Leaving Most Children Behind: Thirty Years of Education Reform at Jefferson


In January, 2006, the Portland School Board voted to “reorder” the Jefferson Cluster, calling for reforms that included the elimination of middle schools and single-sex education options for grades 7-12. Community members were invited to participate in the redesign process along side of the district employees and leaders who were responsible for creating thecurrent state of affairs within the Jefferson Cluster.

As a result, none of the proposals fundamentally change who is in control of delivering public education within the neighborhoods of concern. The same school district leaders, teachers, and principals who ran the schools that community leaders were unsatisfied with will be in charge of implementing the “reorganization.”

Seven days later Portland Public School officials announced they would crack down on parents who lie about where they live in order to enroll their child in a more desirable school.

Over the past thirty years, thousands of young men and women have passed through Thomas Jefferson High School in the Portland Public School District. The majority of these (in some years as many as 85 percent) have been handed their high school diploma without being able to read, write or do math at a high school level. Thousands of Jefferson graduates have left high school without the skills necessary to compete in, or contribute to, the Oregon economy.

In 1974, Portland Public Schools (PPS) commissioned a study to determine what was wrong with Jefferson High School. Jefferson, located in an area of town that has predominantly minority residents, had been a chronic low achiever. “The Jefferson Study” found the school had low academic performance, awful attendance rates and poor parent support.

During the 30 years following publication of “The Jefferson Study,” school district leadership, teachers, principals, and community members have all lamented the situation at Jefferson and suggested and/or implemented various reforms to try to solve the problem of low academic performance at the school. More than a generation of Portland young people have been used as guinea pigs for these reform efforts with no improvement in academic performance, and little hope that the future will show any. In the 2003-04 school year, for instance, 68 percent of Jefferson 10th graders failed the state’s reading test, and 78 percent failed the math test. Although the tests and teaching methods have changed over the years, these numbers have been virtually the same for three decades.

Jefferson and its “feeder schools” are referred to in this report as the “Jefferson Cluster.” The Jefferson Cluster is Jefferson High and the middle and elementary schools which produce the students who will ultimately attend Jefferson. The middle and elementary schools have shown better, but ultimately unacceptable, student performance. In fact, data shows that, on average, the longer a student remains in the Jefferson Cluster the worse his or her achievement results will be.

Community support for the school is uneven, leading to a repeating cycle. Reports of low academic performance will typically bring out community groups who threaten (or implement) a boycott to force District action on a listof concerns. The District will respond by saying it is very concerned about academic performance at Jefferson, blame most problems on students’ homes, and claim that it is already implementing most of what the community is asking. After a few public meetings and news articles, things quiet down until the next time low academic performance becomes a public issue. Community newspapers publish few articles about the school, except when controversy is at its zenith. Occasionally they will congratulate a student or the Jefferson Dancers for their accomplishments.

The Jefferson Cluster is a case study of problems facingurban, minority-population schools: seemingly constant changes in school leadership; the lack of commitment from students, parents, and the community at large; a willingness to try some new, often unproven reform every few years, and; the District’s inability to focus on solving the academic achievement puzzle. All this adds up to thousands of young people — the majority of Jefferson graduates over more than 30 years — who are left behind.

About the author: Matt Evans is a Principle with Wagontire Consulting in Portland. He is a former Executive Director of Oregon Tax Research and has been involved in public policy formation and research for nearly two decades.

About Cascade Policy Institute: Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s premier policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility and economic opportunity. To that end, the Institute publishes policy studies, provides public speakers, organizes community forums and sponsors educational programs. Cascade Policy Institute is a tax-exempt educational organization as defined under IRS code 501(c)(3). Cascade neither solicits nor accepts government funding, and is supported by individual, foundation and business contributions. Nothing appearing in this document is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of Cascade or its donors, or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before any legislative body. The views expressed herein are the author’s own. Copyright 2005 by Cascade Policy Institute. All rights reserved.

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