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Editorial: Oregon schools must think outside the box

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Albany schools bus stock

Albany school bus driver Al Steward waits for students to load his bus at Memorial Middle School in this file photo from September.

Oregon’s K-12 public education system is in crisis, as problems that existed before the novel coronavirus pandemic have been magnified during the age of COVID-19.

We used to worry about children falling through the cracks. Now there are vast chasms. A year of online-only learning in many districts, combined with other issues, has created a desperate situation.

And things look like they’re going to get worse.

The number of ninth-graders on track to graduate last year plummeted in the state and locally, as detailed in a recent article by education reporter Joanna Mann.

In Corvallis, 93% of freshmen were on track to graduate in 2018-19, but that dipped to 78% in 2020-21.

In Albany, 79% of ninth-graders were on track three years ago, but that dropped to 67% last year.

In Lebanon, the decline was drastic, plummeting from 76% to 53% in two years.

We could go on, but you get the point. Almost every school district in our area — Alsea and Central Linn were the big exceptions — saw declines.

Just as damaging as the metrics are reports about students suffering emotionally and in distress or acting out in immature ways. As it turns out, the social aspects of school also are critical.

So, yes, desperate times. But the Oregon Department of Education has responded with desperate measures that will weaken the system further.

The agency did away with tests that used to be required for high school graduation, cheapening diplomas for those around the state. If students can’t hit the target, removing the target isn’t the proper action.

The most recent move by the ODE was reported by the Pamplin Media Group last week. Due to a substitute teacher shortage, the agency would relax requirements. Under a temporary rule, subs would no longer need a bachelor’s degree to fill in and lead classrooms.

The sub shortage in Oregon is quite real and it’s quite logical. Many substitutes in Oregon are retired teachers who are at risk from COVID-19. Others are young women who aren’t the primary breadwinners for their families. Why would they risk their health, or that of their spouses or children, for what amounts to discretionary income? Even a pay boost isn’t enough incentive.

Regardless of the reasons, the result is that full-time teachers have sacrificed prep periods to fill in for colleagues, resulting in extra stress. Where’s the time to fill out lesson plans or to grade papers?

The relaxation of sub standards is concerning, however, because there aren’t guidelines. What procedures should districts follow? Right now, it just sounds like the state wants people who are breathing and possess a pulse.

One solution could be to utilize thousands of college students studying education throughout Oregon. Give emergency sub licenses to every student teacher in the state and create a work study program where they could be paid to lead classrooms instead of paying for that opportunity. Perhaps there could even be a sort of AmeriCorps-style program with student loan forgiveness. (Loan forgiveness might convince students and young professionals in math and other fields to consider teaching.)

We don’t want to dismiss the value of a traditional college teaching program, but student teachers in upper division classes have the disposition, the desire and the foundational skills to do the job. Turn them loose and provide extra assistance from administrators, mentor teachers, classroom aides and volunteers.

It’s true that these student teachers are still developing their techniques and abilities, and that still will be true when they earn their degrees or certificates.   

Oregon also can utilize its skilled workforce of retired teachers and other certified employees who are reluctant to return to classrooms. Create a sort of grading factory system where these skilled workers could evaluate essays remotely, or check math homework from the safety of their own homes.

These ideas are unorthodox and union officials might balk, but rank-and-file teachers would gladly accept the help. They’re under enormous pressure right now.

We all need to start thinking outside the box regarding education in Oregon. Should we look at hybrid models as the norm? Should we consider year-round schools? Explore options and concepts.

The alternative, the status quo, is devastating. Our state needs to look at doing education differently, because what’s happening now with our children is tragic and heartbreaking, and that’s not hyperbole.

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