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Unmasking Deception #2: Oregon's Education Director Delivers Fraudulent 'Equitable Graduation' Report
Issue #2 in a new series of stories titled "Unmasking Deception: Unveiling Lies, Corruption, and Intimidation in Oregon Public Education"
In the summer of 2021, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Governor Kate Brown signed Senate Bill 744 into law. This bill received both state and national news coverage for removing the Essential Skills proficiency requirement to receive a high school diploma until the 2024-25 school year.
Another section of the bill, which received far less coverage, has turned out to be much more impactful. The mandate in this section called on the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) to conduct a comprehensive review of Oregon high school diploma options and graduation requirements and produce a recommendation for changes by September 1st 2022. These recommendations, submitted to the legislature by ODE Director Colt Gill, are tainted by lies, misinformation, and activism masquerading as evidence.
While it was announced in January that Colt Gill will be retiring at the end of this year’s legislative session, his report & recommendations will have impacts for years to come unless challenged for the fraud they are. Through this and other stories in this Unmasking Deception series, I will provide the evidence of how Director Gill and other leaders in Oregon public education have not just damaged our education system, but have harmed students, families, staff, and communities in the process. Transparency is the precursor to accountability.
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Background on SB 744 and the Essential Skills requirement
There are nine essential skills that students should develop throughout grades K-12, but according to the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) website, only these three skill proficiencies are required for graduation:
Read and comprehend a variety of text
Write clearly and accurately
Apply mathematics in a variety of settings
These requirements to receive a high school diploma had already been paused for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years as part of Governor Brown’s COVID-19 pandemic response. However, SB 744 received far more attention as it was no longer about the pandemic, it was about “equity, accessibility and inclusivity”, per an op-ed written by Senator Michael Dembrow (D) and Representative Teresa Alonso Leon (D).
There was another section in the bill that did not receive much attention, but it is being used to transform Oregon diplomas and their requirements in a far more significant way than those skill proficiencies. Here is the portion of Section 1 that shows what ODE was instructed to do:
Section 1. (2) The Department of Education shall:
(a) Review state requirements for high school diploma options offered in this state, as those requirements are prescribed by ORS 329.451 and by rules adopted by the State Board of Education.
(b) Review state requirements related to demonstrations of proficiency in skills or academic content areas that are not related to career and technical education, with an emphasis on demonstrations of proficiency in Essential Learning Skills.
(c) Make recommendations for state requirements for high school diplomas in this state to reduce disparities and to ensure that every student will be on track to earn one of the high school diplomas.
The way that last item is worded is very troubling. This law directs ODE to ensure every student will be on track. It effectively gives ODE direction to “game the system” to ensure every student receives a diploma, otherwise they would be in violation of the law. This is the fundamental problem with equity (equal outcomes) vs equality (equal opportunities).
Here’s another example of a problem with the way the law was written:
Section 1. (3)(f) The identification of the causes of disparities that have resulted from the requirements for high school diplomas in this state.
This wording assumes the diploma requirements led to the disparities (i.e. a higher percentage of White students earn diplomas than Black students). This wording is a key issue. Again, it’s stating the disparities in students of different race and other groups receiving diplomas comes from, at least in part, the diploma requirements themselves. Just changing that 4th word from “the” to “any” would be far more appropriate, leaving the door open to unbiased analysis. Go back and re-read (3)(f) with that one change. Did you notice the difference?
Now here is another part of the law that I believe is worded properly, giving reviewers the room to collect evidence, apply critical thinking, and perform a true root cause analysis to determine if this is indeed an issue or not:
Section 1. (3)(g) The determination of whether the requirements for high school diplomas in this state have been applied inequitably to different student populations.
I can’t help but think of a phrase that originated in the computer science world but definitely applies here: garbage in, garbage out. That will make more sense as we continue exploring the work.
ODE begins the work mandated by SB 744
Colt Gill and his team spun into action shortly after SB 744 was signed into law. By the end of August 2021, ODE’s Office of Teaching, Learning & Assessment had put together this Work Plan, which lays out:
The project’s scope
Liaisons within and outside of ODE
Monthly work schedule and more
This document is significant as it shows Gill’s radical interpretation of SB 744 and the biased direction he wanted for the project. You can see this in the “Equity Levers” laid out for the implementation teams in their work plan:
Let’s focus on that first section for the project’s core team. The four bullets in “Equity Levers” came from “How to Be an Antiracist Educator” by Dena Simmons, a self-described activist, educator, and student of life. In that article, Simmons lays out her “…five actions for teaching for an antiracist future.” Those same bullets were in Simmons’ first action titled “Engage in Vigilant Self-Awareness” as you can see below:
I realize this is a lot to take in, but I believe this is important context to have before we dive into Gill’s final report & recommendations. These equity levers taint the entire process by substituting Critical Theory principles for genuine critical thinking. The two are NOT synonymous!
Identity, power and privilege, single narratives, and upholding whiteness… This approach alone should be a civil rights violation for discriminating on the basis of race, as it led to the production of a biased, radicalized set of recommendations.
Gill’s Senate Bill 744 Report - September 1, 2022
On the deadline specified in SB 744, Gill & team delivered their final report to the legislature (Community-Informed Recommendations for Equitable Graduation Outcomes). This lengthy report includes all the components requested by SB 744, including:
Review of current diplomas, requirements, and comparison with other states
Summary of engagement with teachers, communities, and more
Graduation & assessment data review and analysis
Recommendations for changes to requirements and laws
This 183 page report is extensive, but don’t let the size fool you. This report is loaded with lies. The lies aren’t always obvious as they involve omission, falsification, misinterpretation, exaggeration, and more. Identifying these lies involves a lot of time and research, some of which I have done and will share in the rest of this article. Given the significance of what I will share, I hope this will lead to a more thorough investigation of this report, Director Gill and his core team, how this went unnoticed until now, and the identification of other reports & recommendations to explore.
Lie #1: Systemic and teacher biases are significant causes of disparities
From the very beginning of this report, bias is raised as a key source for the disparities in graduation rates. This excerpt is from the executive summary on page 5.
Although graduation rate trends are moving in a positive direction, substantial inequities remain, such as experiences of systemic bias, limited access to adequate educational resources and educational guidance, and support from practitioners, such as school counselors and teachers. This is especially the case for students who identify as tribal citizens, Black/African American, Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native, Latino/a/x, people who have disabilities and/or are served through an Individualized Education Program (IEP), people who are identified as English learners/Emerging bilinguals while in high school, and/or people navigating poverty, houselessness, foster care and high mobility.
The second page of the executive summary then refers to bias again when mentioning the essential skills assessment:
The Assessment of Essential Skills graduation requirements were popular at the time that Oregon adopted them. Since then, most states have moved away from these types of redundant, and sometimes biased, requirements.
Then further on in the section analyzing graduation data, there is a mention of teacher bias influencing work sample scoring on page 66. For context, this is regarding using work samples as an alternative method of demonstrating proficiency. In other words, a student could submit a work sample instead of taking a state assessment to meet graduation requirements:
Because ODE does not have capacity to implement a monitoring system to help ensure that those work samples are being scored reliably, they may be a source of educator biases.
You have to keep in mind this report isn’t supposed to be an opinion piece. There is an expectation of intellectual honesty that the legislature should not have to specifically call out. There were over 100 citations in this report to identify sources of other information, yet no evidence or citation was provided to support these significant claims of bias.
The only attempt to provide evidence of bias that I could locate in this report was from this quote provided by an anonymous Oregon superintendent:
Sorry Director Gill, but that’s not going to cut it. This is what’s referred to as an “opinion”.
Lie #2: Cultural identity, belonging, and ethnic studies
In the recommendations that start on page 108, the report includes several bullets that seem fairly reasonable, such as:
Design and deliver education that supports students on their journey to earning an Oregon Diploma and successfully transitioning to their next steps after graduation.
Things immediately go off the rails though, starting at the top of page 109:
In addition to technical solutions, such as ensuring flexible access to courses, adaptive changes are needed within our K–12 education systems in order to transform them to better reflect the values and priorities of the communities they serve and the needs of our changing world. Improving high school graduation outcomes for students first involves ensuring that all students in Oregon feel a strong sense of belonging with their school, among their peers, from their educators, and in their communities.
The “sense of belonging” has become a more common phrase in Oregon public schools over the past 1-2 years, and so it is not a shock to see it show up in this report. What parent wouldn’t want their child to feel like they belong in school? But when we say “belonging”, are we talking about the same thing? And what evidence did Gill and his team provide to support this?
Back on page 84 in the report, you will find mention of belonging as part of the “Causes of Disparities” section. Unfortunately, the established pattern of lying is evident here as well.
Cultural identity and feeling of belonging is another factor that can impact graduation rates. Student’s sense of belonging at school can have a large impact on achievement. A recent meta-study examined 82 separate studies of student belonging, and described a sense of belonging as a prerequisite to a successful high school experience.
Notice that the report connects cultural identity to the feeling of belonging here. If they were to be read as two separate things then the sentence would have read, “Cultural identity and feeling of belonging are other factors…” See the difference there? Why does this small detail matter?
First off, Gill & team added the part about cultural identity. This was not part of the meta-analysis they cited as evidence (Korpershoek, et al., “Relationships between school belonging,” 641-680). Korpershoek’s article did not state a “sense of belonging as a prerequisite to a successful high school experience.” Here are actual statements from the article that are actually aligned with the research and analysis:
The meta-analytic results show that students who ‘feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment’ (Goodenow 1993, 80) are likely to perform better in school (e.g. academic achievement) and show more favourable motivational (e.g. mastery goal orientations), social-emotional (e.g. self-concept and self-efficacy), and behavioural outcomes (e.g. behavioural, cognitive, and agentic engagement).
This is how the author defined belonging, which is not the same as how ODE’s report did. That point alone is incredibly problematic and deceptive.
Our results further revealed a small positive association between school belonging and achievement (for school grades; and to a lesser extent for standardised test scores)
This was another interesting point in the article. The author acknowledges that, while there appeared to be a positive link between belonging and student achievement, it was relatively small.
I also wanted to include some additional quotes from the “Limitations and directions for future research” section of the article:
Our study underlines the relevance of adolescents’ sense of school belonging throughout secondary education. Readers should, nevertheless, bear in mind that our findings are based on a relatively small number of primary studies for some of the specific student outcomes…
The primary studies used various instruments to measure school belonging. Although results from highly unreliable instruments were excluded, the construct validity of the various instruments was often unclear.
Finally, the selected studies used cross-sectional designs; therefore, conclusions about causality cannot be drawn. [ . . . ] Hence, it is important to further investigate cause and effect in more detail, using longitudinal designs and well-targeted intervention studies.
The key takeaway from these three quotes is this: this was a study of studies (aka meta-analysis), and so while the author has provided their interpretations of the data, they believe further, targeted studies should be done to validate and extend the work. In other words, ODE claiming this meta-analysis as evidence for their radical approach is premature.
If I were to make an attempt at explaining why identity or cultural identity are included here, I believe it is tied to the emergence of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (aka Culturally Responsive Teaching). Cultural identity is essential to Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, which is an educational approach that integrates students’ cultural backgrounds and identities into the learning process.
While not cited in their report, educational theorist Gloria Ladson-Billings first coined the term ‘Culturally Relevant Pedagogy’. Her September 1995 article “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy” is regularly cited, even to this day, as the source of truth for this approach. You might also be familiar with an article she published the following month titled “Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education”. This could be the subject of a whole article by itself.
The point of making this connection is simply to share that this is another lie in the report, specifically one that involves omission, falsification, and misinterpretation. The authors of this report clearly have biases of their own in how they want Oregon’s educational system to operate, and they continually let those biases get in the way of doing genuine research and analysis.
Lie #3: Racism is fundamental to racial disparities in educational attainment
The third paragraph on page 86 of the report includes multiple citations that ODE misinterprets to deceive the legislature and anyone else leveraging this work. The paragraph starts with this sentence:
Research shows that racism is “fundamental to racial disparities in educational attainment.”
This quote is very misleading, and it should be criminal. This came from “Completing the Educational Career”, by David M. Merolla. The report does include this link to the article, but that link only provides access to a short abstract. You can view the full article using this link. This screenshot below provides more content and context around the partial quote that ODE provided in their report. The key thing to note is the difference in how the author is identifying “racism” and how ODE would have you interpret that term:
The author’s research wasn’t indicating any sort of present-day racism. In the very next sentence of his conclusion he even pointed out how race was becoming less significant over time:
Some scholars have argued that the importance of socioeconomic disparities for explaining racial disparities in educational outcomes indicates that racial disparities in educational attainment have been eclipsed by class-based disparities in the twenty-first century, and the significance of race for educational disparities is declining (Gamoran 2001).
I believe ODE purposefully used this quote out of context to further a particular narrative they wanted to tell. It is further evidence of how the authors’ own biases and goals have tainted and perverted this entire report.
If I would have documented all the issues with this report, this article could have easily been longer than ODE’s original report. With that said, I believe the legislature is responsible for holding Director Colt Gill and his team accountable for lying to them and all Oregonians. On top of this, I believe a thorough investigation should be done to identify any other reports & recommendations ODE has delivered during Gill’s tenure and analyze them for similar issues.
This report and others like it will be leveraged for years to come to transform Oregon public education. Reports like this that are built on lies should be retracted so they aren’t used to further destroy our education system