Local educators give schools high marks

Problem areas emerge for smaller districts

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

Published Jun 1, 2014 at 12:01AM

Central Oregon educators rated their schools better than average compared with the rest of the state on a recent survey, though problem areas were highlighted in some of the region’s smaller districts.

The Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning Oregon Survey was administered at every public school in the state by the Oregon Department of Education, offering teachers and administrators the chance to rank their school on everything from safety to professional development to the availability of technology. Overall, the region’s educators evaluated their schools more positively than was typical across the state, with each school district receiving better than average results on more than half of the 87 questions asked.

Bend-La Pine Schools came out the best in the region, falling below the state average on only 10 questions, and missing the mark by a significant degree on only one. The Redmond School District also fared very well, falling below the average on 14 questions.

Bend-La Pine Schools Superintendent Ron Wilkinson said he was not surprised by the results, and said some of the areas the district excelled in were tied to programs pushed by the school board, such as creating time for teachers to collaborate on Wednesdays. He also pointed out that the one area where the district did fall significantly below the average wasn’t a concern to him. The question asked teachers whether they felt they had autonomy in deciding how to deliver instruction, and fewer teachers said yes than was typical. Wilkinson noted that curricula are supposed to be set by the district, a move he believes does not eliminate creativity from the classroom.

Redmond Superintendent Mike McIntosh said he was “very pleased” with the results from his district.

“In spite of the monumental task of implementing the Common Core and the lack of funding available from the state, our teachers are resilient and holding up under the pressure to do powerful and great things for our kids,” he said.

The Common Core is a set of standards the state adopted in 2010. Beginning in spring 2015, Oregon students will begin taking tests pegged to the standards. Earlier this month, the state’s teachers union, which helped sponsor the survey, asked the state to postpone its implementation of tests set to the Common Core, saying districts weren’t ready and the new tests hadn’t been studied enough. The state later refused this request.

McIntosh said the issue of Common Core was tied up in one area his teachers appeared dissatisfied — fewer than half of Redmond teachers said they had access to appropriate instructional materials. McIntosh attributed this to the district’s move to align its math curriculum with the Common Core, even though there is a dearth of Common Core-aligned instructional materials available.

“I’m a guy who looks for the good in everything, and the good in that is that it means teachers are in want of appropriate materials that are frankly not available in many subject areas,” McIntosh said, adding that teachers have been “combing the Internet” to find resources.

Of the region’s four smallest school districts, Crook County’s teachers were the most satisfied. The only consistent area of concern for the district’s teachers concerned community involvement, where on five out of eight questions, the district rated lower than the state. Crook County Superintendent Duane Yecha said those responses concerned him, but that in his eyes, the community is very supportive of teachers.

Community support is an even bigger issue in the eyes of Jefferson County School District educators, who work in the region’s most impoverished district. On every question in that area, the district fell below the average. Other areas of concern for Jefferson County include teacher leadership, which includes, among other things, the degree to which teachers are relied upon to make educational decisions. According to the survey, compared with the state, Jefferson County teachers are less satisfied with their ability to help lead their schools.

In Culver, the region’s smallest district, only 28 percent of teachers said Internet speeds were fast enough to support instruction, compared with 71 percent statewide. Culver educators also indicated issues with community support and managing student conduct, where they were below the state average on 5 out of 7 questions.

Sisters educators rate their district extremely well in some areas, having the region’s highest rating on whether their school is a good place to learn. Nonetheless, on all 12 questions related to professional development, teachers rated their district below the state average. When asked whether sufficient resources are available for professional development in their school, only 29 percent of teachers said yes, compared with 59 for the state.

Sisters Superintendent Jim Golden noted the low participation rate in his district, which was 38 percent, and speculated, “Those folks who were most unhappy completed the survey.”

“Had we had a much larger percentage of folks fill out the survey, then I would have been more concerned with that survey item,” he wrote in an email. “We actually paid people to participate in professional development after school this year for 10 hours on a voluntary basis, so I don’t have any real solid understanding as to why this was low.”

Statewide, the biggest area of concern for teachers was class sizes, an issue also highlighted by educators in the region’s two largest districts, Bend-La Pine and Redmond.

“I was not surprised people identified class sizes as an area of concern,” Wilkinson said. “I’m not too surprised with any of the things I saw in there; the purpose of the survey from (the state teachers union’s) standpoint is to gain political capital for lobbying purposes. Now they have statewide data that says a lot of things they would like it to say.”

Wilkinson said he anticipates the teachers union will use the data for leverage during contract negotiations, though he pointed out the root cause of teacher concerns about class sizes is state funding. Wilkinson added that the union may be seeking legislation that limits class sizes.

“If something like that did pass, the district would be in this position of having to comply with the law, and to do that you need more teachers, and that means more money,” Wilkinson said. “That would put the district in a difficult position in terms of pay increases and needing to hire more staffing, creating many competing interests.”

Despite his concerns about how the Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning Oregon Survey results may be used, Wilkinson said he is “optimistic” they will drive positive change.

“It is data that will be informative when you begin the conversations with the Legislature about funding,” he said. “The truth is, education hasn’t had a lot of good data to use in that process. Instead of stories and scenarios, we have some quantified data capture from across the state.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com