Think Out Loud

New director of Oregon Department of Education prioritizes student engagement, early learning, accountability

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Aug. 14, 2023 11:50 p.m. Updated: Aug. 15, 2023 8:04 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Aug. 15

Charlene Williams is the new director of the Oregon Department of Education. She started the job in July. In her first year, she plans to visit schools across the state.

Charlene Williams is the new director of the Oregon Department of Education. She started the job in July. In her first year, she plans to visit schools across the state.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB


Charlene Williams was appointed to head the Oregon Department of Education earlier this year by Gov. Tina Kotek. She is the first Black woman to lead the department. As the past principal of Portland’s Roosevelt High School, she used a $7.7 million grant to support students, boosting graduation rates and overall academic performance. She also served as principal of the district’s alternative high school, Rosemary Anderson, and helped lead the Evergreen and Camas public school districts in Washington.

As the new year begins, Williams plans to visit schools all over Oregon to observe and listen to families, educators and students of all ages. She also plans to create a student advisory group to better understand what children and teens want from their education. Williams joins us to share more about her educational priorities and her hopes for the next academic year.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, This is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. When Oregon students return to school in just a few weeks, there is going to be a new leader of the State’s Department of Education. Dr. Charlene Williams was appointed to head the ODE by Governor Tina Kotek. She is the first Black woman to lead the department and is currently the interim director. The state Senate is expected to take up her confirmation next month. Most recently, Williams helped lead the Evergreen and Camas Public School Districts in Southwest Washington. Before that, she served as the principal of two high schools in Portland Public Schools. Doctor Williams, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Charlene Williams: Good morning and thank you for having me.

Miller: It’s great to have you on. I want to start with some of your work experience in Portland schools. You worked at Rosemary Anderson High School about 20 years ago now. It’s a school that we’ve talked about in the past that serves kids who often haven’t thrived in other schools. Some come from unstable family situations or homelessness. What did you learn from your time at Rosemary Anderson?

Williams: I learned so much. It was such a treat to work under the leadership of Joe McFerron and team. I learned about having high expectations for our students. A lot of those circumstances that they were experiencing and facing didn’t make them any less smart, any less capable. And it was up to us as educators to tap into their magic and create success for them. And we got pretty aggressive with helping them not just earn diplomas from our school. But we hired a transition-to-college coordinator and really coached them and supported them with their transition to postsecondary opportunities. So they could really see themselves thriving because of who they were, because of those experiences and gifts that they brought.

And so it was really transformational for me as a leader, [to] recognize the number of barriers that students experience and how resilient they are. And when we create the conditions with resources, with high leverage practices, with engaging our community and partners in strategic ways, we can make some powerful things happen for our students and families. So it definitely helped shape me as a leader. I continue to watch what they’re doing and I’m constantly inspired by that work from Rosemary Anderson.

Miller: You went to Roosevelt High School in North Portland where pretty soon you became the principal. While you were there, the graduation rate went up 21% in three years. How did that happen?

Williams: Oh, wow. That was a work of community and, again, not assuming that I know the answers, that the system always knows the answers, but tapping into the strengths of the community, listening to teachers who had been there for years, hearing their stories, what their needs were, what the barriers and opportunities were. We literally engaged in a community wide campaign [of] listening. “What’s working at Roosevelt?” “What have you heard?” “How can we support?” When we were applying for the actual grant, we were just making our data and our needs transparent and making our approach transparent for our community and staff to weigh in. Was this approach something you can buy into, that you can support?

And so after some intense listening we were really transparent throughout the process. This is who we talked to. This is what we heard. Here are the themes emerging. Here’s what our data is telling us. Taking all of that information and then crafting a plan of really intense work. You know, Asa Hilliard says it’s not a one trick pony that’s going to fix education. But it’s really about our fire in the belly. It’s really about just consistent and persistent monitoring and insistence that our students can achieve at high levels when we provide them with high support.

And it was a matter of everyone rolling up their sleeves. We got creative with how we assigned staff to support groups of students. I mean, we worked on attendance, we worked on enrollment, we worked on academics. And all of those things are precursors to eventually students graduating from school. From grabbing kids out of their homes and saying, “You gotta come to school,” and helping them problem-solve around whatever their needs were. It just took that intense and strategic focus informed by truly listening and engaging our community in a respectful way.

Miller: In both of these cases, one of the things you’ve talked about is your high expectations for students. If you were talking directly to Oregon K-12 students right now, what would you tell them you expect from them?

Williams: Wow. I think it’s more for students to expect from us to really show up for them, to resource them, to educate them and ideally, to inspire them. I hope that we all just continue to return to a joy for learning and that we, as educators, create the conditions where they can see themselves achieving and thriving and enjoying learning again. We’ve been through a tough time, as a state, with the pandemic and all of the repercussions since, and regaining our footing, and learning how to re-engage our students. And so I think we just owe them high quality service. And we’re not going to relent until we deliver on the promise of a high quality education for them.

Miller: I’m interested in why you flipped that. I mean, I understand that you, as a head of ODE now, have high expectations for teachers and staff and that it’s important to deliver for students. But why not also say to students, “And this is what we all expect from you, and we know you can do it, and we’ll help you.” But this is what we expect of you?


Williams: Yeah, I think it’s a yes/and. We do want our students to engage in the learning. We want them to show up to school every day, ready to learn. We want them excited about learning and doing their homework and all the things we want students to do. And I really believe though, as adults, we have to create the conditions for that to happen because they are looking at us. They depend on us to do that for them. After having listened to students, especially in the two schools that you just mentioned, it’s really important that we provide them with the resources for them to engage. I think if we ignite the fire, they’ll burn. And that’s what our job, I believe, is as educators.

Miller: So, after, I don’t know, a decade or something in Oregon, in Portland schools, you have more recently spent time in two different districts in Washington State and Southwest Washington. Do you think that there are things statewide that Oregon can learn from Washington?

Williams: I love that we’re always trying to learn from each other. I think Oregon and Washington already collaborate on different ideas and initiatives. So I think learning from each other is always, always important. It was good for me, on a professional level, to see how education is happening in a different state and experience a different sized system, because Portland Public Schools is larger and Camas School District is smaller and has different needs, and to be able to have multiple perspectives informing the work that I do.

What was similar about all of those districts is the importance of listening and centering students, having high expectations, and doing this work through an equity lens, pulling our students from the margins to the center, and creating systems that really support their learning. And it isn’t perfect. We have to have a learner stance.

We have to apply a researcher lens. As we design these systems, as we ask educators to implement practices on either side of the river, is what we’re doing working? What mechanisms do we have in place to monitor, on a regular basis, if the practices we are putting in place are working for students? Are we getting the outcomes that we want? Are students experiencing school in a way that we want them to? So yes, I believe there are things we can learn from each other. And there’s also a lot that we have in common.

Miller: Part of what you’re talking about here gets to something you mentioned earlier, which is data. And you’d mentioned that you pay attention to data. Modern schools generate a ton of stuff you can put on spreadsheets and chart over time. But what do you pay the most attention to? What data points do you think matter the most?

Williams: That is a great question. I think as a state and people outside of education, I think the thing that most people see are test scores, like how is third grade reading or the graduation rate. But really, it’s the preliminary steps ahead of that that inform whether or not we’re gonna be on track with those goals. One of the authors, who we just got to witness at a recent educator conference, talked about satellite data, map data, and street data.

So if I know that third graders are not performing well in reading, that’s a pretty global idea and statement. That does not tell me, as a third grade teacher in Room 23, how to teach differently tomorrow in order to impact the learners in my room. So it’s really about creating a more robust system that informs us and allows teachers, on a regular basis, real time, to assess how students are doing and provide proper support or request support as needed, in order to meet the needs of those students…

Miller: Should the state have a role? And, so sorry to interrupt, but this is a key point. Obviously, I’m glad you focus on reading. This is something that in the coming years is going to change because of legislative action, and a lot of more money, and an overhaul in the way reading is taught in this state. But should the Oregon Department of Education have a role in that scenario you just described? What’s happening in that particular third grade class and why are these kids not learning? Is that purely up to that district or will your office weigh in at some point?

Williams: Absolutely. It is all our responsibility. And I believe definitely as a state agency, as we are supporting districts with the governor’s priority around early literacy, with House Bill 3198 and we are assisting districts as they are designing their plans around how they are going to implement and apply the funding resources that the bill allows for. We have offered a literacy framework that provides district guidance on how to implement the standards. We have a series of resources. We are creating trainings so that we can calibrate and align around what the best practices are. So I believe we definitely have a role to play. And as the process unfolds, we’ll learn more about ways we can continue to improve and expand our partnership with schools to ensure that quality learning is happening in each classroom.

Miller: You’ve talked in the past about accountability in the context of your job and the Oregon Department of Education. What do you mean by accountability?

Williams: Accountability is important and I think we have to have a pretty nuanced conversation about it because sometimes I think people hear the term accountability and they just think if your third grade test scores didn’t reach a certain percentage, then we’re withdrawing money. We’re issuing all these sanctions and you’re pretty much in trouble until things change.

Miller: Or, in some states, “We’ll take over your District”?

Williams: And/or take over your District. And I just wanna back us up a little bit, to think about context for just a moment. It does not take away the urgency at all, because we need to get after it. For kids. Today. And we have to recognize we just went through a pandemic. The impact that has had on educators, that has had on learners, we’re still learning what the repercussions and implications are. And so for some of the growth and gains that we are starting to see in some areas, it really kind of goes against what research says happens when you have a major shift, like we’ve had.

Normally, when you’re implementing anything, in the best of conditions, you will experience what researchers call an “implementation dip”. So let’s say we’re rolling out this new science reading work, et cetera. The research says when you’re learning how to do something new, and doing it right, oftentimes you’ll have a bit of a dip before it takes off into a steady trajectory of improvement. So the fact that we just came out of a pandemic and we’re starting to see not the greatest but modest gains, that is a significant step. It says what educators are doing is beginning to work and show promising signs that if we can continue to lean into the science of reading, to do culturally responsive practices, that we’ll be on a trajectory to set our students up for success. So I just wanted to pause, while we’re talking about accountability. We can’t ignore the context that we’re in and the gains that people are starting to see.

Miller: Doctor Williams, we’re out of time. But I look forward to talking again. Thank you very much.

Williams: Thank you.

Miller: Charlene Williams is a new director of the Oregon Department of Education.

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