Some of the largest shifts in education aimed at better preparing the future workforce are taking place not at the district or industry level, but all the way up at the state level. In 2011 Gov. Kitzhaber, with the support of educators, businesspeople and lawmakers, passed a series of educational reforms, including the 40-40-20 goal, which aims by 2025 to have 40% of Oregonians attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher,
40% earning a two-year degree or technical certificate and 20% earning at minimum a high school diploma or equivalent.
“We believe that goal broadly reflects the type of workforce that will be required in 2025, and that will help drive the state economy by then,” says Ben Cannon, a former teacher who now serves as Kitzhaber’s education policy advisor.
At present, Cannon says about 29% of Oregonians reach the first 40% goal and earn a four-year degree; only about 19% attain the middle 40%, which often comprises two-year degrees or technical certificates in STEM-related fields.
“That’s where we have to do the most work,” says Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association, which worked closely with lawmakers on implementing the recent reforms.
Achieving 40-40-20, Cannon says, will at first take two major pushes: one to seamlessly connect all points along the pre-K through 20 learning continuum, and another having the state play a more active role in strategically investing education dollars. “We should be a more active investor,” he says, noting that the co-chairs’ proposed general fund education budget for the 2013-15 biennium was just under $8.5 billion. In Kitzhaber’s version of that budget, the state would invest in several specific outcomes — reading by third grade, for example — and at least $14 million to help improve students’ career readiness, particularly in STEM programs.
Similarly, Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian has requested $20 million to improve or help start new vocational education programs at up to 70 schools around the state. “Investment in STEM is designed to respond to very specific workforce needs, so we are moving in that direction,” Cannon says.
That movement ultimately aims to help grow the greater economy — and to address anxieties about Oregon, and American, competitiveness in an era characterized by waning education funding, the loss of traditional manufacturing jobs and the expansion of tech-oriented economies in China and India. To that end, the growing obsession with STEM education is part of a larger cultural narrative about the nation’s decline and possibilities for rebirth.
An increased focus on STEM and CTE programs won’t solve all the state’s economic challenges. But it will help students of all learning styles and interests find meaningful career pathways, while ensuring major Oregon employers such as Leatherman, Digimarc and PCC Structurals will be able to find the skilled workers they need right here. And although many claim the current reforms and level of investment don’t go far enough, the big-picture goals of more rigorous education — STEM and otherwise — enjoy widespread support.
“As the governor has put it, you can go in a circle of prosperity or you can circle down the drain,” Deckert says. “The way we’re heading with education, we’re hoping to keep everyone on the prosperity initiative.”