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Oregon Learns — Can Other States Be Students?

Curtis Johnson / Jan 07 2012

For Release Saturday, January 7, 2012

Curtis Johnson2011 saw Oregon once again daring to be the first bird off the wire on an audacious policy agenda. Governor John Kitzhaber, having been governor from 1995 to 2003, won the office again in 2010. What he told seasoned politicos was that he wasn’t running just to be governor again — “been there, done that.” But if elected again, he would put all his chips down on doing something bold, with the power to endure.

Kitzhaber’s bold maneuver: a proposal to overhaul the entire system of education — from toddlers to twenty-somethings, now called Oregon Learns.

In the 2011 session of the legislature he won a down payment on the promise — a liberalization of the chartered school law, a better welcome for on-line schools, and an official board. It’s called the Oregon Education Investment Board, intended from its enactment forward control how money is appropriated to get better education results.

Sounds tame enough. But the governor’s agenda is actually aimed at radical change in the system. For the first time (anywhere, not just in Oregon), the system of education would find its financial pivot point on results. The entire budgeting process would be re-engineered around outcomes rather than inputs.

Old measures such as ‘seat time’ in K-12 and the credits-collecting pattern in higher education would yield to real-world measures of proficiency — what knowledge and skills young people actually develop. Students who can move more rapidly would get a green light to speed up. Students needing more time could pace themselves without today’s stigmatic penalties. Today there are bright lines between pre-K, K-12 and college. Under the governor’s proposal, the experience for students would begin to be seamless.

The state would work to redefine what success means for college-going. That it’s not just going for a conventional baccalaureate degree, but aiming for whatever fits a student’s aptitude and passion, that also lines up with what the economy is rewarding in the jobs market. Community colleges, the system’s most adaptive institutions, would move from the edges of relevance to the center of attention.

Greg Hamann, president of Linn-Benton Community College, says he’d welcome a system oriented to measurable results. He likens the present system to a time-and-materials contract for building a house. “If you get paid by how many materials you use, you’re going to order a lot of 2×4 pieces of lumber,” he said. Worse yet, he added, “if you can deliver the results more efficiently, as providers, we get less reward. That’s the system we have today.”

This shift is revolutionary in a nation now caught up in “college ready” frenzy, without defining what that means.

Further, the governor would recognize, like no other state has, the primacy of the role of teachers, and an overdue welcoming of innovation — opening the system to people willing to try new and different means of achieving education goals.

Gov. Kitzhaber calls this the 40/40/20 program. Translated, this means by 2025, 40 percent of Oregonians will have one or more college degrees, another 40 percent at least a certificate or associates degree from a community college, and the remaining 20 at least graduating from high school. Each target is a stretch. But each is also a realistic target.

This sort of creative audacity is almost a trademark of Oregon politics. This past fall I put the question directly to Barbara Roberts, who was governor of Oregon just prior to Kitzhaber’s first term: “Is there something in this state’s ‘DNA’ that enables it to be first at so many daring policy initiatives?” “Absolutely,” she shot back. “This is our tradition, and most people have forgotten all the things we did first.”

Then she reminded me of the long list of Oregonian Firsts. First to enact a bottle-refund. First to guarantee access to the beaches of the ocean. First on small urban blocks. First on the right to vote for women (all the way back to 1912). First on seat belts. First on veterans’ home loans. First on challenging the Medicaid system to set priorities for care. First on voting by mail. First on a land use policy that protected both surrounding farmlands and the integrity of urban communities. She talked so fast that I probably missed several other ‘firsts.’

Gov. Kitzhaber clearly wants to keep this tradition alive. In a speech to a gathering of higher education officials in early November in Corvallis, he referred to the 40/40/20 program as the state’s ‘north star.’ The operating mode, he said, would be “tight on expectations, loose on methods.”

In early winter, with its brooding dark days and the daily dose of ominous world news, Oregon’s bright optimism about possibilities should challenge other states to undertake their own bold maneuvers.

Curtis Johnson, president of the Citistates Group, participated in developing the Oregon education strategy with the Public Strategies Group for the Oregon Business Council. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to

One Comment

  1. William E. Borah
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Oregon, the model for responsible land use planning in America. May the rest of the nation learn from Oregon’s example.