Carole Smith’s Plan: What’s Wrong (and Right)

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith’s vision, articulated in her Friday address to the City Club (57KB PDF), focuses on academic skills in early elementary, then continues to focus on academic achievement vis a vis test scores as a measure of whether kids are likely to graduate. Two examples from her speech:

Are [students] ready to read by the time they enter first grade?

As they leave third grade, are they reading fluently enough to understand the
information and ideas presented — do they have strong foundation for the rest of their schooling?

But what’s missing from these recommendations are the voices of the students who chose to drop out of school. If they had had a mentor who monitored their academic progress, would they have stayed in school? Smith thinks so, and cites the examples of two students — six-year-old Charles at Rosa Parks and 9th-grader Eric at Cleveland High. While these stories are moving and powerful, they are — of course — success stories, stories about the ones that made it.

But what about the ones that didn’t make it?

We don’t know. But it would probably be a good idea if we found out. After all, in the day and age of high-quality customer service, it might make sense to ask the customer why they no longer patronize your business.

Here’s what I see:

  • the new OR exit exam will increase drop-outs, as is the case in most states that have adopted high-stakes exit exams
  • an intense emphasis on “how am I doing?” undermines “what am I learning?’ and, more importantly, “what do I care about?”

Smith calls for partnerships with local businesses and organizations to give students real-world learning opportunities similar to what The Met School does for its students. That’s great. But let’s not kid ourselves: focusing on academic achievement alone is not going to save kids from dropping out. But making schools exciting, relevant, fun places to be will.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.