School & District Management

Teacher-Led Restructuring Plans Lead to Student-Achievement Gains, Paper Says

By Madeline Will — June 30, 2016 5 min read
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An education-improvement grant program in Oregon has led to higher student achievement scores, a narrower achievement gap, and increased job satisfaction among teachers, according to a new white paper authored by the Chalkboard Project, a state think-tank.

The key component of the program: Teachers are at the table, leading the process to draft and implement improvement plans for their school district.

Nationally, teachers have increasingly felt like their voices are not heard—a recent survey showed that a mere 19 percent of teachers feel like their voices are considered at the district level (compared to 32 percent of teachers in 2013). But this teacher-led school-improvement plan—called the Creative Leadership Achieves Student Success, or CLASS, Project—aims to systematically change school culture by elevating teacher voice and building a collaborative environment among teachers, administrators, the school board, union representatives, and district officials.

It does this through four-year grant projects, under which teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders serve on a “design team” to draft blueprints for improvement in four areas: teaching career paths, performance evaluations, professional-development opportunities, and compensation models.

Chalkboard, which issued the grants from 2008 to 2012 and continues to provide technical assistance, is funded by Foundations for a Better Oregon, a collaboration of six of the top foundations in the state. In 2011, the Oregon legislature started implementing the CLASS model with state funding—in 2015, the state allocated an additional $16 million to the project.

More than 40 percent of Oregon’s students are now in CLASS districts. When a school district receives a grant, the design process takes a year, and then the grant funds three years of implementation, during which the district team is encouraged to continually revise and improve its model.

“It really made our school district look at what we value and believe,” said Marie Traeger, a teacher from the Silver Falls School District who was part of the design team, “understanding that what we’re doing is improving teaching and learning.”

The white paper, which was produced by Chalkboard and came out last week, summarizes the CLASS Project’s model and impact so far, based on previous outside research and an analysis of state annual assessment data. The goal of the paper is to provide an “introductory blueprint” for other states that want to replicate the CLASS model.

According to the white paper, the first districts to implement the CLASS model have seen a nearly 10 percent gain in reading scores and an almost 13 percent gain in math scores. An analysis of 2013-14 student-achievement data shows that all CLASS student groups—including low-income students and students of color, who have demonstrated greater achievement in CLASS districts—outperformed their peers throughout the rest of Oregon. In some cases, the paper says, students in CLASS districts met or exceeded the performance of their peers by as much as 30 percent.

The explanation? “Teachers who are excited about teaching lead to students who are excited about learning,” said Charlie Walker, a former Chalkboard board member, in the white paper.

And teachers do seem happier: A 2014 survey administered by the state Department of Education, while not seeking to specifically examine CLASS interventions, found that teachers in CLASS districts are significantly more satisfied with their teaching conditions than those in non-CLASS districts. For instance, 82 percent of teachers in CLASS districts felt that school leaders made a sustained effort to address their concerns around instructional practices and support.

How It Works

A district’s first year in CLASS is spent doing a root analysis of the problems plaguing the school district, said Julie Smith, senior director of educator effectiveness and innovation at the Chalkboard Project, in an interview. This helps avoid “solution-itis,” she said—replicating a model from a nearby district and wondering why you didn’t see the same outcome.

Still, there is a level of uniformity involved. The district team must develop solutions in each of these four categories:

  • New career path. CLASS districts strive for teachers to develop leadership skills and be recognized as teacher leaders with extra responsibilities, the white paper says—including the possibility of transitioning into the administration.
  • Meaningful performance evaluations. Evaluations should measure teacher growth in multiple ways, according to the Chalkboard Project. Some districts increase observations, often with more of a focus on teachers’ skill development.
  • Relevant and targeted professional development opportunities. This can include early-career mentorship, paid leave for trainings, cultural competency skills, and subject-specific trainings.
  • Expanded compensation models. CLASS districts create alternative salary schedules with career-based pay and bonuses. Smith said this often seems like the hardest category to tackle, but she’s found that most school districts incentivize teacher seniority and college credits in their salary schedule—"a real mismatch” from what they want to incentivize, which includes professional learning, leadership, and student outcomes. Districts have not discounted seniority entirely, she said, but “they’ve made it so you have to prove you keep growing as you increase seniority.”

The grant funding pays for the initial improvements (and for teachers to take time out of the classroom to work on the design and implementation), but the school districts are expected to fund the changes over the long-term.

The Chalkboard Project holds that the CLASS model is replicable in districts across the country. And former Education Secretary Arne Duncan once called the CLASS Project “a tremendous example of successful work that should be taken to scale, because students benefit when teachers work together to share best practices and learn from one another.”

As teachers become increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated with seeing education policy created by people with no classroom experience, the teacher-leadership movement has picked up steam. Last year, Education Week Teacher published a special report on the transforming roles for teachers that noted a growing interest among educators to have a voice in school policy, drive organizational change, and deepen instructional expertise.

Source: Infographic courtesy of Chalkboard Project

Post updated 7/1 to clarify the project’s funding model

More on Teacher Leadership and Teacher-Led Initiatives:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.