The CLASS model is based on a belief that 'creative leadership achieves student success'
Small, rural school districts in Oregon have historically lost some of their best teachers to nearby city districts that can pay more. But a focus on teacher leadership in some of these rural districts seems to be making them increasingly competitive. Now, teacher retention numbers are higher at some schools and state surveys show at least some teachers are willing to stay put with slightly lower pay if it means staying away from top-down leadership that is more common in today's public schools.
The difference is the CLASS project model, which aims for systemic improvement based on the belief that "creative leadership achieves student success." The model was developed in 2004 by Chalkboard Project, a nonprofit school reform organization focused on improving Oregon schools. It has since been implemented in nearly 40 districts, reaching almost half of Oregon's student population, and studies show resulting decreases in achievement gaps as well as increases in graduation rates, reading scores, and math scores in those districts.
The model has four domains it requires districts to consider, opening the door for greater teacher leadership and improved instructional practices, accountability, and job satisfaction.
- New career paths
- Meaningful performance evaluations
- Relevant and targeted professional development opportunities
- Expanded compensation models
Julie Smith, director of educator effectiveness and innovation at Chalkboard Project, says union leaders, district superintendents, and school board members all have to be willing to adopt a shared leadership structure to qualify for grant funding along with design and implementation support. Everyone has to be on board from the beginning because the key to sustainable change is a commitment to the process, not just the outcome.
"A system is set up to get the results that it's getting," Smith said.
Chalkboard Project helps districts make systemic changes, avoiding a narrow focus on symptoms of deeper problems. Changes that address root causes rather than those symptoms are necessarily more sustainable.
Colton School District, about 45 miles southeast of Portland, just completed its design year, and already Elementary and Middle School Principal Susan Inman said new processes for performance evaluations and professional development are being implemented.
The CLASS model asks districts to identify "problems of practice" in each of its four domains, drilling down to root causes of these problems that are unique to each school community. At Colton, Inman said the model has provided a framework for intentional reflection - stakeholders at all levels are participating in research, planning, and implementation, confident that their work is worthwhile.
While last year was her first at Colton, Inman was a principal for 10 years before that at another district. She said a major difference in this latest school improvement exercise has been the commitment to putting data collection and research to work.
"We collect a lot of data, sometimes, in education, but this is the first time I feel very confident that we're actually going to utilize the data and use it in the implementation," Inman said.
In three years, grant support for the CLASS project will have run out, but by then, Inman believes Colton will have developed internal capacity for continued change. Already, the grant money has allowed for additional collaboration and the model has provided a shared leadership structure with which to approach it.
"That has been a huge gift," Inman said. "To be able to sit down with a team of folks and see what everyone can bring to the table, review the research and ensure the system that we're building is beneficial to the entire community."
With Chalkboard Project, Smith says problems from school to school in each of the four domains are often quite similar. But the CLASS project does not advocate simple replication, or scaling, of solutions from one district to another. The shared leadership process requires stakeholders at every level to truly analyze why problems exist in their specific context and develop nuanced solutions.
But every district doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. Once the root causes of problems are identified, school leaders can dig deep into research-based practices that outline the best path forward.
In many cases, solutions require fine-tuning, rather than an overhaul. Smith uses one Oregon district as an example. In a survey, 40% of teachers said they had collaboration time while 60% of teachers said they did not. Even though the district had "late-start Wednesdays" specifically to offer teachers time to collaborate, in practice, more than half of teachers didn't see those results. Using shared leadership, this district was able to pilot solutions using an existing resource - late-start Wednesdays - to improve the school.
Another key to the CLASS project model is a continual cycle of improvement. Smith says this has been new for many districts. But piloting a change and measuring progress is critical. Before improved teacher effectiveness has the chance to trickle down to measurable student outcomes, districts must be able to track whether the initial proposed changes are actually happening and what their impacts are on teachers.
Much of the CLASS Project grant funding goes toward helping districts develop the internal capacity to get these pilots off the ground and track them. Then, once the grant money runs out, systems can support further change for years to come.
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