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

8:56 am

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.

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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.

filed under: No Child Left Behind, Standardized Testing

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12 Responses

  1. Comment from jalex:

    Carole Smith’s announcement that she does not support any high school closures should be a headline.

    To me this shows support towards neighborhoods and neighborhood schools missing from Vicki Phillip’s slash and close policies.

  2. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Jalex – if you read Smith’s statement on high school closures carefully, you’ll see she’s being clever about what to say and what not to say. She does not say unequivocally that all high schools will remain open. She does say, “I’m not ready to give up on those schools and on those neighborhoods.” My reading: she’s not ready now, but what about later? And when is “later”? Next year? She may not be ready, but perhaps the school board is ready? Who is in charge of making this decision?

    She also says, “That is not to say that I am tied to maintaining our existing programs exactly where they are for the long haul.” She also says, “We may have exciting opportunities to co-locate programs in a shared space with a business or community partner. We will need to think outside the high school “box” about what a school should look like.”

    She then goes on to describe a number of interesting scenarios where small schools could be co-located within existing institutions. If she were not thinking about closing one or more high schools, then why would she even mention these options?

  3. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Considering Carole Smith’s staff has already more or less recommended closing Benson High as we know it, I find her assurances ring a little hollow.

    Certainly, she doesn’t want to start the high school design discussion with a massively controversial question of which high schools to close. But closing high schools is clearly not off the table.

    School board members have made it clear that more school closures are possible, and frankly, that renders any staff assurances to the contrary moot.

  4. Comment from Lakeitha:

    Be clear about the distinction between schools and programs. WE have been trained to understand this difference. So in essence, Jefferson would not be closed, but would become part of PCC (partnerships). Still “OPEN” but not a comprehensive (or gates) neighborhood high school.

  5. Comment from jalex:


    Thanks for more insight into the slightly coded terms Smith was using in her speech.

    So, in summary, you are saying her “not giving up on those schools” is essentially a way to lessen tension, or deflect attention from closings as PPS starts to modify its overall high school design?

  6. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    I like, respect, and admire Carole Smith. Part of what I like about her is her careful use of language. She’s very strategic in how she frames things. She spent the first year of her tenure “in listening mode.” This speech at the City Club was her first real utterance as Superintendent. So what she said was no surprise, albeit in slightly obtuse/strategic language: “I’m not going to close any high schools right now, but I reserve the right to make dramatic changes to high schools as we know them.” This gives her lots of options without inciting a riot. Smart.

  7. Comment from Zarwen:

    Another clue was her use of the term “swing space.” “Swing space” is just another name for a school that has been shuttered!

  8. Comment from Susan:

    I wish I had more energy to read through this speech and gleam the positive and become more inspired. Unfortunately, I read statements like this and feel district decision-making is being driven more from the facilities viewpoint than from striving toward academic achievement. In all honesty, my feelings are colored by having our strong and successful neighborhood school closed so the space could become a swing space for Laurelhurst, Hollyrood/Fernwood and Beaumont during their rebuilds and remodels. Perhaps I’m seeing through a very smudgy, narrow lens and perhaps Rose City Park’s closure was a good thing for the district at large, but I read the statement below and think: Benson is centrally located and accessible from MAX. It’s doomed.

    “But I’m not proposing that we close any high school campus.
    Why not? There are at least three main reasons:
    1) If we are successful in winning support from our community for a capital levy to repair, renovate and rebuild our schools, we are going to need the space. Full modernization of a high school, or building an entirely new school, takes more than a summer. We will need every bit of “extra” space in our high school system as swing space, so that we can shut down part or all of a high school for a year while it is rebuilt or remodeled.”

    Peter, I sincerely hope that Smith spent the first year listening. Sometimes it seems like she spent it hiding.

  9. Comment from Zarwen:


    There is a discussion here about Rose City Park:

  10. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Apropos of this discussion, here’s news from California: “One in 10 high school seniors in the class of 2008 failed to pass California’s exit exam by graduation, the lowest rate of passage since the test became mandatory to earn a diploma three years ago, according to data released Tuesday by the state Department of Education.”

    This is a clear indication that OR will likely follow the same path. The same path that Texas followed, where drop-out rates rose after the state adopted high school exit exams. Is there a single state where exit exams have led to lower drop-out rates? No. Making high school more stressful and even less relevant is no way to make schools attractive places where young people want to be.

  11. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Forgot to cite the source for the CA story. It’s from the LA Times. Here it is.

    Here’s the Texas story.

  12. Comment from Anne T.:

    Carol Smith’s declaration that she will not close schools but
    “We may have exciting opportunities to co-locate programs in a shared space with a business or community partner. We will need to think outside the high school “box” about what a school should look like.”
    is classic Orwellian doublespeak. Veterans of school closures know that PPS tried to tell us our neighborhood schools were not closed, just moved or “consolidated”. They told us a school is much, more than just a building. As some have said, that’s like someone coming and confiscating your house and forcing you to live some place else all the while telling you that a home is much more than a house. There are school closures coming all right, probably in early 2009.