As the Oregon Department of Education Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Salam Noor oversees the education of more than a half-million students in over 1,200 public and charter schools. With raising the state’s high school graduation rate a top priority, we asked him a few questions on the direction that the state is taking to make progress in this area.
Q. As Oregon looks ahead to another new school year, what are some promising interventions or innovations that the state is looking at to help more Oregon students graduate ready for college or careers?
A. There is no question that students’ trajectory toward college and career starts early. Therefore, we must engage with elementary students about various occupations and the training required to prepare for each. We must help young students connect—whether at home, at school or in their communities—how the things they are learning and the activities they are doing help prepare them for whatever career they want as adults.
In the past, occupations and careers that would support a family could be achieved directly out of high school. Today, those careers are highly specialized. How many times have we heard a friend say, “I can’t work on my own car any more. They’re too high tech.” Your mechanic knows this because he/she finished academic terms of advanced training to learn how to fix your car.
So, helping students from K–12 prepare for advanced skills in science, writing, mathematics, public speaking, problem solving and technology will give them the skills they need to achieve their choice of occupations, some of which don’t even exist yet.
Q. Oregon has had steady growth in the number of students who come to school speaking a home language other than English. What’s an example of an emerging strategy for the state to support English learners on a graduation path?
A. Research tells us that the way to help our English learner (EL) students better succeed in high school—and graduate with their English-speaking peers—is to concentrate their English instruction before their high school years. If they leave their English Language Learner (ELL) programs with strong English skills and do so before they enter ninth grade, their graduation rates are slightly higher than their native English-speaking peers.
Accordingly, our goal is to focus on English learners’ language acquisition when they first enroll in our public schools. If EL students enroll in English instruction before high school, they do well —very well, it turns out—in their rates of graduation. But if they enter our school system during their high school years, take English language courses with a regular course schedule—and without the benefit of concentrated ELL program—their grades begin to fall, and many drop out, never acquiring strong English skills or a diploma.
Q. What key elements of the strategic plan to boost graduation rates for Native American students hold the most promise?
A. Graduation rates for American Indian Alaska Natives (AI AN) are a priority. In 2013, the State Board of Education adopted a revised AI AN Education State Plan in an effort to focus on improving educational outcomes for AI AN students. The plan contains 11 primary objectives, each of which holds promise for increasing graduation rates. Key strategies outlined in the plan suggest systematic change at district/school levels, including increasing culturally relevant pedagogy, implementing culturally responsive approaches and best practices and building partnerships with Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes and native communities and organizations.
One plan objective is the implementation of the Tribal Attendance Pilot Project (TAPP). This project provides a venue for school districts, in collaboration with representatives from Oregon’s federally recognized tribes, to create a program to address chronic absenteeism. Nine school districts have been awarded funding to implement TAPP in the 2016–17 academic year. Districts will use a multi-tiered approach with positive interventions, early personalized outreach, access to resources and tools and increased engagement in instruction. Improving attendance will have a positive effect on graduation rates. I encourage districts to review the plan, as it is a road map for state efforts to improve opportunities and outcomes for our AI AN students.
Q. With so many rural and remote districts in Oregon, how is the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) working to support graduation in small districts far from the state’s population centers?
A. ODE supports graduation in small, rural and remote districts in a number of ways. We administer the Regional Promise Grant Program, through which students participate in college visits, career fairs and accelerated college courses typically only found in larger schools. Dual-credit programs offer high school students the opportunity to see themselves as college students and allow them to earn college credit while in high school. The Career and Technical Education (CTE) Revitalization Grant Program provides access to high quality CTE programs and career pathways that lead to high-wage and high-demand occupations through upgraded facilities and instruction. These programs promote community engagement by often opening facilities for community use and instruction. They also provide students with motivation and engagement to help them realize that graduation is important to their futures.
Q. Kids who start well in kindergarten are more likely to experience later academic success. In addition to full-day kindergarten and expanded access to public preschool, what other supports are in the works for the state’s youngest learners?
A. High quality pre-kindergarten and early-grade instruction have a clear and measurable impact early and late in a student’s academic career. For example, we know that young students who get a good start in kindergarten and the early grades have lower rates of involvement with the justice system and higher rates of high school graduation. Furthermore, we know that skills like critical thinking, self-motivation, persistence and commitment show up at higher rates for students who did well in the early grades compared with those that struggled initially. ODE administers the Oregon Mentoring Project, through which 3,600 first- or second-year teachers receive state-funded mentoring; this improves teacher effectiveness for our youngest learners. We also co-hosted a Summer Academy for teachers where we highlighted strategies to improve early learning. Finally, we will release an in-depth alignment of Oregon’s early learning and kindergarten standards later this year. The result will be a clearer picture of what students ages 3 through kindergarten are developmentally able to do, with resultant expectations in the area of language, literacy, mathematics, social-emotional development and approaches to learning.