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What’s Working In Oregon: Empowering Teachers & Engaging Our Community

Photo Courtesy of Jen Barth

I must admit that when I was first asked to answer the question, “What’s working in Oregon?”  I found myself slightly stumped.  Since moving here in 2009 with twin toddlers in tow, my eyes have been opened to some pretty serious challenges our state is facing.  Oregon struggles with alarmingly high student and teacher dropout rates, the second shortest school year in the nation, and one of the largest achievement gaps in the country. To top it off, our state’s unique budget structure and union dynamics make these issues, and so many more, even more difficult to tackle.

After attending Mom Congress last April, I came back to my hometown of Portland, Oregon full of new ideas and perspectives. Since my return, I’ve been connecting with various education-based nonprofits in my community and writing about local issues on my blog, 1OregonMom.org.  As a preschool parent, early literacy has been a big focus of my efforts, and I’m proud to have co-founded Books Make It Better this fall.  But with kindergarten for my own daughters right around the corner, my attention is starting to turn to the broader issues facing our local schools and the organizations addressing improvement of K-12 student needs. And what I am learning is, frankly, terrifying me.

What The Research Tells Us: Teachers Matter

I am the sister, friend, and huge fan of some incredible teachers, both here in Oregon and across the country. I know very well that, because I am not an educator and am still a preschool parent, I have limited visibility into the complexity of the challenges that teachers and K-12 schools face every day. But I do know that teachers play an incredible role in the success of students. In fact, research shows us that out of all classroom factors, teachers are the most significant factor in student success within the school setting, and that a teacher’s influence on student achievement in the classroom is a full 20 times greater than the effect of any other variable, including class size and poverty (Fallon, 2003).   And yet, somehow we aren’t setting most of our teachers up to succeed.

In a growing number of Oregon schools, though, this is changing, thanks to The Chalkboard Project.  I first learned about The Chalkboard Project from Adam Davis, whose firm, DHM Research, conducts extensive public opinion research on education issues. “If you really want to see some focus on teaching and real innovation happening in Oregon schools,” he suggested to me, “Learn more about the CLASS Project  and the impact they are having on student achievement in participating Oregon districts.” 

The Chalkboard Project’s CLASS Project Program

The Chalkboard Project is an innovative education initiative designed to empower teachers and raise student achievement, built around four components linked to effective teaching: expanded career paths, effective performance evaluations, relevant professional development, and new compensation models.

One of the biggest issues that Oregon schools face is the high teacher turnover rate. In fact, nearly 40% of Oregon’s teachers leave the profession within their first five years. What’s more, our state spends $45 million a year on these turnover costs.  Teachers are more engaged, supported, and invested in school improvement when they are empowered to play a strong role in designing and implementing the four areas above, which is the idea behind Chalkboard’s CLASS (Creative Leadership Achieves Student Success) Project.

This new, and growing, program empowers teachers to set student achievement goals and create school improvement plans while offering professional development and mentoring programs to help them achieve these goals. Since they launched 3 years ago, participating school districts are showing incredible results, including dramatic improvement in state assessments, dropout rates, and high school graduation rates. In addition, after only two years of CLASS Project implementation, the secondary grades of 2 participating districts have shown at least double the growth of other districts in the number of students meeting or exceeding benchmarks on state reading and math assessments.  

For a state struggling across the board on so many levels, this is big. I’m particularly inspired by a recent blog post from one of their participating school districts:

“With the third year of [our] School District’s CLASS grant underway, 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.”

There’s also a lot more happening — and working — with The Chalkboard Project’s other initiatives, too. They are a strong supporter of the Oregon Mentoring Program, which supports all K-12 public school teachers and administrators in Oregon. Learning that 94% of mentored teachers remain in the profession after 7 years gives me great optimism on the retention of our future teachers; new teachers that are mentored perform at a higher level, and their students also achieve greater success. And, Chalkboard’s Citizen Corps is a growing network of community members who serve as ambassadors for Chalkboard in their communities, and help promote school improvement proposals and help with local community events, media outreach, and advocacy efforts.

One of the most powerful things I’ve learned in my Mom Congress experience is that it doesn’t take much to understand and engage in local community issues, but sometimes taking the first step — understanding what’s at stake — is the hardest. Their website breaks down the issues in clear and simple terms, and their blog is a terrific resource, too, such as this recent post by Dan Jamison, VP Of Education Policy, on our Achievement Gap.

Although my school district does not currently participate in the CLASS Project, I am hopeful that by the time my daughters get there, the process will be underway. For now, I’ll be inspired by the impact that the program is having on nearly 130,000 students and 7,000 teachers across Oregon. I encourage you to do the same!

Jen is Oregon's 2011 Mom Congress delegate, and lives in Portland, OR. As a passionate preschool parent to identical (yet nothing alike) twin daughters, she is an active volunteer with several local community organizations who support early literacy, student health & hunger relief, and arts education efforts. Through her small business marketing firm, Big Small Brands, Jen also provides pro-bono services for education nonprofits; Connect with her at 1OregonMom.org, on Twitter @1OregonMom and @BooksBetter, and in "Reflections of An Oregon Mom".

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