Change from Within

The appointments of Nancy Golden and Ben Cannon to key education posts reflects that changing the educational system requires an insider's perspective.Recent appointments of Nancy Golden as Chief Education Officer and Ben Cannon as Executive Director of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission are a reminder of a unique Oregon truism — change comes from within.

Governor Kitzhaber took office in 2011 with a distinct interest in reforming major sectors of Oregon government. He pushed for significant reforms in health care, early learning and education. Kitzhaber has seen success in all of those within the walls of the Capitol, but true change happens at the agency level and among stakeholders who implement those changes every day.

The healthcare industry came to the table to craft a transformation plan that didn’t just pass the legislature, but became part of the DNA of the key public and private leaders in the healthcare industry in Oregon. Kitzhaber’s early learning initiatives were crafted by Oregon practitioners who understood the pitfalls of the current system, including its lack of outcome-based accountability.  

Education, however, took a much different road. Trusted advisors and key stakeholders familiar with Oregon’s political landscape drew the outline of a newly aligned K-20 education system. But unlike with other major initiatives, Kitzhaber turned the reins of implementation over to a distinct outsider — so-called change agent Rudy Crew.

Despite his reformer reputation, Crew didn’t make a dent in the mountain of change he was supposed to effect during his time in Oregon. Granted, he spent a great deal of time traveling the country on other pursuits, but the bigger issue, for him or any other reformer, was a fundamental lack of ability to see and understand the Oregon political landscape.

The education community — not unlike healthcare or corrections or any other major sector — is widely varied. Agreement is hard to come by, even among similarly interested parties. Interest groups include elected officials, business leaders, on-the-ground practitioners and parents — all of whom claim to be experts because, at a minimum, each individual went to school.

On top of that, Oregon political culture includes a level of “nice” that can make it difficult for an outsider to know whether there’s real agreement or whether Interest Group A just happens to be on its best behavior that day. 

Real change in Oregon requires implementers who understand the ins and outs of interest groups and the true day-in-day-out challenges of being in on the ground floor. Thus the new appointments of Golden — former Springfield school superintendent and widely respected education leader, and Cannon — former teacher and respected Democratic legislator, combined with the previous appointment of Rob Saxton as the Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction, create a new change-possible environment for the governor.

These three educators are savvy politicos who understand the political temperaments and tantrums of Oregon education interest groups, as well as the day-to-day challenges of Oregon educators and administrators. They are well positioned not only to implement the broad-change outline envisioned by Kitzhaber, but to bring the community along in a way that ensures they embrace the change, too.

And, frankly, Oregon needs this trio to succeed. Our future depends on ensuring kids not only learn enough while they are in school, but they develop a love of learning throughout their lifetimes. As studies continue to show, American students — and adults — lag many of their international peers in math, literacy and problem-solving.  For the sake of our future, we can’t wait on change — and we must start from within.