One step forward, two steps back. That's the picture with higher education in Oregon in 2007. So what's going wrong? For a start, fewer first generation students are attending college. Then, colleges say, high schools are not properly preparing students for higher-level courses. More students are taking 5 or even 6 years to complete their degree. And many students of color are simply not going on to college, because of increased costs and uncertain financial aid.
These are just a few of many critical problems outlined during a Portland State symposium Oct. 11. "Breaking the Barriers" looked at problems affecting students' access to postsecondary education. The issue is crucial because of the impact education has on future employment and earning capacity. Unemployment for African Americans aged 25 or older is just 3 percent for those with a college degree or better. But for those with only a high school education unemployment is 8 percent.
According to almost all of the speakers, Oregon, and the nation, has a long way to go before all children – especially those from impoverished or nontraditional backgrounds – have equal opportunities to attend a university. The reforms will have to begin at the middle and high school levels.
"In the absence of a relevant curriculum, the system is not supporting individual heroic efforts," said Matt Coleman, principal of Westview High School in Beaverton.
Coleman said plenty of teachers and mentors can inspire students, but that inspiration is often crushed with a curriculum or teaching methods that students find entirely irrelevant.
Carolyn Leonard agrees. Leonard is a lifelong educator and currently compliance director for Portland Public Schools.
"There are students going to school every day who think this prepares them for entry into college," she said.
Often they are dead wrong.
"Many (impoverished students and those of color) put in work that doesn't prepare them for the minimum level required by a university," she said, citing one Jefferson student who made straight A's in high school and ending up flunking out in college.
Part of the problem, she says, are teachers who settle for "good enough" when they should be pushing for the best.
In fact, just 42 percent of the African American students who go to college in Oregon complete their degrees compared to 47 percent of Native Americans, 55 percent of Latinos and 60 percent of non-Hispanic Whites.
Another problem affecting the ability of lower-income families to send their students to college is cost. It's obvious to anyone who has attended or has a family member attending school in the last several years that college costs have skyrocketed, and one of the reasons may be the shift in costs from taxpayers to students. In 1999, the state paid for 51 percent and students paid for 41 percent of college tuition costs. In 2007, the state pays 35 percent and students pay 55 percent. Recent budget announcements do reveal a two percentage point reduction in students' share of the cost.
But money, as many of the problems previously discussed, is again only part of the problem. Deborah Cochrane, director of the Portland Teachers Program at PCC-Cascade, says students of color face an all too familiar 21st century foe – invisible and unchallenged systemic racism that begins long before a student arrives in the dorm room, if they arrive there at all.
"Students of color are often marginalized and made to feel their expressions are not important or valid," Cochrane said, adding that there is a lack of cultural competency in both secondary and postsecondary education – a sentiment shared by many others.
So how do we improve the Eurocentric view of our education system? We need more cultural competency training and also a method to identify successful teachers who can teach other teachers, says Cochrane.
"We need to blow up the teacher's union," says state Sen. Avel Gordly.
And yes, she means it. Gordly, a teacher herself at PSU criticizes "schools of education that don't provide the quality of teacher needed for today's classroom." She says systematic education reform is required to change the current, dysfunctional system that is not properly serving minorities.
A host of changes – maybe an entire revolution – is needed before schools will be equipped to prepare more students for college and the real world, says Leonard, and the base problem is quite simple. We simply need to teach children the joy of learning.
When her own children attended Portland Public Schools, Leonard had one thing to say to school staff: "Do not destroy my child's initiative."
For the most part, she said, they didn't listen.
Teaching teachers to teach properly should be priority one – including the need to teach cultural competency and the need to hold students to high standards, she said.
"The under-education on planet Earth of even one child is a loss to me personally."