A Vision for Education: Ensuring Every Oregonian the Opportunity to Succeed

Nick's Plan to Improve Our Education System

Oregon cannot be a successful state if we don’t do a better job supporting our children, from infancy through higher education. Without sufficient resources and support, and without more attention to broader social dysfunction, our students and teachers are set up to fail. While test scores tell only one part of the story, a consequence of Oregon’s underinvestment is that fewer than half of third-graders are on track for reading and fourth-grade scores in math are seventh from bottom in the country. Only 3 in 4 ninth-graders have the credits needed to be on track to graduate. Education must become a top priority — and not just for slogans and triumphant press releases. 

The roots of these problems are complicated and go far beyond the education system – they include high rates of mental illness, addiction, foster care and poverty – but we have to ensure that from early childhood on, we do a better job of preparing young Oregonians, getting them through high school, and on track to a career.

Fixing our education system is one of the great civil rights challenges of our era, and it is one of the central ways we can make Oregon a more racially just and equitable state. Good intentions are not enough. When Black third-graders are less than half as likely as white third-graders to read at grade level, inequality and injustice get transferred to the next generation. All children deserve a fair start in life in the form of access to an education escalator. These inequities hold back our entire state, but we can do better.

As a student at Yamhill Grade School and then at Yamhill Carlton High School, I benefited from excellent schools, dedicated teachers and a supportive community. It was beginning in 10th grade that my journalism teachers Sue Smith and Olga Petrovich nurtured my passions that propelled me toward a career as a writer. I want to ensure that today’s kids enjoy the opportunities that I had to learn and explore new territory. There are innovative and effective ways to support our students, teachers and schools and dramatically improve outcomes — and it starts with a governor who’s a champion for Oregon’s children.

I. Setting our children up for success with early childhood programs for every Oregon child.

All children deserve the chance to enter kindergarten with the tools they need to learn, grow, and be successful. Early childhood programs may be the highest-return investment we can make, yet all 36 Oregon counties are childcare deserts for infants and toddlers, and fewer of our children attend pre-K than in other states on average. 

As governor, I will make high-quality early childhood programs a priority in my very first budget and will call on the legislature to pass funding to support access to a range of early childhood programs, from home visits through pre-K, for every Oregon child.

Ninety percent of a child’s brain develops by age 5; brain development in the years prior to school entry builds the foundation for success in school, at work, and in life. Research has overwhelmingly found that children benefit from attending high-quality pre-K, with the largest gains enjoyed by low-income and disadvantaged children. Students who arrive in kindergarten after attending pre-kindergarten programs are better prepared and less likely to be held back, demonstrate better cognitive and language skills in kindergarten, and have fewer behavioral problems in the classroom. Beneficiaries of early education programs are less likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system or to become pregnant as adolescents, they are more likely to graduate from high school and have jobs, and some early studies suggest that a generation later, even their children are doing better.

Some of the most remarkable gains from preschool were seen in two early programs, Perry and Abecedarian, and probably weren’t fully replicable or scalable. The Head Start Impact Study found gains that soon faded in elementary school, and a recent Tennessee study found disappointing results, probably because pre-K there was not high quality. Still, the research overwhelmingly finds enormous gains for disadvantaged children from early childhood programs, in both the 0 to 3 space and the 4 to 5 space. On balance, the question isn’t whether we can afford early-childhood programs but whether we can afford not to offer them. Yet too few Oregon children have access to high-quality early childhood programs: We need to make these benefits available to all our children.

  • Three states — Florida, Oklahoma, and Vermont — along with Washington, D.C., offer universal pre-K. Studies of Oklahoma’s pre-K program find significant effects on test scores, language development, and motor skills at kindergarten entry. 
  • These early gains were still detectable in 3rd-grade. Another nine states have universal pre-K policies that are open to all families regardless of income and serve a significant portion of 4-year-olds. 
  • Several states, including Virginia and New Jersey, have announced plans in recent years to expand pre-K access, with a focus on “at-risk” children or those from low-income communities. 

It’s time Oregon joined them.

As governor, I will make funding available for every school district to develop collaborative partnerships with high-quality, licensed Head Start and community-based childcare programs to facilitate pre-K access: 

  • Why support pre-K? The lack of such programs increases inequity, as disadvantages in learning begin before kindergarten. When children arrive at kindergarten without a solid foundation of skills, they are likely to fall behind their classmates, and with each year it will become harder to catch up. This lack of access to high-quality early childhood education perpetuates the achievement gap, evidenced by the fact that only 48% of low-income children are ready for kindergarten, compared with 75% of moderate- or high-income children. Black and Latino children in public school-based pre-K programs consistently demonstrated greater kindergarten readiness when compared with their classmates in center-based and family child care. These programs can reduce poverty by providing young learners the resources to pursue an education, increasing the likelihood they will break familial cycles of poverty. Research on the benefits of pre-K for low-income students has evidenced significant social dividends, including increased school success and higher lifetime earnings for both the children and their parents.

Compared to targeted programs, universal programs have higher rates of enrollment among all socioeconomic groups. Research shows that in communities with universal pre-K, about two-thirds of children will enroll, with the remainder in other types of care such as private centers.

As governor, I will continue and develop these important programs as a part of ongoing efforts to make early childhood support accessible and universal to Oregon residents. 

  • Why a public school-based pre-K program? Universal access to pre-K programs would benefit not only the individual children and their families who attend but also the community at large, and our entire state. Investments in high-quality early childhood education can generate up to $7.30 per dollar invested. The stable, high-quality child care pre-K provides allows parents to work more hours, miss fewer workdays, and pursue further education. Early childhood education also reduces grade retention and thus saves school systems money for K-12 education. Participants in high-quality early childhood education also show long-term benefits in the form of lower rates of incarceration (46% reduction), lower rates of arrest for violent crimes (33% reduction), and a reduced likelihood of receiving government assistance (26% reduction) – all of which saves taxpayer money.
  • Why partnerships? The majority of publicly funded pre-k programs are based in public schools, though some states, like Tennessee, partner with a range of public and private agencies to provide pre-kindergarten services. When they began kindergarten, pre-K children were rated higher than their peers on teachers’ assessments of school readiness.

These strategic collaborations may take one of two forms: facility partnerships and program partnerships.

  • With facility partnerships, community agencies contract with local school districts to provide space for pre-K classrooms while the school provides the teacher, materials, supplies, and any other program components to meet 4-year-old preschool guidelines.
  • With program partnerships, community programs provide space for pre-K and some 4-year-old preschool programmatic oversight, such as a certified teacher.

School districts are beginning to offer their own pre-K programs in elementary schools, as well. For districts able to add these programs directly, not through partnerships, the benefit to students and families is great, as the school is often the locus of the community. These programs should also be supported.

  • The latest version of President Biden’s social spending package would provide $400 billion in funding for expansion of both universal pre-K and child care, with no state cost for the first three years (after that, states would be expected to cover 40% of the costs). 
  • Other potential funding sources include use of multiple existing federal funding streams such as the Child Care Development block grant, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Head Start dollars.

I also will provide additional support for our under-5 children and their families. 

  • We will continue supporting relief nurseries, early intervention, early childhood education programs for children impacted by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and resultant trauma. It is key that we support our most vulnerable populations especially during the formative years of brain development. 
  • Similarly, home visiting programs are shown to improve child development, enhance school readiness, and promote positive parent-child interactions. Perhaps the home visiting program with the most robust evidence base is Nurse-Family Partnership, which works with low-income moms from pregnancy until the child is two years old. Repeated studies have shown that children and moms both do better, and that every dollar invested in NFP reduces spending later. Used in 40 states and dozens of countries, NFP is present in nine counties in Oregon and is ready to work in all 36 counties. Oregon’s children would be better off if it could reach more children in need.

Oregon parents suffer a childcare crisis, with some families paying about as much for child care as they do for rent. The shortage of childcare spots disproportionately affects women, impeding careers and pulling women out of the labor force. Even before the pandemic, all Oregon counties were considered “child-care deserts,” meaning they lacked adequate child care for infants and toddlers: there are more than three children for every single child care space or slot in a program. By far the biggest change in child care supply was the enormous decrease in small family child care homes. They’ve gone from about 45,000 slots to about 1,500. For small, home-based providers, child care is not a lucrative business and for families, women, and women of color, the wages are not what they deserve. It’s difficult to run a business on very thin margins and things much smaller than a pandemic can impact the viability of maintaining those businesses. Parents in Oregon spend an average of $13,518 for center-based infant care and $9,153 for home-based infant care each year, putting quality child care options out of reach for many families. The best practice is 7% of a family’s income to contribute towards childcare, but families are having to contribute far more than that. But early childhood programs offer a double-dividend: They greatly help young children while also supporting the careers of their parents. Of women with at least one child under the age of six, 61% reported caretaking as the reason they experienced joblessness. Thus, while this section has focused on the benefits of early childhood initiatives as a way to boost educational achievements, the same programs will also be a lifesaver for parents who try to juggle their responsibilities to their children and their work.

II: Investing in Educators

Oregon’s children deserve the best possible teachers with the best possible preparation. Our schools are now caught in a workforce crisis that is causing record numbers of educators to consider retirement or career changes, so we need to offer better pay and compensation or we will soon face a catastrophe. Higher pay is also essential to attract a more diverse teaching force.

We all know of cases in which well-supported educators have had a transformative impact on students. We need to build systems, including reasonable teacher-student ratios and greater access to college for students of modest means, so that this happens more regularly. In other words, we have to empower teachers so that they in turn can empower students.

Educators deserve our support, especially now, in doing the front-line work of supporting our students’ recovery from the academic, social, emotional, and mental health impacts of COVID-19. 

  • But we cannot attract and retain the best teachers and build a more diverse educator workforce to give our children the best possible education without addressing compensation. 
  • And creating a more racially diverse education workforce also would improve educational equity and student achievements – as governor, I will ensure that we attain this goal through improved tracking of diversity, both in schools and in teacher-preparation programs, and I will hold districts and public institutions of higher education accountable for increasing the racial diversity of their educator workforces over time.

A. Improving Recruiting, Retention, and Career Development for Teachers

It is imperative that Oregon invest in teachers with more training, money, support, and responsibility, particularly in light of the recent pandemic. 

As staff shortages deepen across the country and workload increases, more educators are feeling demoralized and leaving the profession, causing a workforce crisis. A recent study found that 67% of teachers are “moderately” or “highly” dissatisfied in their current role. Research shows that school leaders who protect teachers’ time, invite their input, and support their mental health and well-being through comprehensive programs see higher levels of satisfaction.

To produce the schools our children deserve, we must treat teachers and other educators like the professionals they are:

  • Increasing pay will help to attract the best teachers. Oregon ranks just outside the top quintile – 11th highest among the 50 states – for average teacher pay. Our teachers were paid an average salary of $67,685 in 2019-20. There is a correlation between higher salaries for teachers and successful school districts – one of the highest ranked states in education is Connecticut, and their teachers make $78,247. As governor, I will move Oregon into the top ten in teacher pay.
  • We must help teachers to continue developing their skills. Professional development programs in public schools benefit students, teachers, administrators, and the community at-large. Professional development yields three core results: educators learn new knowledge and skills; educators use what they learn to improve teaching and leadership; student learning and achievement increase because educators use what they learned in professional development. Qualities of successful professional development programs include actively engaging participants, incorporating modeling and demonstration, providing support during incorporation, and encouraging collaborative participation. As governor, I will make sure that Oregon is providing more statewide high-quality professional development opportunities to teachers and in supporting districts to do the same themselves.
  • It’s also important for Oregon to “grow our own” top-quality teaching corps. We must encourage more local students to become teachers with outreach programs to these students. A study of teachers in New York State found that 85% of teachers taught within 40 miles of their hometown, and 60% taught within 15 miles. A program led by East Carolina University’s College of Education has been praised for its innovative mission to grow the number of teachers in the region; the program offers an affordable option for students to earn their bachelor’s degrees without having to leave their home region. As governor, I will seek to create a similar statewide program to encourage our promising young people to enter the field of education. 
  • We must empower teachers to teach and principals to lead. High-quality school principals are shown directly to impact student and teacher success. Principals should create strong and inclusive learning environments by fostering a climate of exploration, encourage staff to assume leadership roles, and make data-informed decisions. Successful principals attract and retain highly effective teachers, organize schools to support the whole child, and lead and support deeper learning instruction. Teachers should be treated like the professionals they are and empowered to use their knowledge of education techniques: Studies show that teachers are more effective and impactful in teaching curriculums they shaped themselves, rather than following strictly regulated curriculums. 

That’s why I will support expansion of school-based management and encourage our central school district administrations to provide the kinds of professional development both teachers and principals need and want, as well as the supportive services like HR, procurement, transportation and testing that work better at scale – letting teachers teach and principals lead.

  • We should use the $1.2 billion in ARPA Cares III federal funds to make other needed investment in our teachers: 
    • short-term retention bonuses, 
    • buying down college loan debt, and 
    • hiring more non-licensed staff to handle the non-instructional tasks in the school that teachers are currently required to do: lunch, bus and recess duty, contact-tracing calls home, and the like. 

This would be a one-time proposition, however, not an ongoing budget solution.

B. Promoting Diversity in Our Educators

We also need to create a more diverse teaching corps, one that better reflects the diversity of our student bodies.

A growing body of research suggests that minority children benefit in many ways from having a teacher of the same race or ethnicity. Black students are shown to do better in reading and math when they have black teachers. This applies to elementary, middle, and high school grade students, male and female students, and students who do and do not use free and reduced-price lunch. Black children receive worse assessments of their externalizing behaviors (e.g. arguing in class and disrupting instruction) when they have a non-Hispanic white teacher than when they have a Black teacher.” Studies show that exposure to same-race teachers lowers the frequency across all grade levels with which students are sent to the principal’s office for willful defiance. While the overwhelming majority of U.S. teachers are white, the proportion of minority teachers has grown from 13 percent in 1987-88 to 18 percent in 2011-12, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education. But we still need to do better.

While schools and districts are recruiting more teachers of color than in years past, there are common barriers to recruitment and retention. For example, teacher licensure exams disproportionately exclude teacher candidates of color despite little evidence that these exams predict teacher effectiveness. As governor, I will combat this issue by making adjustments to state teacher licensure requirements to allow teaching candidates to demonstrate their competency through rigorous-but-more-authentic performance assessments that do not display the degree of racial disparity in pass rates that traditional exams have demonstrated. 

Poor working conditions and low salaries also discourage teachers from staying in their schools and in the profession; as I’ve already noted, I will address these problems, too. And there are several practices Oregon could implement to improve the recruitment of teachers of color: 

  • Oregon should promote high-retention, supportive pathways into teaching by underwriting the cost of teacher preparation through service scholarships and loan forgiveness in exchange for a commitment to teaching in high-need schools or subject areas, typically for at least 4 years. 
  • Funding teacher residencies, which are partnerships between districts and universities that subsidize and improve teachers’ training, can help move teachers into high-need schools and in high-demand subject areas.
  • Hiring earlier in the year can assist with recruitment, as well, as research suggests that more in-demand candidates of color may be available for hire earlier in the year: Districts can offer incentives for teachers to announce their resignation, retirement, and transfer intentions in early spring so that they can recruit new hires earlier in the season. Districts also can partner with local teacher preparation programs, including those at minority-serving institutions, to coordinate student teaching placements and vet candidates for hire before they graduate. 
  • Additionally, schools can include teachers of color in the hiring process in meaningful ways, including creating diverse hiring committees or compensating teachers for attending recruitment fairs. 
  • Once teachers of color are hired, they should be offered support through programs such as mentorship, seminars, classroom assistance, time to collaborate with other teachers, coaching and feedback from experienced teachers, and reduced workloads. 

As governor, I will institute state-level programs to encourage and support local districts in making progress in these areas.

III. Investing in High-Quality Schools

High-quality schools start with high-quality teachers and principals, but they involve more than that. We need to give our kids more time spent actually learning – and that means not simply quantitatively but also qualitatively. That’s why I’ll work for more opportunities for out-of-school time learning, smaller class sizes, and programs to keep kids engaged in school and learning right up until the day they’re ready to move on to productive careers and lifetimes of learning.

A. Increasing School Completion

Oregon currently allows students to drop out of high school at age 16 with written parental consent. Not surprisingly, as a result, Oregon has one of the lowest high school completion rates in the country. We must change this.

I will raise the drop-out age to 18 years old – but, just as importantly, I will invest in initiatives around educational enrichment to encourage and support students to stay in school.

I believe we should start by requiring every student entering 9th grade to have a Personal Education Plan for staying in school that addresses education and career goals, reviewed annually with the student, parents, and guidance counselor, to ensure that the student is staying on track . This must, of course, be done without creating onerous new paperwork and bureaucratic requirements. The National Survey on High School Strategies Designed to Help At-Risk Students Graduate, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, found that personalized learning plans are a key dropout prevention strategy for at-risk students. Personalized learning plans are associated with higher student motivation, sense of belonging and connectedness to school. Our neighboring State of Washington, for instance, has found success in requiring students to develop “high school and beyond plans” related to achieving postsecondary options starting in middle school. Students must identify classes needed to prepare for options after high school including, in some instances, apprenticeship, certificate programs, or workforce training. 

We must also give kids who aren’t succeeding good reasons to stay in school – and provide the necessary support and incentives to help them to do so and eventually to succeed. There is a variety of programs in other states for doing this:

  • Attacking root causes. The primary factors that lead to dropping out are absenteeism, behavioral problems, and failing grades in math and English by the sixth grade. Sixth graders who fail English have just a 1 in 8 chance of making it to the 12th grade on time. Sixth graders who fail math have less than a 1 in 5 chance of making it to the 12th grade.
  • Early warning and intervention. This also can be combated by an early-warning system for students struggling in class and early intervention for at-risk kids. By identifying at-risk students early, educators can target interventions and supports to help students to achieve readiness and success. A high-quality early warning system uses local, historical student data; research-based early warning indicators; and predictive analytics to accurately identify students who are in danger of not achieving key educational milestones, such as on-time graduation. Students are not identified based on their demographics (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, status as an English learner) or other unchangeable factors (e.g., students with disability, socioeconomic status, member of a single-parent household). Rather, students are identified for demonstrating one or more mutable early warning indicators (e.g., attendance rate, inappropriate behaviors, or poor course performance). Regional Education Laboratory (REL) Midwest used a randomized controlled trial – the most rigorous study design – to examine the impact of early warning systems on students and schools. After one year of implementation, use of early warning systems reduced the percentages of students with chronic absences and course failures.
  • Additional learning opportunities. A recent Pennsylvania report found that every state dollar spent on out-of-school time programs – after-school, weekend, extended learning, and summer school – will yield $6.69 in future savings, reflecting the likely decrease in high school dropout rates, adolescent pregnancy, substance abuse, and violent crime. 
  • Relevant curriculum. We will continue and expand programs such as the Juntos program. Oregon State’s innovative program provides culturally relevant programming for 8-12th grade students and their parents, with the goal of providing families with knowledge, skills, and resources to prevent youth from dropping out of high school and to encourage families to work together to gain access to college.
  • Graduation coaches. Schools can provide graduation coaches for any student who falls off track for on-time graduation, peer-student mentors for troubled youth, and programs to engage at-risk students, including entrepreneurship training, computer literacy, and conflict resolution. Graduation coaches examine data to identify students at risk of dropout, interact directly with students to assist with academic and social needs, develop and deliver intervention services, connect students and families to school and community services and resources, and help students develop goals for their future. In filling a niche that counselors and teachers often cannot because they are too busy, graduation coaches form deep relationships with students who are at risk of not completing high school, and they guide them toward making up missing credits, attending class regularly, and building academic and life skills. One key way graduation coaches can help students is by teaching them to develop their organizational skills.
  • Creative uses of technology. Schools can also use technology to connect experienced teachers with more students. Technology prepares students for the future and should be incorporated into course design. Teachers can utilize gamified learning, which has been shown to have an impact on a student’s engagement due to the sense of achievement as well as the aspect of fun. Virtual field trips are a great learning experience that can allow students to “visit” places that they wouldn’t have been able to before.

B. Expanding Literacy

One of the best predictors of whether children will succeed in school and eventually graduate is whether they master reading by third grade. Yet 53 percent of Oregon third-graders are not reading at grade level, and Black children are only half as likely to be on track as white children. Fortunately, there has been a great deal of research, backed by careful experiments, to determine what approaches help more kids reach reading level. Some other states have enjoyed major gains with a focus on early literacy in grades one through three, and we must do the same in Oregon. Unfortunately, one can’t cut corners. Different children struggle to read for different reasons, and reading specialists are necessary to assist the classroom teacher so that students get their difficulties diagnosed and addressed. But anyone who thinks it’s too costly to help kids learn to read in the early grades doesn’t understand the costs of educational failure.

The majority of students who are referred for academic concerns or have been identified as having a specific learning disability have difficulties in the area of reading. The best-practice programs feature scaffolding, shaping, contextualizing prior knowledge, and constructing meaning with connections to the real world. Scaffolding means that necessary support needs to be given to a child and gradually faded once the child approximates independent functioning while completing tasks; shaping means to elicit reinforcers for successive approximations toward completing an objective. In one typical program, the district employed a two-teacher team to work with at-risk students as a way to improve attendance, strengthen achievement, and decrease disciplinary infractions; on standard reading tests, every student made up at least one year’s growth in nine months’ time, and several made up to four years growth in that time. In addition, student behavior problems greatly decreased, with minor infractions becoming nonexistent. Unexcused absences dropped 50 percent.

A National Reading Panel report that analyzed the full body of current K-12 literacy research identified the five pillars of good early reading instruction, including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. As governor, I will press our schools to implement K-3 reading strategies that are based on the best research, that support teachers with adequate training, and that provide resources for reading specialists to help students who falter.

Some nonprofits can also play a useful role in coaching reading. Oregon has its SMART Reading program, and Reading Partners works in many states (not in Oregon, although it says it would be happy to work in Oregon). Both use trained volunteers to help young readers, and both have had excellent results. I’ve recruited thousands of such volunteers for Reading Partners through my columns, and as governor I’d like to recruit volunteers to work with struggling readers in their local districts. But let’s be clear that reading problems cannot be resolved by part-time volunteers; we need a major focus on early literacy, with well-trained teachers and reading specialists.

C. Expanding Out-of-School Programs

I will provide universally accessible summer programs for Oregon’s young people. Summer programs have been shown to improve student social skills, keep children safe and supervised, and improve academic skills. There is a federal movement by the Department of Education to improve access to summer programs and Oregon can utilize the funds from their latest initiative to improve our summer programs. Summer programs are particularly important now, as they can aid in addressing the lost instructional time caused by the pandemic. Summer activities include a broad array of enrichment activities ranging from physical fitness, arts programs, STEM activities, and career and technical education programs. For older students, these opportunities can include a hands-on work-based learning or community service component.

I also will increase funding for afterschool programming. Afterschool programs support social, emotional, cognitive, and academic development, reduce risky behaviors, promote physical health, and provide a safe and supportive environment for children and youth. Such programs include academic-based activities, community service projects, specialized skill development in arts and/or science, and physical activity like sports or extended recess.

Afterschool programs also provide a significant return-on-investment, with every $1 invested saving at least $3 through increasing youth’s earning potential, improving their performance at school, and reducing crime and juvenile delinquency. Attending afterschool programs can improve students’ academic performance, particularly for core subjects like reading and math. Attending afterschool programs has been shown to improve in-class participation, increase school day attendance, and reduce school dropout rates. Increased adult supervision reduces instances of at-risk youth being left unsupervised out of school. Adult supervision that is based on developmental relationships promotes positive youth development, increases personal safety, decreases risky behaviors such as smoking or drug abuse, and creates an environment where young people learn better. Finally, working families and businesses also benefit from afterschool programs that ensure that youth have a safe place to go while parents or guardians are at work. Parents and guardians who do not have access to childcare miss an average of eight days of work per year, and this decreased worker productivity costs businesses up to $300 billion annually.

D. Reducing Class Sizes

Oregon currently has larger class sizes than other nearby states. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics last year ranked Oregon’s classrooms as the fifth-most crowded in the country; In several categories, Oregon’s ranked as the most crowded. This is particularly true for our elementary schools.

Research shows that students in smaller classes perform better in all subjects and on all assessments when compared to their peers in larger classes. In smaller classes, students tend to be as much as one to two months ahead in content knowledge. This is particularly important for younger students, so we will focus our efforts on K through 8th grade children. 

California’s statewide class size reduction program showed that improvements in public school quality caused marked reductions in local private school enrollment as higher-income students enrolled in public schools and led to significant increases in local house prices, as parents were willing to pay substantially more to live in a region that had implemented class size reduction. The California Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) led to a reduction in a class size of about four students by the third fully funded year of the program. QEIA caused a statistically significant increase in student achievement, as measured by both California’s Average Performance Index, and by grade-level results on standardized tests.

Of course, this isn’t a matter of simply hiring more people as teachers: As I’ve said throughout, we want to make sure to attract the best possible teachers to our classrooms and give them the tools to be the best they can be. That’s why the teacher development and diversity programs I discussed earlier are so important.

E. Supporting Student Physical, Emotional and Mental Health

Students can’t thrive when they are struggling emotionally or when they can’t hear the teacher or see the blackboard. These are issues we must do a better job of addressing.

Researchers have found that many low-income children need glasses but don’t have them. Screening programs are important, but it’s also important to actually deliver the glasses to the students in the classroom rather than sending the family somewhere else to get them. Likewise, some students have undiagnosed hearing loss that impairs their education, or untreated dental pain, and we should work harder not just to make sure that students are insured and have theoretical access to care; it’s best to provide services to children in school where they are sure to get it. The group Vision to Learn, which provides free glasses to children in low-income schools, says it would like to come to Oregon, and we should welcome it to help address these needs.

Mental health needs are always a challenge in schools, but the need has been aggravated during the pandemic when many lost access to school-based services and supports, with early research showing disparities based on race, ethnicity, LGBTQ+ identity, and other factors. 

Pandemic-related challenges to students’ mental health and wellbeing are likely to have long-term effects on behavior in school. The use of trauma-informed practices, including within a framework of positive behavioral interventions and supports, as set out in the Department of Education COVID-19 Handbook Volume 2: Strategies for Safely Reopening Elementary and Secondary Schools, may be particularly helpful for students who have experienced significant hardship, grief, and loss during the pandemic, as well as for those who may struggle to adjust to the new realities of learning, whether online or in person.

IV. Connecting School to Careers

One of the best ways to keep students in school is by connecting what they’re taught in the classroom with what they want and will need to do in their careers and in the real world. “Contextual learning” – i.e., academic instruction through real-world, job-related situations, such as making change rather than learning multiplication tables – has been shown to be a better way to learn and remember the material. And it helps students better to see why they’re in school and the importance of staying there.

While more and more jobs require some level of higher education today, most Americans still will not receive college degrees – but all kids will need higher levels of skills and preparation, and their education will need to prepare them for the workplace, whether they’re headed to college or not. We must start providing career-related instruction as early as middle school; connect kids up to jobs, internships, and workplace experiences by high school; and ensure that the senior year of high school from a lost opportunity into a launch pad for lifetime success, including a chance for early college, meaningful career academies, or needed remediation for those students not ready for either. 

A. Keying Kids into Careers: Envisioning the Future

Early exposure to potential careers has been shown to benefit students, particularly if they are then able to connect what they observe with the skills they are learning in their classes and can comprehend how their education will allow them to pursue a lifelong career.

Middle or junior high school is a time for adolescents to begin participating in work activities through either volunteer or paid work. Young people’s career inspirations are influenced early – with career aspirations often following traditional gender stereotypes or confined to what they see around them in the local economy. These tend to be reflected in students’ interests and achievement in school. For example, a lack of interest in STEM subjects at age 10 is unlikely to change by age 14. This lack of interest is influenced by what young people see in their family and communities, so communities with very limited economies can limit the aspirations that children have for their careers. Career exploration is key for all students, especially for youth in rural areas who do not have the same opportunities to be exposed firsthand to various fields likely to experience the most growth during their lifetimes.

Varied opportunities to engage with the world of work, through career talks, mentoring, and excursions to job sites therefore can be invaluable as early as primary school on through to secondary school. Speakers representing different occupations, and concrete examples of what it takes to achieve in them, can inspire young people to explore paths they hadn’t considered. Age-appropriate field trips to places of business, where they can see technology in action and glimpse behind the scenes at diverse job sites, can encourage children to imagine new and different careers. If a student hasn’t made meaningful connections between their education and their future by the time they reach high school, they may already be allowing doors of opportunity to close.

As governor, I will push for curriculum and funding to make available to all Oregon schoolchildren opportunities like these and the ability to envision a larger future for themselves. 

B. Career Development in High School: Building That Future

High school career education should focus on building work experiences and refining talents and abilities that will be needed in future careers. Students who are not going to attend college should learn about potential job paths and work on gaining skills for those positions. Non-college paths to employment can be improved by: 

  • increased career counseling (in addition to or as an alternative to college counseling),
  • job shadowing, 
  • dual credit enrollment in vocational, technical and community college courses, and
  • apprenticeships. 

Schools can encourage students to pursue these job opportunities by giving class credits, similar to the way colleges will give credits for outside jobs/internships. As governor, I will work to expand and encourage all these opportunities.

Expanding apprenticeships in America has become a common and often-bipartisan recommendation for improving skill development and employment outcomes for youth who may not complete a college degree. Apprenticeships are most popular in Indiana, Iowa, and Virginia – but there’s no reason they wouldn’t work as well in Oregon. When executed well, apprenticeship programs provide students with paid workplace experiences and skill-development opportunities nearly guaranteed to be of immediate value to employers within a certain field or industry. Ideally, younger apprentices are gaining not only demonstrated competency in a specific, relatively high-wage occupation, but also employability-related skills that will be broadly valuable throughout their careers. 

The learning-while-earning nature of an apprenticeship also helps to make it a more affordable early career path with less reliance on student debt. Apprenticeships typically last between one and six years, with the majority lasting four years. Though there have been efforts to expand apprenticeship in America beyond traditional building and construction trades, most U.S. apprenticeships are still concentrated in a relatively limited number of fields. Roughly half of current apprentices are either in the construction industry or the U.S. Military Apprentice Program. A 2012 assessment and cost-benefit analysis of registered apprenticeship programs in ten states found that apprentices had significantly higher earnings than similar nonparticipants nine years after enrollment and that the social benefits of apprenticeship programs were likely to outweigh their costs. For employers, apprenticeships are an opportunity to shape the skills and experiences of a pipeline of potential employees to fit their workplace needs and evaluate those workers on the job. 

A 2017 Harvard Business School analysis looked at the outer bounds of occupations potentially suitable to apprenticeship and identified 3.2 million job openings in 2016 that could have been filled through apprenticeship, including many in 47 additional occupations where apprenticeship is not commonly used. As governor, I will work with schools, employers, and unions to expand this valuable path to productive careers.

Job shadow programs are an additional solution. Job shadowing can be done simply for the experience or for school credit. After participating in a job shadow program, 98 percent of students surveyed agreed that doing well in school helps them achieve career goals, 90 percent of students felt that the Job Shadow experience made them more aware of career options, and 88 percent felt that participating in the job shadow made them realize the importance of staying in school.

 

C. Senior Year and Graduation: Ready to Launch

The final year of public school is the last opportunity we have to launch many young people into an orbit that will lead to success for the rest of their lives; for many, it is a make-or-break time for gaining access to higher education; for still others it marks the beginning of the transition to more rigorous education. But in too many cases, the senior year of high school is a wasted opportunity, treated as a coast downhill as opposed to an opportunity to climb higher.

Instead, we should prioritize making senior year a vital doorway to success for our students, and when I’m governor we will. 

  • There will be improved in-person work experiences for non-college path students, such as apprenticeships and job shadow programs, and schools will be provided the resources to encourage students to explore trade schools. 
  • Students positioned “on the bubble” for potential college admission will be targeted for more intensive efforts to master a college-readiness curriculum, to improve college admission test-scores, and – with more selective colleges moving to alternative admission standards – advancing and putting in the best light possible their educational and career “portfolios.”
  • For college-bound and college-interested students, we should cover the costs of college-level courses and advanced placement preparation and tests, so they can continue to challenge themselves – and potentially save money by getting ahead on college credits.

V. Making Higher Education Affordable for All

Post-secondary education or training of some sort is essential to the vast majority of jobs in today’s economy. Additionally, a college degree is key to economic mobility and breaking the cycle of generational poverty. The average college graduate is 24 percent more likely to be employed and average earnings among graduates are $32,000 higher annually and $1 million higher over a lifetime.

The out-of-pocket cost for four-year college degree programs can be daunting for students, particularly students from families without a tradition of college attendance. In fact, most students seek (and many receive) financial assistance in the form of grants and scholarships but many must supplement this support with student loans. 

In Oregon and nationally, student debt at graduation averages about $27,000. Factors that contribute to student debt include (1) taking 5 or more years to complete a four-year degree; (2) stagnating grant and scholarship amounts that don’t keep pace with rising tuition costs; and (3) for public colleges and universities, state policies that have shifted the cost burden to students and their families. 

Oregon’s financial aid is significantly lower than in many other states. In 2019, Oregon ranked 25th among states for the total state financial aid per full-time equivalent student. Oregon ranked 34th in the country for the amount of funding the state provides institutions and distributes in financial aid. The largest financial aid programs in the state are the Oregon Opportunity Grant and the Oregon Promise grant: 

  • The Oregon Promise provides grants to support tuition at Oregon community colleges for recent high school graduates and GED test graduates. The program serves over 10,000 students per year. 
  • Oregon Opportunity Grant (OOG), Oregon’s need-based financial aid program serves the lowest-income Oregonians with grants toward post-secondary expenses. Nearly 40,000 students use the OOG to fund their post-secondary education each year. The OOG supports low-income students, including recent high school graduates and adults, who attend eligible public and private Oregon colleges and universities. 

As governor, I will expand access to these – and additional – programs.

  • In particular, as last-dollar programs, Oregon financial aid disproportionately supports students whose family income is too high for federal Pell grants; that would make sense if enough funding were available to meet every student’s need, but as that funding has remained stagnant relative to rising college costs, it effectively (1) reduces the overall amount of state grant resources; and (2) limits the amounts that students with higher financial need receive, while funneling the overwhelming majority of aid to those in less dire need. We must expand the pool of money available to enable all eligible students to receive the full funding they need – currently, Oregon is appropriating enough money to fund only one out of every five eligible students, and even then at inadequate levels – and consider directing higher levels of funding to those with the greatest need, rather than simply providing flat grants.

Not only will this directly help more students individually, it will help our state as a whole. Increased state funding in these scholarships directly increases federal Pell grant money for our state; the inadequate levels of state investment in college grants has reduced the flow of federal funds to our state and discouraged many Oregon families from applying for this support and obtaining a college education. We need to reverse this for the good of every Oregonian, and as governor I will.

  • Oregon sponsors two 529 college savings plans. Students can begin investing with a minimum deposit of $25. The MFS 529 Savings Plan has a minimum initial deposit of $250. Both plans offer various tax benefits and Oregonians can make tax-deductible contributions. The Oregon College Savings Plan has been improving in recent years – it was upgraded to Silver status among national college savings plans. This is the second upgrade for the Oregon College Savings Plan in as many years. Oregon has low fees compared to other states but a moderate maximum contribution and limited investment versatility. I will work as governor to improve these latter features.
  • There are other steps we can take to expand college access and affordability. As I’ve already discussed, supporting high school students in obtaining advanced college credit through community college and Advanced Placement courses will save them and their families money on the overall cost of tuition – and will also speed college completion, thereby lowering total college expenses overall – while also reducing costs to taxpayers.
  • In addition, we can encourage college completion by helping students faced with unexpected financial burdens to stay in school and finish their degrees: The most expensive education is one that is left incomplete. Giving students the help they need to complete a certificate or degree once they begin is the best way to make sure that their investment – and ours – pays off. A national study of a pilot program to provide small “completion grants” – as little as $500 to $1,500 for low-income students – found that it enabled 93% of participants to complete their programs. Portland State University currently has such a completion-grant fund; I will work to expand this opportunity to all Oregon post-secondary students when I am governor. 
Nicholas Kristof with his wife Nick with his dog

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