“The essential question is not, ‘How busy are you?’ but ‘What are you busy at?’”
It’s probably safe to say that public education professionals in Oregon have never been so busy. They have larger class sizes, fewer staff to do more work due to budget cuts, a need to invest time in professional development to keep pace with changing technology in the field, and strong pressure to adopt fundamental changes to boost student achievement.
In a word, they are being expected to continuously improve at a time of historic cutbacks in education funding.
Needless to say, these are challenging times. But with the third year of Sisters School District’s CLASS grant under way, a significant culture change is evident. Teachers are operating less in silos, and collaborating across grades and school levels to close gaps in student knowledge. They are more open to being mentored and evaluated by peers, and see these evaluations as valuable tools for improving their instructional practices. Student achievement data is posted prominently in the District office and in all teacher lounges, and helps shape what goes on in classrooms.
Teachers in our District have moved beyond the original work they set out to do with CLASS last year—establishing better, useful teacher evaluation tools—to much loftier goals: they are on a collective mission to improve their own instruction and their colleagues’. They seem committed as a group to collaborative leadership and greater student success.
As one elementary teacher puts it, “we now have a constant cycle of progress monitoring in place.”
It seems 2011-12 may be a tipping point. More than half of the District’s certified staff is now involved in the CLASS teacher effectiveness work funded by Chalkboard Project.
This year’s focus is on rolling out teacher evaluation tools developed last year, closing student gaps in knowledge, adopting new technology, engaging in field research on best practices in other districts, and—most challengingly–exploring alternative compensation models.
Here’s an overview of what the CLASS Project looks like in Year Three in Sisters schools.
The instructor evaluation tools piloted via the CLASS Project last year are being put into practice, based on “learning walks and instructional rounds.” These are modeled on the medical profession, where seasoned doctors do frequent floor evaluations of residents-in-training.
How they work:
Working in administrative teams, teachers and administrators conduct unannounced evaluations of teachers at work, and log observations using a survey tool on tablet computers. This data is downloaded to spreadsheets for quick analysis, interpretation and communication. The evaluation information is collected by building coaches, distributed to teachers, and discussed in group meetings.
Rather than being perceived as “gotchas,” these frequent evaluations give teachers specific feedback and collect data on areas for improvement, so instructors get timely specifics on improving in their profession. It’s a transformation of past practices, when a teacher got maybe ten minutes a year of observation by a principal, or was forewarned when an observation would be taking place.
STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT DATA
To supplement report cards and parent-teacher conferences, progress assessments of students are done weekly at the elementary grades in literacy and math. Also, teaching teams meet weekly to discover how concepts can be retaught, and discuss whether changes in student placement are needed for kids who are struggling.
The District is also aiming to pilot proficiency-based grading next year. Students would need to show mastery of sets of defined skills for each subject area. And all students, parents and teachers would have regularly updated grades based on how they are performing available online, not just through trimester report cards. The real-time data would be aggregated to give building and district-wide level information that could be used to tweak curricula.
The superintendent is also looking for money to adopt two nationally normed tests for benchmarking student performance, the Plan/Explore and the ACT. Plan/Explore would primarily help students identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and the ACT would encourage all kids to see themselves as going on to four-year schools.
CLOSING KNOWLEDGE GAPS
To address areas where data shows subject knowledge deficiencies that limit students’ ability to progress, teachers are continuing work initiated in existing Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). They gather regularly across grades and schools to strategize on assuring lessons are being learned in the proper sequence, so remedial work is reduced and full curricula can be covered in our short school year.
Technology is central to many of Sisters School District’s CLASS Project reform initiatives; bringing efficiencies, putting real-time information in the hands of educators and students, and as a by-product, teaching skills students need for 21st century employment. The vision is three-fold: expand the network capacity of the District; move teaching instruments and content into the “cloud;” and put a personal, portable computer in the hands of every student. Adoption of Google Docs next year will allow teachers to put all of their coursework online, available for students to access at any time. Finding the resources to upgrade the district’s system-wide IT and buy hardware will take a good deal longer.
Another technology pursuit will be to explore remote/distance learning possibilities. With the present lack of political will to adequately fund public education, cheaper models for delivering instruction are on the table, such as online courses. One proposal—which got strong negatives from my insta-poll of one 16-year-old—is “reverse schooling,” which means flipping the instructional day. For instance, high school classroom lectures would be viewed after school hours online, with daytime school hours devoted to discussion of the content, “homework,” and Q&A. My son’s response: “So they want to take away the free time we have, too?” And from our family’s experience, I know that even bright students are not always suited to learning well in distance learning courses that require entirely self-directed work.
FIELD RESEARCH & RETREAT
In order to identify best practices under way elsewhere, field trips to other schools where CLASS is also being rolled out will be conducted this year, to glean ideas on improving instruction, teacher evaluations and pay-for-high-performance. The Chalkboard money will also fund a 12-hour Summer Institute, a retreat where teachers will learn about new educational delivery models and proficiency grading, and finalize the evaluation and compensation reforms they will formally adopt as a result of CLASS.
PAY INCENTIVES TO REWARD EXCELLENCE?
The most challenging work to come via CLASS this year is for teachers to explore alternative compensation models.
I recall a conversation with the principal back when my high school junior was still in elementary school. I was knowledgeable enough at that point to know how difficult it was to get corrective action on poorly-performing teachers, but still naïve enough about how public schools work to suggest establishing a teacher performance fund, to award bonuses to teachers who went above and beyond.
The principal gently explained that teachers didn’t really like such approaches.
But part of public education reform must be to find new compensation paths to reward standout teaching, both to motivate high-caliber people to enter and stay in the profession, and to incentivize continuous improvement efforts over the long haul.
This year, Sisters teachers involved in CLASS will be researching how other school districts are rewarding high teaching performance. Just down Highway 20, Bend-LaPine School District is working on developing opportunities for teacher bonuses. When schools meet targets based on student growth in achievement, teachers will get a significant bonus, potentially in the thousands of dollars. Other ideas being kicked around include paying teachers to spend more time at work beyond their contractual hours, to pursue professional development, or brainstorm how to help individual students, or prep new or better lessons.
While all this is heartening progress, there are many roadblocks to continuous improvement in our local schools. It appears school budget cuts may be a permanent fixture. The number of school days per year is well below the national average. There are underperforming tenured teachers either unwilling or unable to continuously improve, who cannot be terminated. And, the money provided by Chalkboard is the only professional development funding our District has.
Given those disheartening realities, I worry how our many great teachers will keep up-to-date with changing best practices, learn new technologies, get compensated for the additional time it takes to collaborate outside school hours, conduct peer evaluations, etc., when the subsidies disappear. But for now, I’m grateful for what CLASS is bringing to Sisters schools.