filling in the blanks

On SLOs: the teacher evaluations element you don't know about

Student Learning Objectives will count for 20 percent of most teachers’ evaluations next year, and yet many city educators know little about them.

SLOs, a goal-setting tool, were written into the state’s teacher evaluation law in 2010, when legislators first revised it to require student achievement to factor into teachers’ ratings. The tool would be used to generate the state’s portion of each teacher’s student achievement score once districts adopted evaluations that conformed to the new law.

But even as the city has aggressively prepared principals and teachers for overhauled observations, which the law required, officials have barely mentioned SLOs.

“We’ve heard little about SLO’s … and there is still no approved list of options for schools to choose from,” said a person affiliated with a network. “Not knowing is anxiety producing for principals and teachers whose livelihoods may depend on these measures.”

Department of Education officials say it did not make sense to begin trainings until State Education Commissioner John King outlined details of the teacher evaluation plan but now that he has, more information is coming soon.

SLOs were New York’s solution to a pesky problem raised by trying to rate teachers according to their students’ performance: Most students don’t take state tests. The state’s teacher evaluation law mandates that 40 percent of teacher and principal evaluations be based on student achievement, with half of that coming from a calculation that the state makes. (The other 20 percent is based on student performance on assessments that are chosen locally.) For teachers of math and English in grades four through eight, the state growth measures are based on state test scores. But the vast majority of New York City teachers — 82 percent — don’t teach students who take those state tests.

So legislators mandated that the State Education Department choose another strategy to measure whether students have made gains. Officials chose SLOs, which measure whether students have met academic goals laid out by their teachers, in a formal version of the informal goal-setting that many teachers have always done.

At the beginning of the year, teachers will fill out a form with information about who is in their class, the concepts they plan to teach, the baseline performance data for each student, and methods of assessing student progress at the end of the year. Then they will set goals for each student. At the end of the year, they’ll calculate how many students hit the targets, and the growth will translate into “highly effective,” “effective,” “developing” or “ineffective” ratings, based on ranges of student performance that teachers and principals agree on in advance.

Districts across the state started using SLOs this year as they implemented their teacher evaluation systems for the first time. EngageNY, the State Education Department’s website for educators, has posted examples of SLOs that teachers across the state wrote during a pilot program in the 2011-2012 school year.

For example, a high school English as a Second Language teacher might evaluate his students’ past performance and then decide to set target goals based on those students’ scores from the state’s English as a Second Language achievement test. Or a third-grade music teacher might evaluate students’ baseline knowledge of rhythm and pitch by having playing their recorders and then ask them to demonstrate the same skills at the end of the year.

Teachers whose students take state assessments other than the elementary and middle school reading and math tests must base their SLOs on those exams. That means teachers of science and social studies in some grades and high school teachers whose courses culminate in Regents exams know the assessments they’ll set goals around. For all other teachers, King decreed that they should set SLOs around performance tasks that the Department of Education has created or, if there is no performance task in their subject, around third-party assessments or a school-wide measure that the principal selects.

“If there’s any weakness in the SLO ruling that John [King] made, it is its complexity,” said Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky. “It’s not ultimately impossible to do but it’s going to require a lot of work on our part in order to make it manageable for teachers and principals.”

He said the Department of Education is planning on releasing an online tool before the end of the school year that will simplify the process for principals and teachers so that they understand the menu of options they have to choose from for the assessments. Once principals and teachers have chosen the assessments and metrics, the department will also help them set targets.

The department did not start to train principals and teachers yet because it was not clear what assessments teachers would be setting goals around, Polakow-Suransky said. The assessments and how growth targets would be set were part of the department’s negotiations early this year with the teacher’s union and included in the position paper that the city presented to King as he was laying out the plan.

For the 20 percent of evaluation plans that are based on locally selected assessments, King created a role for teams of teachers to advise their principals about which assessments to use. For SLOs, on the other hand, King ultimately decided that principals would make the final decisions. But Polakow-Suransky said he wanted principals to have the option to “make choices that would match up across the two 20 percents.”

He said the school committees should be up and running by the second or third week of June and could begin making choices as soon as the end of the school year. The department must clear its list of subjects with performance assessments with King by Aug. 1, and all schools will have to decide what assessments they’ll be using by Sept. 9, the first day of school.

This fall, teachers must submit their proposed SLOs to their principals no later than Oct. 15. Principals then have to provide teachers with their final SLO by Nov. 15.

How time consuming SLOs will be for teachers to create and track remains to be seen. So does the final menu of assessment options that schools will be able to choose from, which Polakow-Suransky said would be delivered before the end of the school year.

One city principal who said he was still learning about the state’s requirements for SLOs said he thought that, overall, the city is “on the right track to measure what kids are learning” and what is and isn’t helping them learn. But he said he’s nervous about using that information to rate teachers.

“Confusing a student’s ability to learn a skill or develop a strength with the effect that one teacher has on that student creates invalid data and pressures that aren’t good for anybody,” he said.

The template that teachers will have to fill out when setting their SLOs is below.

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”

Price of entry

Becoming a Colorado teacher could soon require fewer transcripts, more training on English learners

Stephanie Wujek teaches science at Wiggins Middle School , on April 5, 2017 in Wiggins, Colorado. Rural areas are having a hard time finding teachers in areas like math and science. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The rules for becoming a teacher in Colorado are about to change — and officials hope the moves will help attract more math teachers and better prepare educators to work with students learning English.

The changes, which the Colorado Department of Education proposed this week, would also cut down on the paperwork needed to enter the profession and make it easier for teachers licensed in other states to re-enter the classroom after they move to Colorado.

The package of changes also includes a slimmed-down teacher evaluation rubric, the first major revision to the rules under Colorado’s 2010 teacher effectiveness law.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Less paperwork for new teachers. Applicants for a teaching license would no longer have to provide transcripts for every school they attended, only the transcripts for the school that granted them their highest degree. (Many colleges hold transcripts hostage for unpaid debt, even minor ones like unpaid parking tickets.
  • Less paperwork for teachers coming from other states. Experienced, licensed teachers from outside Colorado would no longer need to provide transcripts or prove that their teacher preparation program met Colorado standards.
  • More flexibility about previous teaching experience. Licensed teachers from other states would no longer need to have previously worked under a full-time contract to qualify for a Colorado license.
  • A new credential limited to middle-school math. Right now, Colorado only has a secondary math endorsement, which requires competency in trigonometry and calculus. That’s a barrier for teachers moving from other states with a math endorsement limited to middle school, and some see it as a roadblock for those who feel comfortable with algebra but not higher-level math.
  • Additional pathways for counselors and nurses to get licensed to work in schools.

Two bills making their way through the Colorado General Assembly this session would remove another barrier for out-of-state teachers. To qualify for a Colorado license today, teachers must have had three years of continuous teaching experience. If those bills are signed into law, applicants would only need three years of experience in the previous seven years.

Together, the proposals indicate how Colorado officials are working to make it a little easier to become a teacher in the state, which is facing a shortage in math teachers, counselors, and school nurses, among other specialties, as well as a shortage in many rural districts.

Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said many of the proposed changes came out of listening sessions focused on the state’s teacher shortage held around the state.  

The changes still don’t mean that if you’re a teacher anywhere in the country, you can easily become a teacher in Colorado. Just six states have full reciprocity, meaning anyone with a license from another state can teach with no additional requirements, according to the Education Commission of the States. Teachers whose licenses and endorsements don’t have a direct equivalent in Colorado would still need to apply for an interim license and then work to meet the standards of the appropriate Colorado license or endorsement.

The rule changes also add some requirements. Among those changes:

  • Prospective teachers will need more training on how to work with students learning English. Most significantly, all educator preparation programs would have to include six semester hours or 90 clock hours of training.
  • So will teachers renewing their licenses. They will need 45 clock hours, though the requirement wouldn’t kick in until the first full five-year cycle after the teacher’s most recent renewal. A teacher who just got her license renewed this year would have nine years to complete that additional training, as the requirement wouldn’t apply until the next renewal cycle. Superintendents in districts where less than 2 percent of the students are English language learners could apply for a waiver.

Colorado’s educator preparation rules already call for specialized training for teaching English language learners, but the rule change makes the requirements more explicit.

“We’re the sixth-largest state for English language learners,” O’Neil said. “We want to make sure our educators are equipped to teach all our learners.”

The rule changes would also “streamline,” in O’Neil’s words, the teacher evaluation process. Here’s what would change:

  • The five teacher quality standards would become four. “Reflection” and “leadership” are combined into “professionalism.”
  • The underlying elements of those standards would be reduced, too. Twenty-seven elements would become 17.

Fifty school districts and one charter collaborative have been testing the new evaluation system this year in a pilot program. O’Neil said most of the feedback has been positive, and the rest of the feedback has been to urge officials to winnow down the standards even further. That’s not a change she would support, O’Neil said.

“The reality is that teaching actually is rocket science,” she said. “There are a lot of practices and elements that go into good teaching.”

The state is accepting additional public comment on the rules until April 20, and a public hearing will be held in May. The new rules are expected to be adopted this summer.

Submit written feedback online or send an email to the State Board of Education at