The Road to a 4-Year Degree

Thomas & Theodore

Determined Immigrant Students

Stephen Wasserberger

Parent & Educational Program Leader

Heber Miguel

First-Generation College Graduate

Alternative Pathways

Duncan Wyse

Business & Education Leader

Shabab Mirza

Strategic Skill Builder

Hanna Dörnhofer

Non-traditional Pathtaker

High School Stories

Gerald Scrutchions

High School Educator

Thompson Morrison

Education Innovator

Biraj Bisht

Education Researcher

The Road to a 4-Year Degree

Millennials: A Recess in Education

Thomas & Theodore

Thomas & Theodore are two Vietnamese immigrants that found their ‘Education Pathway’ through the land of the brave and free. Their story begins in the rural quiet outskirts of Portland in a town called Gresham.

Thomas began his journey six months prior to Theodore’s arrival. He had the inauspicious privilege of landing in America which was difficult for his parents whose education concluded with middle school. A fortunate paperwork paperwork error resulted in Thomas joining a typical structured course rather than English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. This gave him an advantage and created in Thomas’s words, “a different dynamic” - and tension between him and among his fellow Asian students. Still young, and Thomas quickly soaked up the cultural knowledge and English language from enthusiastic peers whom he met once he transferred to a private school. Now into his sophomore year heading towards a Bachelor's degree from one of Portland’s leading private colleges, Thomas is focused on medical school and a future as a doctor.

Theodore is the son of two immigrant parents had been doctors in their native Vietnam, but sacrificed their careers for the opportunity to migrate to AMwith the understanding that moving to America would provide better opportunities of education for their children. Theodore and his family arrived when he was around the age of eleven and just in time for seventh grade, which he attended at a middle school that lies on the cusp of Portland and Gresham. It was at this time that he met Thomas and although their time together was short lived, Theodore attributes a large part of his success to Thomas, especially learning how to speak English fluently. To this day, they remain close friends. Theodore pursued college on his own accord, driven and motivated to achieve his own doctorate. Oddly enough his parents who at one time were considered doctors disapproved his desire to pursue the path of a doctor. The education pathways of these scholars practically mirrors one another. Theodore and Thomas are both from Vietnam and are both equally driven to earn the honorable title of a doctor.

Cultural Exchange, Diversity Migraine

While growing up both Theodore and Thomas shared the same experience of making friends with other immigrant students at their school and during those days they both felt for the first time what it was like to be discriminated against. Theodore describes where he initially went to school as having “a good population of Asians.” However, he expressed at length that this did not necessarily mean it was to his benefit. He goes on to state “I felt a lot of discrimination in that area because… well the Asians were not something new, not something strange it was ok for other groups to make fun of the Asians.” The second middle school Theodore attended was “predominantly white so I was like one of the first Asian kids in the school and they treated me like the cool kid and they (the students) were very supportive, it was an inverse effect.” This set the precursor of a gradual assimilation into the American populous and thus recognizing what it meant to be the minority in a new land at an early age.

Thomas goes on to say, “The school we first started in was very diverse, a large immigrant population in that area of town” and Theodore adds, “it was more discriminating.”

However, unlike most typical cases, they moved to different parts of Portland that allowed Thomas to excel at private high school and Theodore going to an all white high school that gave him a popularity advantage. Thomas admitted there was a distinct advantage both academically and societal when you attend a high school that mainly consists of white students, “it creates a different dynamic when you’re the only (Asian) kid around versus the one Asian kid with two hundred plus others as well.”

Discipline Versus Creativity

To this day Theodore’s parents are unable to claim the title they once had as doctors due to the nature of the current medical system and the costs associated with attending the entirety of undergrad college and medical school. The medical education system in Vietnam doesn’t require you to take perquisites in order to become a doctor. According to Thomas, you have the ability to dive straight into medical school. The government currently plays a key role in Vietnam’s education system and there is very little tolerance for insubordination. This strict structure honed their academic focus so when they attended high school, they were prepared to absorb the knowledge. Thomas acknowledged, “that discipline really helped both of us excel academically because then we came here and it was easy.” Theodore stated, “outside of the US, people take education very seriously but in America they allow greater creativity.”

They noticed initially that their fellow classmates would take high school very nonchalant. They admitted that there is a distinct difference attending college. Thomas broke it down by simply saying, “You will get the success that you want. You put your energy, you put your effort, and you work hard and you will get where you need to go. American freedom is this idea that you own your own success and they create opportunities but you have to take those opportunities... in America it’s like there’s all these open doors you can get yourself through.”

America the Brand

Due to the nature of both Thomas and Theodore being born outside of the US, when we touched on the subject of education being free in other countries around the world it stirred up in their minds a stance on the inequity of private education in comparison to government funded colleges. The more wealthy individuals still pay for their children to attend upper echelon institutions. While attending college they have met students from abroad from both Canada and Southeast Asia alike, who have been sent by their parents to obtain a degree with the American stamp of approval.

“Here, it’s more what you can afford in theory right, if you’re a poor kid they kind of balance the scale out by having you pay less or not pay at all, if you are a richer kid you kind of have to pay for it and this levels the playing field.” This is Thomas’ outlook on the difference of how education is distributed in America compared to other countries. Thomas continues to make the distinction “Whereas in some countries, where everybody can go to a free school, the wealthier people send their kids to different schools. America has been a super power for so long it has dominated the world stage,” Thomas notes, “there is something special about the quality of the American education… if you have this USA tag on your name you know you mean something. It’s complicated.” In conclusion he chalks up his global interpretation of education by saying, “I wouldn’t downplay other countries’ education but it is true that the American degree is valued much more.”

Budget for College

Thomas and Theodore both received scholarships and or assistance from their current colleges with the exception that Thomas received an additional scholarship to cover the expense of his private high school tuition. They both acknowledge that for most students that had families that came from wealth it was typical to not feel the burden of tuition. The students that came from lower income families would generally see this as an exorbitant expense with their moderate income. Usually they had to approach the cost associated with continuing their education from two aspects: either through academic accolades or athletic scholarships. This would begin to open doors to premier educational institutions and the key networks they hold within. Even though the number of colleges Thomas and Theodore applied to ranges in the double digits, the overall consensus in selecting an institution came down to the numbers. financial constraints were the greatest factor.


It is no secret that Oregon’s education system currently has a systemic epidemic of high school dropouts. When we informed Thomas and Theodore of Oregon’s goal of having a hundred percent high school graduation rate by 2025, we were met with laughter. Theodore in a confounded tone told us that this goal was “rather ambitious.” In his opinion the current state of education in Oregon “is one of the worst.” Thomas chimed in optimistically “However, college graduates are probably rising, a bit.” When asked what they believed was the percentage of college attendees among their high school colleagues, Theodore felt it was somewhere around a little over the fifty percent mark which by today’s standards mirrors the state average. “I think a lot of it has to come with where you went to high school, which high school you went to,” Thomas continued, “this is where I think the inequality comes in, if you go to high school in a poorer area that number drops,” that number being the graduates.

Thomas made the contrast that private high school students will ultimately attend college whereas public schools were plagued with a variety of disadvantages especially if you are in a district of low income distribution.

Thomas spoke more of this obvious disparity, “Say you go to like north Portland, you know (or) deep South-East Portland, and if you go to a high school like the ones downtown - you got like Lincoln, or Grant, or Benson - those are a little bit better but you start going a little further out like Madison, Jefferson, or Franklin those numbers (high school graduates) start dropping.”

“If you look at like the income distribution in Portland area and like the high school performance, they almost mirror each other.You got the west side schools like Sunset, Beaverton,” Thomas depicts the broader picture, “the people out there, more the upper middle class, those public schools do well, you know, if not almost as well as a private school.” The upside to all this was that the students that made it to college usually don’t dropout and if they do it is on a rare occasion. Thomas, despite seeing the rise of students graduating from colleges saw the maximum potential increase in high school graduates somewhere around “twenty percent” placing the overall rate of about eighty percent in all by 2025.

Artisan Dropouts

According to Thomas and Theodore colleges and high schools alike have been implementing STEM in their core curriculum whilst slashing art related courses left and right. There has been a huge emphasis that if you seek a STEM education it will put you on a safer career path in the current job market. Thomas and Theodore are both focused on becoming doctors but what they’ve witnessed during their high school years was that the exceptional students that gravitated towards art generally became isolated. They both believed that the students interested in fine arts had restrictions placed on pursuing their passion due to the art cuts, which in turn, led to multiple dropouts. They encourage high school students eager to pursue art to grind out high school even if their needs are not being fulfilled and once they reach the level of college they will be able to experience a vast amount of educational opportunities that they wouldn’t be able to obtain otherwise. The takeaway from both Thomas and Theodore was a unanimous agreement that no matter what your approach is to education, always follow your heart and work hard at becoming the master of the craft that you value most regardless of what others’ opinions may be.


A Parent's Perspective

Stephen Wasserberger

Stephen agreed to come talk to me at Hack Oregon about both Marathon Scholars and his experiences with education in the state of Oregon. I met Stephen Wasserberger for a short interview and I was immediately curious about how an established architect got into non-profit work.

Stephen grew up in New York, arrived to University of Oregon at seventeen, remained in Oregon and became an architect. He went on to found his own architecture and design firm Wasserberger and Design Group Architects. In addition to Stephen’s architectural work, he worked in a number of leadership positions at the forefront of multiple organizations that serve the struggling and underprivileged. Stephen’s most recent work includes Marathon Scholars, a scholarship and longitudinal mentorship program driven by the understanding that education is a key tool for overturning generational poverty.

Wasserberger established the lasting effect of early education on success. In an anecdote, Stephen described how he built a house, and quipped that most infrastructure could be seen as a series of interactive components. Stephen characterized his relationship with the sciences – STEM, in 40/40/100 vernacular – as fraught but necessary, requiring a heavy time investment in post secondary education. Stephen pointed out that most specialists draw upon the synthesis of intuition and discipline to achieve their work, and that a strong education generally fosters traits that enable future successes. This understanding shaped his approach to education with his own children.

Stephen met his spouse, a native Oregonian, and along the way raised three more native Oregonians – all went to college. All three of his children attended an elementary school his spouse attended as a child two doors away. High school would reveal critical flaws to the educational system that I think drove Stephen towards action. The school’s teaching methods were singular and conventional with no room or time for heterogenous learning styles, with little to provide for those who did not excel in test-based settings. Among his children was a precocious, tactile learner. Her high school did not meet her needs especially well. Stephen recounted the struggle to find and provide the necessary support to supplement the education high school provided. This only made the picture more grim for those struggling in less privileged conditions.

Wasserberger illustrated a series of interlocking, well-intentioned systems that were often dysfunctional. The high school lowered its standards to accommodate struggling students to prevent them from falling out. This left students ill-prepared for their futures, regardless of the quality of their achievements in school. With the pressure to manage struggling students, that the school system reduced struggling cases as problems to be managed, as opposed to students that required further engagement to excel. This environment impacted the degree to which teachers could shape their students. The school system that Stephen described frightened me: through collectively lowering its standards to meet standards, this affected the future of the entire student population.

I walked away realizing the steep, critical importance of education. Marathon Scholars identifies post-secondary education as a vital force in breaking generational poverty cycles but that those opportunities are out of reach for those who need it the most. From my observations, Oregon’s education system lacked the necessary means and outlook to support students with unique needs. Marathon Scholars provides essential support structures necessary to give students a fighting chance. I think Stephen leads the fight for education at Marathon Scholars with the intent of slowly changing the landscape to give others a fighting chance.

Written by Christopher Lu


Heber the Trailblazer

Heber Miguel

Heber was born to two Hispanic parents that emigrated from Mexico. A first-generation Oregonian, he was the first in his immediate family to graduate from college. Even though his parents supported him in pursuing higher education, they were unable to provide all of the things he needed to complete his degree. Through many trials, he created his own path.

He also shared his experience, passing along information to his siblings and cousins resulting from encounters with career counselors, paperwork filing, and education support organizations. Heber was not one to shy away from adversity. He reached out, receiving inspiration from successful entrepreneurs in the community as well as his own family members. These mentors planted seeds of wisdom he would draw from in the years to come.

The Grind

Growing up in Forest Grove, a small community west of Portland, Heber attended high school with many other Latinos who comprised the vast majority of students at the school. The balance (under 10%) was mostly Caucasian. He was the only Hispanic in football, basketball and advanced placement mathematics courses. This allowed him to develop more diverse friendships than many of his Latino peers.

“My parents didn’t go to high school and didn’t go to college. I didn’t really have a role model or someone to look up to,” Heber explained. His mother encouraged him to go to college but no one in his family really knew how to help him make the transition. Heber recalls “not knowing the steps or the processes of applying to college, getting financial aid, the importance of meeting with your advisors…I had to learn that all on my own.”

Role Models

He began his college journey studying politics but eventually graduated from PSU with a degree in business finance and economics and with a minor in computer science. This shift was inspired his uncle – a key figure in his life.

He describes the tale of his uncle as a twenty three year old that immigrated to Portland from Mexico with little or less than the shirt on his back. He didn’t have a college education but Heber noted that his uncles collectively were “street smart.” His uncle stayed with his parents in their garage without any knowledge of English. Even with the odds stacked against him, he soon found work in sales, working long hours to save up enough money to start his own company. Heber reveals what kind of future hard work will provide from his own uncle's testimony: “He had nothing. If you had to bet whether my uncle was going to be successful or not, everything was against him - a whole new country, a whole new culture, but he did not let that stop him.” Heber shared with great pride that his uncle’s company now employs eighty people and produces over ten million dollars in annual revenue.

Ever since he was little, Heber was surrounded by encouraging men that strived to succeed in America, never hesitating at the sight of an obstacle. His uncle influenced him to take on a new direction in college because he recognized his nephew’s ability to learn business infrastructures and frameworks. This critique helped propel Heber in the direction of business.

Quandary of a Quagmire

As we filled Heber in on the state of Oregon’s desire to increase the percentage of graduates in 2025 to a hundred percent, he recalled the priorities of the administrative staff during his high school career. Heber started by explaining “I felt like a lot of it was a numbers game with regards to graduation rates and increasing test scores, I think that was the main priority for administration at my high school.”

The achievements and incentives that the principal and staff at his high school developed due to the new policies enacted by George Bush through No Child Left Behind. Heber continues to state “Pretty much what my high school was doing was preparing you to pass a test not preparing you to get an education. All they cared about were the test scores.” Heber noted that the policy did not benefit the education system at least not from what he witnessed at his high school. Instead, the agenda of these policies hampered the students through a slew of workshops solely focused on increasing test scores. In spite of his criticalness of policies and staff, Heber remembered the teachers during his junior and senior year expressing their concern “because they were there to teach not prepare for a test.”

The Blueprint

Heber being the first in his family to complete college has become the role model and as the role model he took a look at the various channels to influence others like himself through the human mind, physiology, and behavior. Heber spoke of his time at Nike when they were faced with overcoming a particular educational challenge and societal dilemma in Kenya. The rate of women that never attended a day in an educational setting above elementary school in their entire lives was astronomical. In Heber’s words, “A lot of girls didn’t go to college or didn’t go to high school. Pretty much a girl when she turns thirteen she becomes a mother so she has no adolescent years... The solution was education. If you educate the girl, she will be able to sustain herself.”

According to Heber, multiple companies invested a large-scale overhaul of educational resources and even provided institutions. However, because it was not ingrained in Kenyan culture or customs, no one attended the first day the establishments opened. Heber describes the solution: “Nike created a hip-hop artist in Kenya and that would promote and empower the woman but through music. Obviously it was a marketing tactic so you could change behavior… Little by little, they put nuggets (ideas) inside girls and it has increased the numbers (of girls that attend school).”

Heber sees the dropout rates in Oregon as a similar situation. “Their issue was to change the behavior of that culture…and I think this is the same issue of what is happening now: you have to change the culture.”

Advocate for the 4-Year

Heber recognizes the various routes someone could take as both an entrepreneur and scholar. From code academies, vocational institutions, and even online education programs, there are many options to make one’s way into the technology market. Heber saw the tech boom and made a life changing decision to alter his degree.

“I would definitely advocate hundred percent to go through the four years (of college) because during those four years, not only are you learning how to think on your own and question things around you, but also connecting with people that are eventually going that way and in ten or fifteen years those people are probably in high positions.” He sums it up by stating, “The networking, the ability to think for yourself, and having access to the professors - I would advocate going through those four years (of college).”

His stance and major concern on taking the alternative course: “Everything is too daunting and nothing is systematically organized, so it may be a de-motivator, but some people thrive in that environment.”

All in all, Heber made it clear that if educational change will ever be implemented, it is going to take a community of role models willing to share their knowledge on a consistent basis with future generations. Whether that is in person, one on one, a quarterly town hall discussion at the nearest high school, or even a video webcast. Connectivity and communication from people achieving what they believe is educational success in their respective fields will funnel into inspiration for young adults.

Written by Cristovu Visiosilva


Alternative Pathways

Two-year Programs, Certificates, and Oregon’s “Middle 40%” Goal

Duncan Wyse

Oregonians understand what it means to increase high school graduation rates – the “100” in 40/40/100 – and we know a lot about how to do it. Schools, parents, and students themselves know they bear much of the responsibility. Engaged communities also help.

We also know what raising degree completion rates in four-year colleges and universities is about – the first “40” in 40/40/100. Again, students and schools play primary roles, and increasingly, so do the nonprofit and business communities. Oregon colleges and universities have proven they can make college accessible – especially among low-income students and students of color – with the help of state incentives. So one can imagine them also adjusting to the state’s new approach to funding, which ties resources to degree completion, rather than to student enrollment, as had been the case since 1999.

But in between, at the level of certificates and two-year degrees, we find the middle “40” in 40/40/100. And things are a little fuzzy.

  • What exactly is the intended goal for the 40%? There’s not much detail in the enabling legislation (SB 253, 2011) which reads, “40 percent shall have earned an associate’s degree or postsecondary credential.”
  • We know what an associate’s degree is, but what is a credential? Subsequent policy briefs and summaries have used the language of certificates, or even “meaningful” certificates. Together with badges, two-year degrees, and industry certifications, certificates are awarded by a vast array of training providers, from public community or technical colleges to private career schools to state agencies – which award apprenticeship certificates and licenses to qualified individuals in a range of skill areas.

Which ones should count as credentials under Oregon’s policy?

“That’s the question,” suggests Duncan Wyse, President of the Oregon Business Council. “We don’t really know. We’re starting with a broad understanding and we expect to become more specific over systems begin to shift toward delivering skills measured by proficiency, not just time spent in the classroom.”

This uncertainty is not unique to Oregon – and could be seen as a positive. The education and skills training market is dynamic. But it is also regulated, governed, or otherwise influenced by policy in a myriad of different ways across campuses, communities, and states – resulting in different credit and articulation agreements among and between different schools. This makes it challenging for students to navigate their way to the right provider of the right skills, and to aggregate their learning in ways that the market recognizes and rewards.

“The problem is that students get completely confused. They see lists of classes and credits that transfer or do not…[and communicate acquired skills in different ways.]. So the big model now is ‘guided pathways’ [and connected credentialing systems.]”

A common credentials framework and the idea of linked “stackable” credentials (including certificates) that enable students to turn bits of learning over time into degrees that have value in the labor market is a priority of the US Department of Education, the US Department of Labor, and major national foundations and nongovernmental organizations. The same is true for policy makers outside the US, as schools (and the companies that hire their alumni) operate increasingly internationally.

The number of certificates awarded has skyrocketed more than 800 percent over the past 30 years. In 1984, less than 2 percent of adults 18 and older had a certificate as their highest educational attainment; by 2009, the percentage had grown to almost 12%.

Wyse sees a coming wave of innovation within community colleges and other certificate providers. “It’s a journey,” he argues. “We need a lot more nimbleness in the credential system...but it will mean new players and changing roles.”

Why the Rise of Credentials?

The economy is one reason.

Wyse reflects, “It was once possible to leave high school and go out and get a job that could support a very nice life … and not that long ago. Higher education was a giant sorting system but people who didn’t go to college could still do well.”

Things have changed.

But Wyse says it is more than fear of economic peril that’s driving the push for higher skills and credentials, at least in Oregon. “It is a shift in expression of the belief that everyone can learn and achieve much higher standards than we’ve built systems for...but they don’t all learn in the same way [or on the same timeline].”

“We need an educational system that meets a much wider range of needs – one that can deliver on the promise of preparing every Oregonian for success in the 21st Century.”

A credentialing system, supported by smart assessments that insure proficiency rather than validate time in the classroom, offers the promise of greater flexibility in education and training and greater transparency around skills in the labor market. Doing this right could make learning work better for people currently disadvantaged by traditional approaches – like students who are working, married, parenting, or otherwise non-traditional and who now comprise the majority of students participating in post-secondary education. It could also help diversify the workforce in STEM and other fields that have not been accessible to women and people of color.

How Does Oregon Stack Up?

If the goal is for 40% of us to hold certificates or two-year degrees by 2025, where are we now? We’ve got some data problems - we can and have measured education and skills attainment in different ways at different intervals. This will likely be an issue for some time to come as we make needed changes at both policy and operational levels. But despite marginal differences, the data do point in the same direction: we’ve got a ways to go.

Oregon’s ten-year plan – a 2012 vision document that has guided education budgeting and policy decisions since – used 2010 data to establish a baseline of 18% (17% among younger Oregonians ages 25-34). A 2013 EMSI study used the criteria “some college” as a proxy for middle skills and found that 26% of Oregonians meet this threshold, placing the the Oregon at the high end of state rankings.

Our own cohort shown in the Education Pathways tool shows that 2,125 (of 41,603) have earned two-year degrees or certificates as their highest educational credential – or 5% of that cohort. There are caveats here – these students are in their mid-twenties, giving them plenty of time to continue to learn, and because our data only indicates the highest credential, it’s possible that four-year degree earners also hold two-year degrees or certificates and may have appeared in a different category if we had analyzed the data before they continued on to a four-year program.

Perhaps more concerning are the inequities revealed by the data. Students in poverty appear to have had much more difficulty achieving credentials, earning just 15% of two year degrees and 21% of certificates, despite comprising 31% of the students in the cohort. These students were overrepresented among those whose highest credential was a high school diploma (or no diploma) – 88% of students in poverty are represented in these two groups compared to 67% of students not in poverty.

Even more stark inequities exist by race and ethnicity. For example, of the 777 Native American students in the cohort, a high school diploma is the highest credential 91% have achieved – and 277 of them (35%) fell short of this. Fourteen of these students – less than 2% – achieved a two-year degree. This is a great distance from the goal of 40%.

Where From Here?

Wyse expresses enthusiasm for the changes the state is making to increase Oregonian’s educational attainment beyond high school. “The good news is, we now – for the first time – have a single body focused on that question – the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.” The commission was established as part of the package of educational reforms introduced in 2011 and is charged with bringing together what had been a disjointed collection of governing boards and administrative agencies into a coherent whole – for the long run.

“We need to understand that to achieve a major change in result we need to change the system. We need a broad and deep conversation about what teaching and learning... should look like in the 21st century.”

It’s time for such a conversation.

Written by Kristin Wolff


A Necessary Detour

Shabab Mirza

Nearing the end of his junior year in college, Shabab realized that the bachelor’s degree awaiting him might not be enough to secure a job. Over the years, he had seen quite a few recent graduates turned down from one position after another despite meeting all academic requirements. Worried that a similar struggle lay in store for him, Shabab decided that he needed to take a detour in his education pathway.

“Most of the graduates I talked to were very smart and definitely competent – and they admit that their college education helped them excel in their professions later on,” explains Shabab, now a freshly minted graduate from Reed college. “What college didn't prepare them for was landing their first jobs.”

This plight of the recent graduate is not limited to the few people Shabab happened to encounter. Sifting through then-current headlines paints a grim story for those with “Frayed Prospects, Despite a Degree,” frequently categorized as “Young, Educated and Jobless.” Annual reports from the Economic Policy Institute indicate that the unemployment rate among young college graduates has steadily declined from 8.8% to 7.2% between 2013 and 2015. However, these rates are still higher than the country's overall unemployment rates in the respective years as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics: 6.7% in 2013 and 5.6% in 2015 (latest data available for both years).

High unemployment among young people can be attributed to a number of factors – one of the more common ones being that these grads are simply unlucky, idled by an economy that hasn't fully recovered from the Great Recession. Many recent grads expect to face numerous challenges getting a job, keeping it, and moving up.

Shabab identified another challenge.

Whatever his potential employers find impressive about his resume, Shabab was pretty confident it was not going to be his GPA. Research presented by Rojstaczer et al estimates that the average college GPA has been rising at a rate of 0.15 per decade since the Vietnam war, when flunking out of school meant enlisting in the draft. Apart from making the GPA a vague metric in itself, this phenomenon adds pressure upon graduates from schools that either attempt to curb grade inflation or manage to restrict it to the lower end of the spectrum -- schools like Reed College in Portland. Shabab decided that he needed to get some work experience that could serve as a better signal of his abilities than his grades.

There was another problem.

Originally from Bangladesh, Shabab is an international student. As any other international student, he is well versed in US Immigration 101 – if a job is not directly a part of his academic program, he does not have work authorization for it during the semester.

At Reed, Shabab had access to numerous grants, fellowships and other resources to pursue internships over the summer. However, Reed does not provide academic credit for such work, so it would not be possible to find part-time paid work during the semester.

Shabab laid out his plans for the next two years: he was going to take time off from Reed, enroll into an associates degree program at Portland Community College (PCC), and come back to Reed to graduate in 2015, when he expected the economy to be in slightly better shape.

“One of the first things I noticed when I started at PCC was that everyone was always reminding me to finish my degree” says Shabab. At first, he found it strange to see posters across campus and programs designed specially to encourage students to stay on track to complete their education. He later realized that this was because there is a large number of students that don't stick around long enough to get their degrees.

For some, it is likely because they need to juggle the full time commitment of being a student, with the many other commitments they already have as full-time employees and student-parents. For others, including Shabab, going to community college isn't really about the degree.

“Some of my classmates were enrolled just so they could get a particular certificate, or to learn a specific skill they needed to advance their careers.”

There were many options for students to tailor their coursework to get exactly what they needed – if you didn’t want to take the whole 2 year associates degree in accounting, you could still take the 4-month certification.

Having enrolled with the intention of getting work experience, degree completion wasn't at the top of Shabab's priorities. He applied to part-time jobs in Portland, which seemed to not be very abundant. Moreover, he found himself competing in an “over-qualified” pool of candidates – those with master’s degrees and PhDs.

He soon began working at Business for Culture and Arts as a research intern. After that, he found another internship at Mercy Corps. Both of these were structured around PCC's Cooperative Education program, for which Shabab says he has a lot of respect. Additional structure and regulations were also in place due to his international student status. Mainly intended to protect students from being exploited by employers, these regulations actually made for a very productive working environment for Shabab.

“Since the program required that I have specific learning objectives at my internship, there was an expectation that my supervisors would take the time to coach me. Not that they were unwilling to do so, but the structure provided by PCC made it easier for them to ensure that I was learning new things.”

The long-distance learning options also allowed Shabab to complete a summer internship at Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C. By taking online classes in addition to his internship, he was able to maintain full-time student status at PCC.

At the end of the year, Shabab completed his Associate of General Studies along with gathering extensive work experience, and forming invaluable professional connections. He attributes the job he was offered soon after at the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) directly to the experience he gained while at PCC. After four months as a temporary program assistant at RACC, he returned to Reed to complete his degree.

This May, he received his BA in Economics from Reed along with the other graduates from the class of 2015. Having formally entered the post-graduation job hunt, he says that the experiences and connections he built during his year at PCC have definitely helped him. He acknowledges that not everyone has the privilege of being able to afford spending additional years in school. But for those who can, he recommends community college as an excellent way to get certifications and work experience, while getting quite a few pre-requisite courses out of the way. He says that if he ever has a kid, his advice to them would definitely be to start at community college before beginning their bachelor’s degree.

Written by Sandesh Adhikary


DIY Education

Hanna Dörnhofer

Hanna remembers that when she was in second grade, her class at Brackett Elementary school in Boston, MA organized a reading competition. There was a prize for whomever read the most books during a certain time, and Hanna was ready to claim it. Unfortunately, the prize went to someone else. She doesn't remember what exactly happened – just that it was unfair, and that she was mad. She was so mad that she swore off reading altogether.

Unlike most second-graders, Hanna held her grudge long enough for her parents to take notice – and eventually take her out of the public schooling system entirely.

“Even now, I will usually just decide on something – and carry it through very strongly,” Hanna explains the theme that persists throughout the decisions that have shaped her education trajectory.

Parents throughout the country are educating their children outside of traditional private and public school for various reasons. Some are not satisfied with the quality of education in schools, some have religious differences with teachers, some may have qualms with the common core testing standards. Whatever the reason, this isn't a decision made overnight. Hanna's parents had their reasons as well.

Originally from Germany, Hanna's family lived in Menlo Park, California before moving to Massachusetts. Foreign nationals who spoke German as their first language, they qualified for a diversity scholarship to send Hanna to Peninsula School. She remembers this school being more like day care. Students were given the freedom to decide what activities they wanted to do – making clay pottery, woodworking, playing outside, or reading.

Classrooms such as these have quickly spread around this country, and the world, often encompassed under umbrella terms like non-traditional or alternative schooling. Generally, such programs focus on holistic development of students by providing them greater freedom to carve out their own educational paths. This ethos of self-directed learning immediately struck a chord with Hanna.

“I remember the moment I decided I wanted to learn to read. I grabbed a children's’ phonetics book that they had in the school, went to the corner of a room, and started trying to read.”

Since it was clear that Hanna was interested in reading, even without being instructed to do so, her parents were all the more concerned when she decided to simply stop. To them, it seemed like her classroom had somehow undone all the work she had already done for herself. Additionally, ever since she started at her new school, Hanna had stopped speaking German at home. All of these signs pointed towards a direction her parents did not want her education to go.

“I think of myself as a self-driven learner”, says Hanna, describing her experience being home-schooled. “That is why learning at home worked for me. I wouldn't recommend it to everyone”

Although the state of Massachusetts required some validation to make sure Hanna was actually learning at home, her education had very little structure. Her mother kept tabs on things like the books she checked out from the library, and the time they spent playing chess. She ordered textbooks and other materials from a distance learning curriculum. The learning environment at home remained quite similar to Hanna's first grade experience – all the way up to ninth grade.

“When I was in eighth grade, I made the decision that I wanted to go to public school.”

At this point, the family had moved to Austin, Texas, where Hanna became enthusiastic about attending a magnet school specializing in the sciences, the Liberal Arts and Sciences Academy. Since she had no official records from middle school, the only transcripts she had were documents that her mom had filled out by hand, estimating her progress. Without a standardized way of discerning Hanna's academic abilities, the school decided to admit her under probation - she would take extra tutoring with her teachers after class.

Despite never having had a formal, structured class in six years, Hanna had a surprisingly smooth transition into the public schooling system. Her teachers agreed that she didn't need the extra tutoring and was at par with her peers. She does admit that she felt like she was behind her classmates in math, having had her first formal math class in ninth grade. However, at the end of senior year, she had met all of the school's academic requirements, including math.

Since then, Hanna has been enrolled in what would generally be referred to as the traditional schooling system. She is currently a senior biology major at Reed. Even now, Hanna tells us that self-directed learning continues to help her succeed in school, and any other project she decides to undertake. The prevalence of online learning programs, often focusing on particular job-relevant skills, has made the self-motivated learning model especially important. Currently exploring options outside of academia after Reed, Hanna is set to carve out her career path leveraging her experience in self-directed learning - just as she did for her educational path.

Written by Sandesh Adhikary


High School Stories

Doing What Works...and Doing What’s Good

Gerald Scruchions

In May 2015, Oregonians woke up to an alarming headline: “Oregon has Worst Graduation Rate in US.” It provoked a mix of outrage, embarrassment, and resignation, and raised serious questions about why so many young people were not making it through high school and what was being done about it.

Gerald Scrutchions is an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) instructor and social studies teacher at Roosevelt High School. AVID is a college preparatory program offered at 15 schools in the Portland Public Schools district.

“It’s about culture,” explains Gerald, now in his second year at Roosevelt, “we’re trying – schoolwide – to teach the skills students need to be college and career ready so they have good options available to them when they graduate.” The skills training – emphasizing writing, inquiry, critical reading, collaboration, and organization – are complemented by hands-on college and financial-aid research and field trips to colleges, universities, and workplaces. “It emphasizes purpose…and learning in ways that build proficiency over time.”

We know these things do create pathways to enrollment in college or career training. AVID has an enviable success rate nationally, and in Portland, the first high school class to have completed the program in 2014 (Madison High School) reported a 100% graduation rate.

But a lot can get in the way: the AVID approach may not be reinforced at home and poverty, parenthood, and competing priorities – including sports – can undermine both teacher and student efforts. Programs like AVID may not be enough.

When we asked Gerald to name one thing that we had not yet discussed that had the potential to really help his students thrive, he replied immediately and with passion.

“Food health.”

That’s when things got really interesting.

“Roosevelt students depend on the school as a source of nutrition – nearly 100% qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. What we offer is just not good enough,” lamented Gerald. “So they don’t eat it, they go to McDonald’s or eat from snack carts.”

“We see kids eating hot fries for breakfast and then falling asleep at 10 in the morning.”

Gerald argued that school modernization – a controversial process Roosevelt is in the middle of – should include improving food services for students. “We have these amazing food carts all over the city that offer better, healthier options, and could generate interest in food systems, culinary careers, or entrepreneurship – even science in the context of the new STEM [Science Technology Engineering, and Math] lab.”

Gerald is spearheading a team to find ways to repurpose what is slated to be a fenced-in, sod-covered patch under the modernization plan, and turn it into raised beds – in the short term so that students can anticipate and help design the opportunities this might create. Portland maintains at least 40 public school community gardens, but all are located at elementary schools.

“A lot of our problems would be solved if we just figured out better ways to feed our kids. And growing things, good food – this is part of Oregon’s heritage.”

Growing food could also make STEM(s) very real.

Written by Kristin Wolff


Innovation: Rethinking What School Means

Thompson Morrison

A recent Brookings Social Mobility Memo post stated “[W]e need to rethink what “college” means. The system needs much more than tweaks in financing or regulation; it requires an entirely different...model.”

Thompson Morrison, Executive Director at Innovate Oregon, makes the same point about educational institutions at every level. And he and his colleagues are doing more than talking about what’s needed, they are iterating their way to a new kind of learning experience in the community of Dayton, Oregon, nestled in rural Yamhill County.

For the past year, Innovate Oregon has been working with Dayton’s high school and district leaders to create a new learning model – one that challenges 40/40/100’s premise that credentials are what matter most in our efforts to improve student achievement.

“We need to move from an assembly-line process to a dynamic process that gives students a reason to be in school.”

“We keep saying to them, ‘Trust us. Learn this. There’s a big prize at the end of the road.’ But they’ve [seen] many of their older brothers and sisters who’ve trusted in that promise get to the end of a four-year education...and go to work as baristas with debt that will shackle them for many, many years. They ask, ‘Why should I do that?’”

Morrison argues that the goal isn’t a degree. It’s students able to learn the skills they need to solve the problems they want to solve. “It’s about relevancy,” he exclaims.

That’s why Morrison has teamed up with educators, parents, students, and business leaders to reimagine how learning can happen in a community – in and out of the classroom.

“You can’t just say the current state of education is awful,” he argues, you have to provide an alternative, paint a bigger picture.”

Toward that end, Morrison has rolled-up his sleeves and become a teacher himself. Together with certified Dayton instructors and students, Innovate Oregon is finding ways to bring new methods and tools into the classroom.

“There have been millions and millions and millions of dollars spent by many people and many foundations trying to effect change that have failed...But the tech community has proven itself capable of innovation at scale...real transformation. So we are moving the tools and processes [proven successful in the technology industry] into the school environment.”

Enter the Sprint … and Trusses

Morrison points to policy, practice, and platforms as essential elements of the change to which Innovate Oregon and Dayton’s education partners aspire, arguing that, practices are the most important of these.

Common core, science standards, these and other policy goals are still there, but it’s at the level of practice [you really have to reimagine.]”

The partners launched an experiment: adopting the agile development model so common in the technology industry to accelerate and improve learning in a typical, rural, public school. The idea was to engage young people in learning needed skills individually as quickly as possible while working in teams on problems they care about for short, intense periods of time called sprints. At the end of the sprint, final products would be presented to peers, teachers, administrators, and community members.

The agile model required a fundamental shift in the role of the classroom instructor who had to find ways to encourage learning and skill-building without “teaching” to a whole classroom from a single lesson plan. As a first step, students began using Khan Academy, which helped them master basic concepts and progress at their own pace.

But what was a relevant team problem that required the use of trigonometry? One that could engage community members as well as students?

The answer? Trusses.

Building trusses requires the use of trigonometry (whether done by humans or as is now common, algorithms), and Oregon Truss is located just eight miles from Dayton High School. A member of the school board member knocked on the company’s door and convinced an engineer to help create a classroom challenge. Students were tasked with designing a truss for a 1,000 square-foot space and roof and estimating the constructions costs.

A sprint was launched.

“Three weeks later, teams rolled out their designs. One team developed a complete 3-D model” – the result of a team member with 3D printer and the ingenuity to help his teammates learn SketchUp so the team could effectively use the device.

Morrison reported that Dayton’s agile learning experiment was “transformational.” Teachers and educators from across the school, district, and neighboring districts have since expressed enthusiasm about learning from Dayton’s experience so they, too, can emulate the process.

(The next project selected by parents, teachers, students? Tiny houses. Stay tuned...)

Where from Here?

In Dayton, plans for the state’s first Inspiration, Innovation & Invention (I3) Center, combining a digital learning lab, machine shop, and makerspace, are underway.

The real innovation here, notes Morrison, is the not a curriculum, an intervention, or a teaching method, it’s a new way to approach learning – one that emphasizes purpose, invites diverse contributions, engages community.

This approach “cultivates a culture of problem solving.” And that, argues Morrison, is the skill set employers all say they need. “The problems are different but the application is the same.”

The model Morrison advocates is a departure from Oregon’s 40/40/100 vision and approach which is grounded in changing how the institutions help students accumulate degrees and credentials, and build expertise in specific in-demand jobs and careers. His approach favors skill-building over degree acquisition, and is less concerned with ‘skills gaps’ so often cited by employers and policy makers.

“The real problem is not the disconnect [skills gap], it’s the pace of change. The rate of innovation in education is what matters and the agile approach is so much faster and so much more scaleable [than anything we’ve seen.]”

Morrison acknowledges that adopting this kind of approach across education institutions at all levels is “a heavy lift” – one that will require moving beyond pilot and program to something of a social movement – but he is confident that “everyone knows we need to go there, even if it feels uncomfortable.”

When asked what 40/40/100 should be he replies, “The aspiration should be around empowering the next generation of makers and do we empower everyone to achieve greatness? How to we provide opportunities for every individual to demonstrate what they can do - help them learn what they need to learn to solve the kinds of problems they like solving.”

“That’s the conversation we need to be having not just how do we get people to have credentials.”

Written by Kristin Wolff


40-40-100: It’s About Management

Biraj Bisht

The biggest problem Oregon will face in achieving its 40-40-20 goal is managerial above anything else. This prescription comes from Biraj Bisht, a Research and Data analyst at Education Northwest, who works with education data from Oregon, Washington, and other regions in the Northwest.

There seems to exist a two-fold problem in managing a movement required to achieve 100% high school graduation by 2025. First is finding a way to develop consensus among all relevant institutions to develop the resources and momentum that is required. The second problem is finding a way to properly channel these resources towards closing down socioeconomic disparities in education.

“Education is a very politicized arena” says Biraj as he expresses his optimism for the 40-40-20 goal, but not without reservations.

The main managerial issue that he notices is getting all Oregon school districts to cooperate and strive towards a common goal. As Biraj explains, implementing a statewide educational policy is never as simple as the Oregon Department of Education telling the school districts what to do. Each district has its own priorities, and often has concrete plans for what it wishes to achieve.

Biraj further elaborates how the school’s geographic location can play a big role in amount of political autonomy they have. In Portland, schools are partially funded by property taxes. As one can imagine, schools in more urban and affluent communities tap into a more lucrative funding pool. The more funding a school has outside of the state’s contribution, the more difficult it might be to get them on board on plans against their interests. Along with providing political leverage, a school’s funding health greatly determines the extent to which they are able to introduce and sustain programs meant to usher in educational reform.

“This highlights the problem of achievement gap,” Biraj explains “Specifically the one that people don’t really talk about, the gap between rural and urban schools.

The phrase achievement gap refers to disparities in academic performances between students from various groups. It is also a phrase regularly found in economic research papers and educational reform manifestos. It is safe to say that solving any achievement gap is not easy, and is an area of great academic and public policy interest.

Over the past year, Biraj has been working closely with data related to Eastern Promise, an initiative devoted to providing high schoolers with access to college credit, and promote a culture of pursuing higher education. Getting high schoolers college-ready is also a large part of Oregon’s game plan of achieving the 40-40-20 goal. Biraj believes that focusing on college readiness is an important step towards closing down the urban/rural achievement gap.

One of the services offered by Eastern Promise is to provide resources for high school teachers to receive training and consultation from college faculty, as they organize college-credit courses in their own high schools. Offering in-house college credit courses is especially crucial in rural schools which schools tend to be a few hours from the nearest university. Motivating students to take extra college courses is not an easy task, getting them to take a 2 hour bus to do so is even more difficult.

After discussing the many roadblocks on the way to the 40-40-20 goal, Biraj reiterates that he thinks the goal is achievable. “Just the fact that there’s a goal is already a significant step forward. This creates more sources of funding for researchers and provides encouragement to any organisation attempting to make positive changes.”

Among other things, Biraj believes that the state and other parties need to channel available resources towards programs that target low income households, improve financial support to high-schools to teach college courses, and most importantly find a way to develop consensus among all the institutions striving for the same goal.

Written by Sandesh Adhikary & Kristin Wolff