The mood was slightly tense at the North Eugene High School gym last week as parents, teachers, children and college students prepared to meet Nancy Golden, Oregon’s new chief education officer for the Oregon Education Investment Board and former superintendent of the Springfield School District.
Oregon’s former Chief Education Officer Rudy Crew abruptly left his post to pursue a college presidency in New York, and many in the education system were left wondering why his job was created in the first place, especially after Willamette Week and The Oregonian revealed a series of extensive travel expenses that had little to do with Oregon education.
At one table in the gym, a teacher questioned what progress a public forum could accomplish when administration is always talking semantics. Others pointed out that the use of vague terms like “equity lens” and “tight-loose system” doesn’t mean anything without results.
But Golden remained vivacious and enthusiastic in the face of difficult questions, and her overall philosophy on education seemed to be one of collaboration between teachers and administration to create a “seamless system” in which transitions between grade levels are smooth and consistent, a primary goal for the OEIB. With full-to-bursting class sizes, furlough days and layoffs still plaguing Oregon schools, Golden has a challenging year ahead of her. We caught up with her on the road Friday for a phone interview.
Did you feel that the Oct. 23 meeting at North Eugene went well?
I thought it was great. What I’m really liking is that these are people who want to be civically engaged — people invested in education, educators or community people — and I think they were really open to getting a better sense of what OEIB does. I think it’s about bringing out the issues, and there are some issues that could be worked on. It has to be more about working together for solutions.
What are your thoughts on engaging with the public and getting feedback from the education community?
To me, it’s absolutely critical. I’m spending a lot of time doing that just because some people need to understand what OEIB is, and it’s a big piece of managing the transitions and figuring out what the barriers are. I wouldn’t be able to understand that if I wasn’t out talking to the people who are working with kids in the classroom every day.
You’re replacing Oregon’s previous chief education officer, Rudy Crew. What are some things you think he did well, and what could he have done better?
Here’s the place I think an outsider has some problems — he came with experience from different states where they did things differently, and I think he showed a new way of going about it. He also let us know that process is important, but you’ve got to move; you can’t over-process. There’s a balance between talking about it and getting it done. He came with this absolute sense of urgency that we need to get it done. He did work with the OEIB, and we did come up with a strategic plan, which is still mostly in place.
I think one of the skills they say I have is a sense of vision, but also being a strong collaborator, and yet a person who still knows how to move forward. I feel this sense of urgency, but I think I work with people in a more process-based way than he did.
How do you think your experience as a superintendent in Springfield is helping you as chief education officer?
In Springfield we worked very collaboratively with our associations, and we did great work together. We realized that we really want the same things. For people who haven’t been in Oregon, they say it’s a unique place to be because we’re very process-focused. You listen to people, and they help you to co-create a vision. Based on that, you have to take it back out and get more feedback, and it gets stronger. It’s based on the idea that together we’re stronger than any one of us alone. I’m in a powerful position, but if I just tell people to do something, that doesn’t really work. You can’t just tell people to do something if they don’t believe in it.
What needs to change to get proper funding in order to reduce class sizes?
I think we have to change our whole tax structure. The way we’re funded is dependent on income tax, and that’s the least stable form. There needs to be more of an investment. The governor is working on reducing health care and creating a better economy, and there’s been some reduction in PERS [Public Employees Retirement System] benefits and increase of taxes in special session. But I think we need to reexamine our system of how we get funding for education. Nobody has come up with a proposal yet, but I hope we’re not short-sighted about that.
What are some of the most important topics you want to address in the next few years?
I think definitely creating the seamless system and being focused on what really works is important. We want to look at the transitions and what the barriers are, and look at beginning to overcome them. We adopted an equity lens, which means we need to be in touch with students in the achievement gap and figuring out how to get them out of it. I’m also really looking at how technology can transform learning. Technology really changes how learning happens and would allow more individualization. I really feel like I need to focus on bringing together some of the best minds of educational technology and see what possibility it holds for children and the people who work with them.
Could you explain the ‘tight-loose’ system and how it will help to give school districts more flexibility with testing and teaching practices?
Tight is referring to the set of standards, and ours is the Common Core state standards. For example, in first grade, kids need to know their sounds and things like that. So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to teach about this in things like math and social studies, but the “how” we go about it is really up to the local districts. So we’re not going to tell the local districts how to teach. I’ll get letters from someone who thinks this curriculum has to be in every school, and what I’ll say is that the state board has adopted standards, and it’s up to every school district to say what they’re going to do.