Commentary

Responses to the pandemic are driving Innovation in Oregon schools

What works for learning recovery can work as well for learning improvement

March 18, 2022 5:30 am

Oregon’s response to education challenges during the pandemic set stage for future innovations. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

This is a week when parents and kids are celebrating the end of mask mandates in schools throughout Oregon. For many, it feels like a huge relief to return to the “old normal” in our classrooms.

But the old normal won’t be good enough to overcome what our kids have lost during the past two years. Nor will it be good enough for them to succeed in the years to come.

We’ll need to do whatever it takes now to get our kids back on track, then apply what works to upgrade the learning track of the future. That’s not two tasks; it’s one. What works for learning recovery can work as well for learning improvement.

Oregon’s lawmakers get this.

In just 10 months, they’ve put in place what could become the one of the most significant redesigns of our K12 system since we shifted to state funding in the early 1990s.

All this began with a hurried response to the pandemic-related disruption of our education system last April, when the legislature authorized $205 million for summer school and community-based learning programs to stem the learning losses evident across the state. Now, with another round of funding earlier this month, these investments have the potential to make permanent an extension of the school year and an expansion of community-based learning that will reshape our school system.

And that’s not all.

Lawmakers also launched a new program for recruiting and training educators, which should help to overcome the staffing shortages that plague schools today and enable an expansion of innovative learning programs.

Unfortunately, it took the Great Disruption of the last two years to accelerate these reforms. But crises of this kind can challenge old habits and unsettle institutions in ways that accelerate the pace of innovation, as we’re seeing in the scale and scope of Oregon’s new commitment to summer learning.

When it comes to time in the classroom, Oregon was already far behind other states when it shuttered schools in March 2020. So, we had a lot of catching up to do when lawmakers added voluntary programs to school calendars in the summer of 2021.

Not surprisingly, the response was impressive – an eight-fold increase over the year before to nearly 109,000 student participants.

In addition to these traditional programs, community-based outreach programs exploded, reaching some 340,000 school kids in a variety of learning and social activities.

Adjusting for some double counting in the latter number, it’s still likely that well over half of Oregon’s students participated in some form of organized summer learning last year, with at least one of every five students engaged in full courses of study.

We can expect to see even more participation this summer.

But participant counts are only part of the story.

The 513 community-based programs that populated the learning landscape last summer ranged from library reading clubs to more intensive job training and community college credit courses. Not all of these will prove to be equally effective. But results over time will help to identify those that not only advance learning during the summer months but also motivate students when they return to classes in the fall.

Further, the involvement of community organizations in these summer learning programs will help to foster better connections with local schools. Oversight will be handed off this year to the state’s 19 education service districts, whose leaders will be focused on strengthening those connections in new community-district collaborations.

Finally, it’s notable that the funding for these new summer programs bypassed the state’s decades-old school funding formula. So did the expansion of career-technical programs under Measure 98 (2016). Ditto for the dedication of Student Success Act (2019) funds to programs targeting under-served students.

This should tell us something about how reform happens and how it can be sustained. Summer learning programs, along with the innovations that preceded them in the years before the pandemic, will eventually have to earn their place in a more updated approach to funding Oregon’s school system.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, is optimistic this will happen, seeing in the commitment made by the legislature last month “the beginning of really talking about a full year of school.”

“This is as much about helping students who are behind now as helping students of the future,” Courtney added, foreshadowing a new normal to celebrate in the years ahead.

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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.

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