Nicholas Sowa is a fifth grade teacher at St. Mary’s Public School within the Mount Angel School District. He is the project manager for the Mount Angel School District CLASS Project grant and has been a teacher in the district for the past 6 years. He is currently enrolled at George Fox University in pursuit of administrative credentials. He also obtained his BS degree from Eastern Oregon University and MA in teaching degree from George Fox University. Nicholas plans to continue to offer his knowledge of teaching to students who speak English as a second language and ultimately obtain an administrative position in an elementary setting. Nicholas is supported by his wife of 12 years and three young children. He has a passion for creative instruction, empowering his students, and implementing technology in his classroom.

Through our work with the CLASS Project here in Mt. Angel we have had some interesting discussions focused on career pathways. In particular, our discussion continually touches on the fact that there is no “new money” within the foreseeable future. The task we are then charged with is how can we create creative career pathways for educators without adding to our already tight budget? Furthermore, how can we ask teachers to continually do more with less?

Even though we are still in the design phase of our plan, our ideas are already spawning changes throughout the district. We have started examining our own constraints to change, such as middle school and high school scheduling or teacher flex-time in order to accommodate future change. Most of our ideas have been in the form of leadership opportunities within the school. Whether discussions include ideas around model classrooms, initiative leaders, or peer trainers, we have begun to think about leadership and thus career pathways differently.

This conversation has also carried over to ideas of evaluation and our need/want for peer feedback and individually focused professional development. I think our greatest asset is our current district leadership. Throughout this process our superintendent has been very supportive and understanding of our needs as educators. His philosophy is that we will be the “best small school district in the state of Oregon” and to accomplish this there must be belief, not mandates. Our discussions have led me to believe that empowerment and valuing the individual go a long way when funding is tight. This is a very exciting process, especially when you know that the district does not have a hidden agenda and there is an open and honest dialogue about the current state and needs of the district.

 

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7 Responses to “CLASS Project: Rethinking Career Pathways for Teachers”

  1. Steve Buel says:

    Mr. Sowa, thank you for sharing your observations. Sounds like you have the opportunity to make some real educational headway. Hopefully you are not basing your district’s need to be the best small school in the state around test scores and teacher improvement. These are both fools errands which, while making some teachers feel good, often have little relationship to improving education for children. Creating a good, solid education with serious focus on the actual needs (not tests) of your children could go a long way to making your school work. I always worry when teachers’ needs become the focus of a district as opposed to student needs. It has been a failure of chalkboard to not recognize this and it often seems many of its young teacher bloggers don’t really get it. Best of luck in your endeavor and I would be more than happy to spend time with you discussing this.

  2. Cyndi Smith says:

    This is an exciting time for staff and administrators in Mt. Angel. As a 22 year veteran teacher in this district I have seen a variety of change initiated by both administration and teachers. As a district that is not a union affiliated staff, we have freedoms to work alongside our administrators to improve programs and instruction for students that may not be permissible under union restraints. This staff has always worked very hard to put children’s interests on the forefront of our decisions. Teachers are concerned about the overall impact on student growth and learning as we work through the process of establishing career pathways and professional development and this grant work is allowing us the opportunity to have effective discourse before decisions are made. The establishment of structures for intentionally looking at student achievement and instructional practice, not limited to test scores, is just one of the successes that has come about during our grant work. We realize the need for multiple measures to determine effective programs, instruction, student achievement, and teacher effectiveness. This is part of our process, to identify those measures. We understand the need to tread lightly and not begin a fool’s errand but welcome people’s input to inform our progress.

  3. kona says:

    Steve, you always leave me wondering with your comments.

    You said, “Hopefully you are not basing your district’s need to be the best small school in the state around test scores and teacher improvement.”

    Are you suggesting that high test scores and teacher improvement are deplorable? Or what? Don’t many things in education start falling into place with high test scores and teacher improvement? Aren’t they indicative of doing many things right? Since your answers will probably be “no”, how do you propose to determine the success of a school if test scores and teacher improvement is to be ignored?

  4. Steve Buel says:

    Kona, thanks once again for your curiousity. You are right, the answer is “no”, test scores are not necessarily indicative of a good school. Mostly they reflect the economic status of the school. And if you look at improvement in test scores instead then they can actually reflect this negative narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test which doesn’t usually reflect good education. The teacher improvement piece is just immeasurable. So we can dispense with that right away. Doesn’t mean it is not an important piece however.

    The way you can tell if a school is a good one is by the reflections of the parents, the community, and the people who work within the district and in the school itself. They know. Ask them. Though sometimes it is hard to get a good answer from the outside looking in. Do I need to know if XYZ school in Banks is a good one? Probably not unless I have relatives in that system or am planning on sending my children there, or moving to Banks. And if I want to know then I need to find out from people who work there or send their kids there. This is much more accurate than test score changes. So I kind of reject the whole idea of grading the schools by some exterior method. This comes from my belief, and I think it is a good one, that the best way to improve a school is from the inside. The school itself needs to correct its problems. Can’t really happen from outside. In order to have this work within a district then we need a change of culture. We need to move from outside, top down mandates to creating the culture where decisions are made based on what is good for kids in their education. This means an openness and the motivation to put people in positions of leadership who believe in a healthy educational philosophy and the idea that solid education is not really measurable and entails a broad array of important topics and ideas. So I guess I reject the corporate education philosophy that you can measure just about everything and without measurement you can’t really tell if you are doing a good job. I can tell you how good every school I taught in was. And I couldn’t really tell you the test scores. Also, like people, or any other complex entity there are almost infinite things in a school that can be judged. One school may have a great music program, but poor 4th grade teachers, but an excellent principal, but a mean and grumpy custodian. They may do a poor job in recess and are not so good in science. But they have great art and a welcoming environment for parents, yet poor lunches, but good hall behaviour and on and on and on and on and on. Measure that? No way. Take care, Kona.

  5. kona says:

    1) You said, “teaching to the test which doesn’t usually reflect good education.”

    Would you accept the idea of testing what is taught? You seem to imply that there is one big test that is the determinant factor in evaluation. That is not true, is it? Are you suggesting that the test material is flawed and not relevant?

    2) You said, “Mostly they reflect the economic status of the school.” I agree that demographics play an important part in academic success. Isn’t that situation important to evaluate, to be able to analyze the movements involved?

    3) You said, “The teacher improvement piece is just immeasurable.” That is a real problem, if true. I don’t think it is true.

    4) You said, “Do I need to know if XYZ school in Banks is a good one? Probably not unless I have relatives in that system or am planning on sending my children there, or moving to Banks.”

    That is an interesting opinion. If we have a very high murder (or disease, or hunger, or about anything) rate in XYZ city, should it be a concern for the rest of the state. I think it should be, apparently you would differ.

    5) You said, “So I kind of reject the whole idea of grading the schools by some exterior method.”

    So you would think that a family should decide innocence or guilt, rather than a objective outside observation?

    Then you said, “… that the best way to improve a school is from the inside.”

    I agree, but the self evaluation is seldom valid without outside input/pressure.

    6) You said, “… the idea that solid education is not really measurable and entails a broad array of important topics and ideas.”

    That seems about half correct to me. Naturally “solid education” could have a different meaning for anyone. You seem to suggest that basic education of math, English, geology, physics, chemistry and many other areas cannot be (or should be) quantitatively measured. I disagree.

    7) You said, “So I guess I reject the corporate education philosophy that you can measure just about everything and without measurement you can’t really tell if you are doing a good job.”

    Is that the “corporate education philosophy”? I would suggest that measurement is important just as every teacher uses measurements to evaluate students. Measurements are important regardless of your objections. And qualitative measurements that you adhere have limited value. “Doing a good job” is always distorted by who is making that qualitative measurement.

    8) The you conclude, “Also, like people, or any other complex entity there are almost infinite things in a school that can be judged. One school may have a great music program, but poor 4th grade teachers, but an excellent principal, but a mean and grumpy custodian. They may do a poor job in recess and are not so good in science. But they have great art and a welcoming environment for parents, yet poor lunches, but good hall behavior and on and on and on and on and on. Measure that?

    Those segments better be/should be measured. Your whole thesis is based on qualitative measurements exclusively. That appears to me to be a weakness in almost any evaluation, especially education.

  6. Steve Buel says:

    Kona, thank you for pursuing this discussion. It is an important one.

    1. The corporate education model teaches what is tested. That is a far cry from testing what is taught. Huge difference. Also, much of what we should teach in schools is pretty much immeasurable, so it really doesn’t get emphasized when we teach to the test — or even the standards. Right now there is one big test (OAKS which will change to the SBAC)and that is a huge part of the problem. And the tests are flawed as are the standards. But the major problem is the narrowing of what is important in schools to be what is tested in a standardized way. You have to separate testing from testing in order to understand the argument. I gave tests all the time when I was a teacher, but they were based on what I felt was the right thing to teach in my class or classroom. So the problem is not that we test, but how we go about it and how we use the testing to label giving it importance and prominence which overshadows much of what we should be doing instead.

    2) The testing scenario as an analytical tool is neither accurate nor particularly relevant to a good education when it becomes the basis for pretty much all we do. It becomes the pudding of the proof. Instead that pudding should be what opportunities are available for kids and how those opportunities relate to the actual homelife situations of the students.

    3) I should have said that the teacher “improvement” piece is immeasurable when it is approached by a system which uses the same yardstick for measuring each teacher. Teachers have the same complex make up that schools or children do. Would you say all kids can be accurately measured as students by using a specific guideline. It is the same story. The complexity is basically infinite. Yet, I could tell you if a kid is a pretty good student or not in my class. And I could tell you if a teacher seemed like a pretty good teacher in a school I was at. But having a measurement which measures how much they have improved when every teacher will improve pretty much imperceptively in the short run and will improve in different ways, is not really measurable.

    4) I was speaking about how it affects you as a person. Knowing Triangle Lake has good or bad education is not very relevant to you. Most people don’t even know where it is. You don’t have direct input unless you are a citizen of that school district. But using millions of dollars of tax money and focusing on test scores to the detriment of pretty much everything else is foolish if it is justified by the idea that you or I want to know if that school district gets high test scores. We already know the wealthier school districts usually do better than the poorer ones. What little percentage difference is not very helpful to us as individuals. And we already know there is more hunger in Klamath Falls than in Tigard. It is the state which has somewhat of a need to know with issues like this. Not you or I. Not to the tune of wrecking the school system to find out by focussing on testing as the measure and then labeling the school based on that.

    5) You have to have real quality self-evaluation to have this work and we have moved away from having this in our schools. The complexity of the situations in schools is such that it doesn’t allow for an outside objective evaluation that will change much. The changes that need to be made only reveal themselves to people who take the time and effort to understand the full picture. This isn’t possible with an outside observer who just looks at the school through data like we do now. Districts should be doing this self-evaluation all the time and then tweaking or making changes according to what they learn not according to some data worry. Right now our administrators are caught up in a testing dance and a teacher improvement dance which focusses on a narrow swath of what should be the focus for curriculum and also on genaralized assessment of adults instead of kids.

    6) Solid education itself is not really measurable quantitatively. You can measure certain aspects to a point in time (can a kid do fractions). But even that is not really measurable except for that particular point in time. You can add two simple fractions with different single digit denominators one day and not be able to do it the next. Or not be able to do three fractions or ones with larger denominators and so on. We tend to generalize when we do these things. “Yes, she can add fractions.” But can she do it next week, next month, next year? Do we need to test every 10 minutes to see. The complexity is incredible. Now, this is only for one little aspect of what most people would agree is a decent thing to teach in the schools. Now try measuring compassion, responsibiltiy, critical thinking, kindness etc. Good luck. And a generalized history test is even more difficult since what history are we talking about? Civil War, the 100 Year War, the great plague, the moon shot, the Civil Rights movement, the Huns, Peter the Great, and on and on. How about a generalized science test? Same problems. Now you can have some success in measuring things which you have taught like the Civil War and its main historical parts say. Heck, I have given such tests. But the idea we can have a comprehensive test which measures any of the things you mention just creates a situation where if we make it important enough to the teacher and the school administrators (or the kids which we have done) it creates teaching to the test instead of good, solid education.

    7) I had in interesting brief conversation with Rudy Crew on Tuesday. I suggested he use the word “testing” instead of “achievement” (which was the word he had used) when he wrote the Oregon OEIB Strategic Plan. He bristled and said that no, he didn’t mean testing. He meant all kinds of achievement. I pointed out that the only type of achievement listed in the plan was directed towards what was tested. It was how achievement is being measured through the Governor’s plan, the All Hands Raised program, and is the universal standard of the corporate educational movement. The universal answer to correct this seems to be to add other measures of achievement then. Even if you do that the problem remains that huge, very huge, sections of what you should be teaching are not taken into account as being as important as the measured material. And the sections which are tested become much more important throughout the country even when that makes no sense. Yet over and over I have pointed out that the measures are either not accurate or too generalized and therefore the side effects are incredibly injurious to a good education.

    Smily face conclusion) The thesis is not based solely on qualitative measurements, but the idea that qualitative measurements have some value, but should not be misused in the manner we are misusing them, because that misuse is way more destructive than we are recognizing.

    P.S. I just finished reading Nate Silver’s book, “The Signal and the Noise” in which he talks about the misuse of data in predictions and making decisions. Tells us a lot about how we are screwing up in the way we are approaching educational data.

    Thanks, Kona, always a pleasure.

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