Oregon program to alter grade system

By Michael Berg

A new school program in Oregon aims to become a national educational model, radically changing the current 12-grade system.

In the program, Education 2000, general education in high school ends in 10th grade and students receive a certificate of initial mastery. Graduates then choose a course of college prep or vocational training. They earn a certificate of advanced mastery in two years.

Also in the program, children in kindergarten through third grade will be taught lessons focused on the development of individual skills through team teaching and family involvement.

Joyce Reinke, the Oregon administrator running the program, said in a Los Angeles wire service story, “We want to avoid having children experiencing failure at an early age. We want to fit the program to the child instead of forcing the child to fit into a program.”

The designer of the program is Oregon State Representative Vera Katz. She said in the article that all of the design changes have been proven effective in other systems.

Other countries have been doing this for years, said Professor H.C. Sherman, NIU professor of leadership and educational policy. “In England, kids make decisions on careers when they’re 12 years old. In Japan, they decide when they enter high school.”

“It’s not a very good idea. The American tradition is people get chance after chance,” Sherman said. “For example, many middle-aged people come back to school. In America you can change your mind.”

This is the first statewide educational system change in the U.S. Other programs have only been used on a smaller scale, Katz said.

One of the criticisms of the system is it tracks students by making them commit to a career decision at the end of 10th grade. There are also concerns that the program steers poor and minority students to vocational training.

“If throughout the student’s involvement in the program they are convinced that they are vocational, they may select vocational when they don’t belong in it,” said Jack King, NIU sociology professor.

Proponents of the system said students can change their minds, if they wish to switch from vocational to college prep or vice versa.

“A teacher has a great impact on a student’s life,” King said. “They can influence a student in a particular direction by choosing the instruction a student needs, like picking which students they favor and which students they send to the office for disclipine.”

Making a career decision in high school is a terrible idea for students, Sherman said. “This is an oversimplific solution to a problem that may not even exist.”

“U.S. schools do a great job. I don’t think there’s a problem in education,” he said.

Sherman said the system is not beneficial to students who get low grade point averages as freshmen, but peak in their senior years.

The program is not in tune with the real world, Sherman said. “You have to know a lot to work in a vocational job. For example, in a grocery store, workers must know skills such as inventory and computers,” he said.

The program involves a longer school year. Forty-five days will be added by the year 2010.

If the program succeeds, other states might adopt the same or a similar model. U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander was also quoted in the Los Angeles Times article. “America will be watching and learning” from Oregon’s education experiment, he said.

“I don’t know if this is the answer,” King said. “We have a habit of trying things that sound like really good educational innovations that we find later are stupid.”

“How it’s implemented and evaluated will determine whether it’s beneficial to students,” he added.

“I think this is a political thing,” Sherman said. “People sometimes say there is a problem that we must fix, and the problem we fix may be one that’s not there.”