Oregon’s graduation rate is abysmal

Friends and family packed the Brick House at Astoria High School's 2017 graduation.

What is it about Oregon that makes high school graduation so difficult?

“While Oregon students perform reasonably well academically, they graduate at far lower rates than their academic performance would otherwise indicate,” said a report from the governor’s Chief Education Office.

Truly, our abysmal graduation rate is a conundrum.

We know what boosts student achievement — having an excellent teacher in every classroom.

We know what encourages students to attend school — having supportive family; making positive relationships with peers, connecting with teachers and other role models who believe in them, and finding something through school that becomes their passion.

We have loads of data — from the state Department of Education, Chief Education Office, Chalkboard Project, national research and individual school districts — about dropout strategies and how to keep students engaged in school.

Yet our high school graduation rate remains among the nation’s worst, despite rising 2 percentage points — to 77 percent — in data released last week by the Education Department.

The state Legislature is so concerned that Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek launched a joint Senate-House committee on student success. Sometime after the 2018 Legislature adjourns in March, those 14 lawmakers will travel the state, listening to Oregonians and looking for what isn’t working in our schools, as well as what is.

As they seek answers to Oregon’s dropout dilemma, here are two issues for legislators to consider.

First, the Legislature butts in too much.

Bureaucracy flows downhill. Each time Oregon adopts a new school regulation or law, it increases the administrative burden, which means less time for working with school principals, who then have less time for effectively coaching teachers, and on and on.

Whenever the Legislature adds a mandate, it should have the guts — and the insight — to cancel outdated, ineffective mandates. That should be a central function of the Legislature and of the state administration, especially because a new mandate might be needed in response to our second issue: Is it too easy to become a teacher?

Teaching is among the most noble of human endeavors, even though its pay is mediocre compared with its importance to society. Teaching is simultaneously rewarding and difficult. Classroom-management skills are as essential as subject knowledge, but colleges put far greater emphasis on academic knowledge.

Student teaching typically is among the last courses that prospective teachers undertake. Rarely do they experience a full year in the classroom, so they can learn how to start, maintain and conclude an academic year.

Requiring one year of student teaching undoubtedly would deter some prospective educators. But it would better prepare the rest, helping stanch the high turnover among Oregon’s fledgling educators.

If Oregon is to help every student graduate, Oregon must have a great teacher in every classroom and a great principal in every building.

Of 412 students in Clatsop County’s Class of 2017, 283 earned their diploma in four years, according to state figures, including 63.3 percent in Astoria, 76.2 percent in Warrenton, 66.7 percent in Seaside, 90.6 percent in Knappa and 75 percent in Jewell.

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