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.

Teaching teachers

Mentors matter: Good teaching really can be passed down to student teachers, new research finds

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Janet Lo (left) and Stacey Gong-Zhang attend a training program for pre-K teachers.

Do student teachers learn more when they’re mentored by especially effective teachers?

The answer may seem obvious, but there’s been little research confirming as much. Until now.

Three studies released this year offer real evidence that good teaching can be passed down, in a sense, from mentor teacher to student teacher. In several cases, they find that the performance of the student teachers once they have their own full-time classrooms corresponds to the quality of the teacher they trained under.    

And as many teacher preparation programs face pressure to improve, the findings offer a common-sense prescription: invest in finding the most effective possible teachers to supervise their trainees.

“Taken together, the point is that teachers who are … effective appear to be very promising mentors,” said Matt Ronfeldt, a University of Michigan professor who co-authored all three papers.

One of the studies, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher, examined thousands of student teachers between 2010 and 2015 who were subsequently hired by a Tennessee public school. (Getting the data to understand this was a multi-year undertaking, since there isn’t a centralized system connecting mentors with their student teachers.)  

It found that teachers tended to be better at raising students’ test scores if their supervising teacher was better than average, too. Similarly, new teachers scored better on classroom observation rubrics when they had been mentored by a teacher who also scored well on that same rubric.

There was no evidence that teachers with more years of experience, all else equal, were more effective as supervisors.

The researchers can’t definitively prove cause and effect, but the results suggest that the mentor teachers are imparting certain specific skills to their student teachers.

The effect was small, though: Having a supervising teacher who did particularly well on their observations or their test scores was comparable to about half the performance leap teachers make between their first and second years in the classroom. That’s not a huge difference, but research has found teachers make their steepest improvement in those years.

A similar study, released in January, focused on about 300 student teachers in Chicago Public Schools who were subsequently hired in the district. Again, the student teachers who had better mentor teachers, as measured by classroom observations, ended up with better observation scores themselves.

Here too, there was no clear benefit of having a more experienced supervisor.

A separate paper, published in April through the research organization CALDER, looked at a single teacher prep program, Tennessee Tech University, which allowed researchers to conduct an experiment with its student teacher placements.

After all of the supervising teachers and schools had been selected, researchers divided them into two categories: those likely to be effective mentors and those less likely to be. This was based on data on the teachers (their performance and years of experience) and the schools (staff retention numbers and student achievement growth). From there, the nearly 200 teachers were randomly assigned, allowing the researchers to conclusively determine whether being in that high-quality group mattered.

It did. The student teachers with better placements reported that their mentor teachers were better instructors, offered more frequent and better coaching, and provided more opportunities for them to practice. This analysis didn’t track the student teachers’ later performance, but they did report that they felt more prepared to teach themselves and to manage their future classrooms.

This study, the researchers conclude, “would make a strong case to school systems that the quality of placements is fundamental to the development of new teachers.”

The set of studies add to a small but growing body of research on the best ways to set teachers up for success. Previous research had linked higher-functioning placement schools to better results for student teachers. Teachers also seem to do better after having student taught at a school with similar demographics as the school where they go on to teach. And concerns that adding a student teacher to a classroom hurts students (by allowing an untrained teacher to take over for a high-performing one) seem mostly unfounded.

The latest findings aren’t especially surprising, but to Ronfeldt they’re still important.

“While that may be a ‘duh’ moment, the reality is that there [are] often assumptions like this in education, and I think having the research evidence to back it up is critical,” he said, pointing out that few states have requirements that mentor teachers have strong evaluation scores. “We can make all sorts of assumptions, as I have for other things, and find out the opposite.”

Want to read more about efforts to improve teacher preparation? See Chalkbeat stories on teacher residencies, a Texas program known as UTeach, the challenges of identifying successful programs, a teacher training program that has embraced “personalized learning,” Denver’s effort to ease the transition into the classroom, and New York City and Memphis programs to recruit more men of color into teaching.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.