rate, among worst in nation, inches up 1 percent
1.2 million students drop out of high school every year, many falling into a cycle of poverty, unemployment and violence. Get the facts on the graduation crisis and how we can end it.
Why Is Oregon's
Graduation Rate So Low?
Oregons high school graduation rate is bad. No, really bad.
In 2013, Oregons graduation rate was the lowest of any state in the country, at 68.7 percent. It did get a hair better in 2014.
Oregons 2014 graduation rate was 72 percent, noted Salam Noor, Oregons deputy superintendent of public instruction. This is better than it had been historically and we anticipate our national ranking will look better when this most recent data is factored in.
We dont have 2014 grad rates for the rest of the country yet, but if you assume all other state grad rates stayed flat from 2013 to 2014, Oregons 72 percent rate would surpass only four states: Alaska, Georgia, Nevada and New Mexico.
When looking at overall graduation rates across the United States, Oregon is second to the bottom, jsut ahead of Washington, D.C.
Oregons increase from 2013 to 2014 was driven by a change in definition of whos a graduate. It now includes students who earn modified diplomas and students who stay in school after satisfying their graduation requirements, often to take discounted college classes.
But top officials in Oregon acknowledge that such tweaks arent a solution.
Oregon can do better, and we will do better, Gov. Kate Brown said.
In fact, Oregon has set a goal that by 2025, students will graduate high school at a 100 percent rate. To get there, school leaders need to know whats not working.
OPB reached out to a diverse group of Oregonians with various connections to the states schools to find out what they think the problems are.
A few big causes emerged.
Dont Value Education
While weve just invested nearly $100 million in early childhood education and made a double-digit increase in state support for public schools, this comes after decades of under-investment, said Gov. Brown.
Lew Frederick is a Democratic state representative from North Portland, and used to work at Portland Public Schools in communications, and before that, as a teacher.
He draws a direct line between funding cuts and students struggling to graduate.
One example is drop out retrieval programs, Frederick said. There have been successful efforts to bring back kids who are floundering, and get them into a program they can stay engaged with. Those successful efforts were highly case managed, individualized. As we reduced the number of adults in the schools, those became impossible to maintain.
Fredericks sentiments are echoed by Hanna Vaandering, the president of the Oregon Education Association, the statewide teachers union.
Missing most are those educators who are specifically trained to mentor and care for children at risk for dropping out, Vaandering said. There are fewer specialists for children with learning disabilities, there are fewer counselors and mental health providers, and there are fewer college and career advisers.
Republican leaders in Salem are also pointing to lack of funding as a problem underlying Oregons underachievement in schools. Bend Republican Tim Knopp is the vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee. He agrees funding is a problem. He blames Democrats.
[Helping students graduate] will require better funding and making education a priority, Knopp said. Democrats have failed to make our kids a priority and have dis-invested in education at all levels and the results have been disappointing.
Although Oregons funding is below the national average, its not at the very bottom, like the states graduation rate. Oregon ranks 32nd in average per-student spending, according to Governing magazine.
Republican Tootie Smith served in the Oregon Legislature from 2001 to 2005, and has been a Clackamas County commissioner since 2012.
While many point to lack of funding as the cause of low graduation rates, I disagree, Smith said.
"Education begins at home and the
value parents place on it." Tootie Smith, Clackamas County
Comparing high school graduation rates
of students who met the third grade reading benchmark and
those who didn't. 77.1% met; 53.6% Didn't Meet
The correlation isnt lost on Oregon Gov. Brown.
My focus on early learning investments, especially in providing wraparound services and supports for children and families, will help close these gaps, Brown said. So, too, will our investments in high-quality teaching and learning for every child focused on supporting effective school leaders and teachers in our schools and classrooms.
In an increasingly diverse state, closing these gaps is central to boosting graduation rates and improving outcomes for all of our students, said Browns deputy superintendent, Noor.
More than 115,000 Oregon children are living in poverty a rate higher than the national average and nearly half (49 percent) qualify for free or reduced lunch, points out Vaandering, with the Oregon Education Association. Poverty impacts learning in more ways than we can count, but one tangible impact is mobility. When a child has to start, and re-start at a new school or in a new program, they can fall behind on their credits, making it difficult to graduate.
While childhood poverty is certainly a challenge in Oregon, the problem doesnt necessarily mean low graduation rates in other states. The Childrens Defense Fund ranks Oregon 28th in child poverty. Mississippi is 50th, but graduates a greater share of its students (76 percent).
Its clear that Oregons achievement gaps show up in the graduation rate in a big way. Oregons African American graduation rate (57 percent), Native American rate (52 percent), and graduation rate for low-income students (60.4 percent) are among the two or three worst, nationally.
From a statistical standpoint, one of
the biggest reasons Oregons grad rate is in the
national basement is its majority white student population.
Oregons 71 percent white graduation rate is lower than
any other state by at least six percentage
Oregon Lacks A
Culture Of Learning
Im a firm believer that education begins at home and the value parents place on it. As parents we teach values to our children. We start by reading to them at an early age at birth and continue throughout their preschool years, Smith said. This interaction requires parents to turn off the TV, put away the electronics and skip adult entertainment in the evenings that causes separation from our children. These actions by us as parents teaches our children the value of reading and books, therefore learning.
But Smith said too often, this isnt happening.
Eliza Erhardt-Eisen is a former pediatrician, current school volunteer, and the mother of three children who attended Portland Public Schools. She said Oregons graduation numbers have one major cause.
Oregon culture where young folks come to retire and no one wants to work too hard or hold staff, parents or kids accountable, Erhardt-Eisen said. Truly prioritizing education is not in the culture here.
Like Smith, Erhardt-Eisen said parents have the wrong attitude about school.
They frequently take their kids out during the school year for vacations because it is cheaper and easier for the family, Erhardt-Eisen said.
Absenteeism can become a major problem in Oregon, as discovered by The Oregonians Betsy Hammond last year in her Empty Desks series, and before that in research from ECONorthwest. The 2012 ECONorthwest study found lower attendance rates led to lower achievement. Oregons Quality Education Commission has found that 10th graders who attend school regularly are 172 percent more likely to graduate than those who dont.
But Erhardt-Eisen said teachers are part of the cultural problem, as well often lacking the necessary work ethic and professionalism the job requires. She compared her experience in Portland with the schools in Nashville, Tennessee (a state that graduates 86 percent of students).
Teachers in Nashville Public Schools worked a longer school year, taught 45 minutes longer per day, had 6 report cards (vs 4 here) per year, and a lot of classwork came home weekly in elem school so I knew what my child was learning, Erhardt-Eisen said. My youngest had 2 years at (her Portland elementary school) where almost no writing and very few assessments came home the entire year. We call those her lost years.
Thomas Lauderdale is the bandmaster of international touring band, Pink Martini. Hes also a graduate and former student body president of Portlands Grant High School. He laments the teaching profession - but blames high turnover in a very demanding profession.
At a certain point, teachers throw up their hands - requirements, incredible pressure, a classroom of 30 people who learn in different ways - its staggeringly overwhelming, Lauderdale said.
The National Council on Teacher Quality lists Oregon among the bottom 12 states for its teacher policies, including the lowest possible grade for exiting ineffective teachers. Oregon does earn an average rating for retaining effective teachers.
However, Lauderdale says education shortcomings are more a result of Oregon parents and community members who expect something for nothing and lack empathy for the challenges facing public schools.
One consequence of Oregons below-average funding is that the school year tends to be shorter than in other parts of the country. Portland school board member Steve Buel said that delivers a message to school communities.
The short school year in Oregon seems to suggest it is OK for students to not take school seriously, Buel said.
Not everyone wants to go to
college, not everyone can afford to go to college." Special
education teacher Brett Bigham, 2014 Oregon Teacher of the
Pink Martini bandleader Lauderdale said for average students, theres so few compelling reasons to stay in school.
Lauderdale said if there isnt something that someone totally loves, and its just a bunch of drudgery then students will tune out.
Lauderdale is accustomed to figuring out ways to keep audiences coming back to experience what he does as a musician. He says the challenge is not that different from how teachers and school leaders should approach students.
When I think about putting shows together for the band, if I want to attract audiences to our shows, I have to think about making these shows matter - bringing in guests, things are coming and going, Lauderdale said. In the same way, schools should be a place not to be missed.
Several respondents said there was too much attention on standardized tests and their results, and too little focus on the joy of learning at every grade level. Some found the narrowing of the curriculum took the place of programs that were more relevant to what students wanted to do in life.
Heather Ficht directs youth programs at Worksystems, Inc. a non-profit aimed at improving the Portland-area workforce. Ficht said students want what theyre learning to matter.
There is a disconnect between what happens in school and what happens in the world outside school, Ficht said. Context matters if we can do a better job of connecting classroom learning to learning outside the classroom, it makes a difference.
Brett Bigham was Oregons Teacher of the Year in 2014, and has spent years working with students with special needs. He agreed that Oregon schools arent providing the kinds of programs that appeal to all students.
This elitist view that only a college bound graduate is a success story is damaging our education system, Bigham said. Not everyone wants to go to college, not everyone can afford to go to college. In the old days, these youth would have been apprentices and interns, learning skills that would lead to successful employment.
Bend-area Republican Tim Knopp also sees an education system that doesnt meet students where they are.
Knopp said whats needed is more individualized instruction and more choices for our students in their education to keep them in school and help them graduate.
His solution? More charter schools.
Buel, the Portland school board member, said student disengagement starts long before students drop out of high school. He said middle schools need improvement.
Oregon has some of the worst middle schools in terms of engaging activities for middle grade students in the country, Buel argued. Athletics, music, and other activities are very scarce, hence kids get turned off in middle school and this carries over into high school.
Graduation Rate Is Created Equal
I do think our lower ranking is in part due to the variability that still exists between states in terms of how graduation rates are calculated, said Noor. Despite federal rules trying to better align how these rates are calculated, there is still a fair amount of variability from state to state. Oregons calculations are conservative relative to many states and this has an impact on how we stack up in national comparisons
NPRs Education Team looked at
graduation rates and also concluded that not all diplomas
or graduation rates are created equal. But
Oregons is a lot lower than anyone wants it. And
judging by the responses OPB received, improving it involves
confronting a lot of problems from funding to
achievement gaps to the culture around learning in the