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Learning With Less: At Some Point It Just Means Less Learning

For the first time in six years, teacher strikes closed schools in Oregon: in Gresham, in Eagle Point, and in the Reynolds district East of Portland.

It was a clear indicator of tensions in Oregon’s public schools.

Starting in September, OPB’s Rob Manning visited classrooms, band rehearsals, biology labs, locker rooms, and family living rooms, to get beyond the shouting and budget figures. 

In this special Rob takes us through this past school year, with the men and women, and boys and girls, of our “Learning With Less” series. And we’ll learn what happens when the state’s “lower funding” meets “higher expectations” for public education.

We’ll start last September …

Leslie Dailey is standing at the bottom of the stairs in her Northeast Portland home.

She has to leave soon, to drive her three daughters to school.

Rob Manning / OPB
Sisters Madison and Sabra Duarte are students at Cleveland High School.

She’s tapping her fingers against her tea cup, waiting for her daughters to come downstairs.

The last to come down is Madison, the oldest. She’s a junior at Cleveland High.

“I wish it was still summer because school is stressful and summer’s not,” Madison says.

Sabra - the middle one - is a Cleveland High freshman.

“I don’t have very many friends in my classes, so I’m just worried about the first couple of days where it’ll be all awkward.”
And from Rochelle’s point of view, “I’m kind of nervous because I don’t know who my teacher is yet.”

Rochelle is in 5th grade.

She doesn’t know who her teacher is because the district budget forced staff shuffling.

Budget problems also worried another family at the start of the school year.

The Garcias live in the Forest Grove district.

During the first week of school last September, the Garcias sat around the kitchen table and shared their concerns.

Mom, Maricela Garcia, and her younger daughter – eight-year-old Chelsea – regretted the loss of one teacher, in particular.

“We had a library teacher, and she got laid off, so we don’t have a library teacher. And she made reading really fun for me,” Chelsea says.

“With Chelsea, breaks my heart that they don’t get library anymore. It was every single week ‘Today’s library day! I get to see Miss Rosario!’ Miss Rosasio was the best, because of Miss Rosario, I think Chelsea has that little reading bug,” Maricela agrees.

Forest Grove administrators cut 90 positions last spring.

Parents like Maricela, and students, like Chelsea’s big sister, Brianna, marched and went to school board meetings, to change the decision.

But the cuts went through.

“I was really proud of myself because I represented a lot of students at my school. I did think that parents and students could change something – and I still do,” Brianna says.

The situation was not unique to Forest Grove.

And no one felt the changes more than teachers.

The David Douglas schools in east Portland cut almost 80 jobs.

High school health teacher Lon Morast learned his was one of them, a year ago May.

In the weeks after getting his pink slip, he was still reeling.

“I’m going to try to substitute here, every day, would be our goal. I’d be making less than half of what I do now, and then with no health insurance. Things are going to be very, very tight. I’m not sure how we’re going to do it. My wife is pregnant, so she’s going to need me around the house even more, so it’ll be a little harder to pick up other jobs.”

Morast’s colleague, Angela Nurre, kept her job.

Rob Manning / OPB
Angela Nurre

But with the department shrinking from eight teachers to five, Nurre knew her job would change. 

Health classes would go from 25 or 30 students to near 40. 

Before she even met her new students, she worried about what this would do to her relationships with them.

“You know, I can tell you anything about my kids. I can tell you if they’re involved in a sport, I can tell you if they live in a married home, if they live in a foster home, if they live with their Grandma. But with 40 in every class? I just don’t know that I can make the kind of connections that will help them realize they’re important to me and then they buy into what you’re teaching,” Nurre says.

Just before the new school year began, Nurre’s colleague, Lon Morast, got some good news.

“A swim teacher from the high school decided to take a two-year sabbatical. Another teacher in our district was able to move into that position. Which moved me into this position, teaching half-time here, and half-time at Ron Russell.”

Which opened a job for Morast teaching PE at two middle schools.

Meanwhile, 40 students showed up at the start of the year for Angela Nurre’s health classes, as expected.

Kind of.

“I mean I sort of knew it was coming, but to actually see all those faces, it’s a little overwhelming. It takes more time to hand out stuff, and collect stuff, and to transition from one activity to the next activity, just because there’s so many more bodies and so many more papers. I didn’t really anticipate that that would take time.”

Teacher Hyung Nam’s pile of homework.

Nurre says she had to adapt, to make sure she could manage all her students and get through the health lessons.

“I’ve definitely — have changed. I’m doing more quiet book work, less group work, more ‘here’s your assignment, no, don’t work with a partner, get it done, let’s turn it in’.”

Angela Nurre says she felt like she was constantly policing behavior problems.

It seemed harder to cover what she needed to teach.

Back in the Portland Public School district there were cuts to teachers, too. 

One of the ways Portland Public handled those cuts was to change to a block schedule at high school.

But even with the schedule change, there were too few teachers to cover all the class periods.

So, Portland  created an empty period in every high schooler’s schedule.

For freshmen, like Sabra Duarte, that meant a mandatory study hall with dozens of other students in the high school cafeteria.

“Mine is packed. And then it gets really loud, and they’re all like ‘you guys need to be quiet in, you need to be studying here. You guys came here to study.’ No, we came here because we were forced to,” Sabra says.

What leads school districts to cut teachers?

When budget cuts come along, the ax tends to hit the teaching staff, because they’re such a big part of the budget.

Other parts of the budget are harder to cut.

Maybe they’re fixed costs, like health insurance, or retirement packages, or unemployment costs, the cost of bus fuel….

And some of the teaching jobs eliminated come from core subjects – like Math or Health, for instance.

With fewer teachers around – but with just as many students who need the class – the class size grows.

That’s how Angela Nurre, the David Douglas health teacher, wound up lecturing about sexually transmitted diseases to a larger-than-usual, but just-as-squeamish-as-usual, class of sophomores.

Student: “What is that?”

Angela Nurre: “It’s a penis.”

Students: “ewwww”

Remember, that at the beginning of the school year, Nurre was nervous about having so many students in her class? As the school year wore on, weaker connections with students nagged at her. Then she did her first semester grades.

“I had more kids fail in every class that I’ve ever failed, that I can remember ever failing. I’m used to maybe three or four kids getting D’s and F’s. And I had eight, nine, and ten, in every single class. It just shocked me.”

Nurre wasn’t the only one handing out failing grades.

David Douglas is the biggest high school in Oregon, and has been for years.

Between fall of 2010 and fall of 2011, teachers gave 20-percent more D’s and F’s.

Nurre blames the bigger classes.

By spring, Nurre was making it a point to check in with every student in each class.

That was at the expense of instructional time.

“Something has to give. But I felt like, it’s really helpful, when you can eyeball a kid and say ‘Look, here’s your grade, this is missing, you need to bring this up.’ Kids, I think, realize ‘OK, I see it.’ They’re not checking their grade on their own, and it seems to make a difference.” Nurre  says.

Nurre’s classes got a little smaller.

She says more kids than usual started disappearing by spring – possibly on their way to dropping out.

Rochelle Duarte’s 5th grade Spanish immersion classroom is not packed to the gills.

Far from it.

Rochelle Duarte is one of 13 students.

Her teacher, Caitlin Shelman says she’s enjoying the rare experience of teaching a small class in an Oregon public school.

“I don’t think there’s really a downside to having a small class. I know that teachers would be screaming, if they heard me say that there’s a ‘downside’ to it,” Shelman says.

But there is a downside to this small program, and it’s also budget-related.

With students come funding, and new 5th graders can’t join the language immersion program unless they’re capable of some serious Spanish.

That doesn’t happen often.

Rochelle’s school became a K-8 school several years ago, as Portland Public consolidated buildings, in part to deal with budget problems.

“We had been keeping an eye on the whole K-8 transition,” Rochelle’s mom, Leslie Dailey says. “And we weren’t real happy with the middle school portion of it.”

Providing a rich array of middle-school electives requires lots of teachers.  But as districts cut teachers, they often cut those teachers that specialize in electives — like the art or band program.

And once those specialized teachers go,  those programs can disappear.

Leslie Dailey says that’s exactly what happened at her daughter’s school.

“They used to have music, they lost their music teacher at the end of last year. I think one of her teachers has a background in art, so she’s supplementing with some art stuff. They do still have PE, because I guess the state has mandated PE for middle school, so everyone gets PE.”

Rob: “So what ‘specials’ are you in right now?”

Rochelle Duarte: “We only have two specials. We only have library and PE.”

So by January, Leslie Dailey started shopping around for other school options for Rochelle: within Portland Public Schools, at nearby districts, and among private schools.

And Leslie Dailey isn’t the only parent considering that route. 

Private schools say they saw more interest this spring from Oregon parents, especially parents from the public schools.

“Class sizes plays a role in that,” says Donn Maier who directs the Portland Lutheran School. “When they come here, and we’ve got 17 students in a second grade class, that’s a big difference than the 32 that they had.”

Art, music, and special programs were a draw, too.

Private school parents often shell out thousands of dollars to pay for tuition.

In some years, legislators have made cuts to the education budget during special sessions after revenue fell short. This graph highlights funding amounts before and after these cuts.

Public schools get their funding from tax dollars, of course. Lawmakers in Salem determine how much state revenue will go to education.

In recent years, lawmakers have spent less on schools.

We’re talking big dollar figures here, so let’s get out the adding machine.

Five years ago, in 2007, the two-year budget for schools reached a high of $6.3 billion.

The two-year budget approved last year was hundreds of millions of dollars less than that: a little more than $5.7 billion.

Factor in inflation and Oregon is one billion dollars short of funding education at levels it had, back in 2001.

Or, look at it this way. Think back again to 2001, when Oregon was also in a recession. At that time, legislators created the Quality Education Commission to recommend how much money was needed to meet the state’s education goals.

This commission’s most recent report concludes the state is short almost $3 billion.

John Kitzhaber was the governor back in 2001, when the Quality Education Commission was created to match goals with funding.

Oregon’s Quality Education Commission recommends an amount for education funding for the legislature each year. Since 2001, the dollar amount of funding has been less thanthe the amount recommended by the legsilatively appointed commission. This graph represents the annual gap between the recommended and actual education funding amounts.

Today, Kitzhaber is again the governor, and he and lawmakers have set even higher goals.

“By 2025, when children who are entering kindergarten this next September, we will have a 100-percent high school graduation rate,” Kitzhaber says.

Right now, Oregon graduates less than 67 percent.

“40-percent of those kids will get at least two years of post-secondary education or training, and 40 percent will get a baccalaureate degree. That sounds ambitious, but I think we got someone who can help lead us in that direction.

“He’s a very talented individual. He’s committed to children and to outcomes.”

That’s how Governor Kitzhaber introduced Rudy Crew, Oregon’s new Chief Education Officer.

Crew has supervised large education systems before – in New York City and the Miami area. He’s a reformer.

After his introduction as the new Oregon school czar, Crew takes a school tour.

He looks over the shoulder of a primary schooler, doing a computer spelling game.

Rudy Crew (talking to kids at Earl Boyles): “Wow. You got them all right!.”

Crew calls over Governor Kitzhaber.

Kitzhaber: “What’s up?”

Rudy Crew: “He’s showing us how this works. What’s your name? Alex? Why don’t you show the governor one more time how this works.”

Crew says kids aren’t to blame for problems with public education. 

“It’s not because these kids walked into school some day and said ‘You know, I just don’t want to do well’,” Crew says.

Crew agrees that funding is an issue, but not one he can fix alone.

Crew emphasizes his focus: on the gap between what the education bureaucracy provides and what students need.

“There are bridges that are missing. Students leaving high school, and then trying to go either to a post-secondary pursuit, or into the world of work, there’s not a bridge for them. There are places where going from middle school into high school, there’s not a bridge for them. There are places where there are elementary children who are the by-product of having not gone to a pre-school program, there was no bridge for them.”

This is a recent meeting of the Oregon Education Investment Board.

Kitzhaber and the legislature created that board last year – to build the kinds of bridges Crew mentioned.

Forest Grove superintendent, Yvonne Curtis is on the new investment board.

At the meeting, she discussed how Forest Grove is getting schools to work together, through a specific reform called “credit-by-proficiency.”

“Inside our own school district, we’ve really thought about this idea of alignment. We have one middle school and one high school. Our high school went to credit-by-proficiency,” Curtis says.

Briefly, credit-by-proficiency is a grading system.

It uses tests, or other rigorous course work, to measure what students know.

The idea is to grade students on objective knowledge measures, like test and project grades, rather than on things like class participation and homework.

“Our middle school worked very closely with the high school teachers. It was energizing for teachers, exciting for them, some of them had never talked to teachers at the other level, and it was very simple,” according to Curtis.

“Credit-by-proficiency is not an easy system,” Maricela Garcia says. She’s a Forest Grove-area parent OPB followed over the past school year.

“Credit by proficiency — I think that at the beginning it was a really good idea. Is it parent-friendly? No it isn’t. Does it need a lot of work on? Yes. Do I understand the whole system? No.”

The new grading system is meant to tighten and standardize expectations without adding cost.

In fact, it’s seen as a way to help handle budget challenges.

It reduces emphasis on routine homework.

Correcting that homework is one of the biggest headaches for teachers of larger classes.

Under credit-by-proficiency, teachers use homework to judge whether students are ready for a test.

Or, if they’re prepared to re-take a test to boost their grade.

It’s stressful, says Maricela’s 7th grade daughter, Brianna.

“It’s like, really hard, because you have to focus on what’s going on right now, so you don’t mess up a test – one that’s coming up. And then you’re trying to think of things that you did wrong, so you can fix those things.”

The reform called “credit-by-proficiency” remains controversial in some districts, including Forest Grove.

Now as the school year comes to an end, more budget cuts are coming  next year.

And that means more cuts to teaching positions, and more shuffling of teachers.

In the David Douglas School District, Lon Morast is watching middle schoolers shoot hoops.

Morast knows first hand the game of musical chairs that can happen when schools move teachers to different positions.

Last year, Morast didn’t have a chair – a job, that is, until the district brought him back.

Now, he does.

“Yeah, I’ll be at Floyd Light Middle School, full-time, next year, which I’m excited about, considering the alternative, which could be no job at all, or other things, too. So I was very excited.”

Morast hasn’t been following recent reform efforts, but his former colleague at David Douglas High has.

Angela Nurre says in her 15 years at David Douglas High she’s seen state and federal reform efforts come and go.

And they all have one thing in common

“I think one of the frustrations is legislators come up with these great ideas for education reform, and then they don’t support them. So they institute them into the schools without the kind of financial support they need to be done correctly, and then five years later, they’re gone.”

Nurre noted recently that rather than raising standards, some places are having to scale back.

David Douglas High used to have higher standards than other schools.

Freshmen and sophomores couldn’t pass core classes with a “D”.

“And the school board has decided that kids can pass with a ‘D’ now, and I think it’s because these kids have so many requirements on them to graduate now, that they have to lessen the standard somehow? I don’t know.”

Education reformers argue the point is not to lower the bar to make it easier to meet the governor’s 100-percent high school graduation rate in 2025.

“Right I almost laughed a little bit because Madison and I have been visiting colleges….” Leslie Dailey says. Her daughter Madison will be a senior next year.

She says colleges’ minimum standards are often similar to what Oregon seniors accomplish.

But to outcompete other students, from other states?

Colleges want to see more.

“They really want you to see four years of math, four years of English, four years of science.”

Remember, Leslie Dailey started looking around at private schools for her youngest, Rochelle.

She also looked at transferring her daughter to other public schools.

But Portland didn’t approve a transfer, and budget uncertainty and limited offerings forced Dailey’s hand.

So, Rochelle will attend a private school next year.

A last-minute budget rescue from the city didn’t sway her.

“No. Yeah, we’re pretty happy we made the choice we did. We’ve been in public schools for, well, this is 12 years now. And it’s not any different than it has been for a long time. We go through this over andover and over, again. I’m glad that at least for one of my kids, it’s going to go away for a little while.”

It’ll be up to reformers like Rudy Crew to inspire parents, students, and teachers to believe things can improve.

Crew says when it comes to children, people want to believe.

“For this profession and this industry, people sign up. People sign up. Parents sign up. Business community members sign up. And that’s what’s needed now, to turn that conversation so that it’s not a ‘Oh, woe is me, how bad it is,’ I mean, we can all perseverate over that. The real question is ‘Can you get people to turn their minds to what is possible, even amid how difficult the times are?”

Oregon’s education changes are rolling forward.

Even as teachers demonstrated outside the Reynolds school district office, superintendent Joyce Henstrand says the governor’s reforms were on her agenda.

Her staff has been working out the details of a new state-required “achievement compact,” which would commit Reynolds to certain outcomes.

“We certainly have the aspirations, and we are, as a matter of fact, even in the middle of this, we have staff in this office area coming up with solutions related to the governor’s compacts, coming up in June.”

But Henstrand agreed with teachers who argue that money will decide the success or failure of any restructuring effort. There are those in education who argue that after a certain point, “Learning With Less” turns into “less learning,” and that’s not a road to more high school and college diplomas.

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