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.

student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.


Teachers in Millington and Knoxville just won the Oscar awards of education

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Millington English teacher Katherine Watkins reacts after learning that she is the recipient of a 2017 Milken Educator Award.

Two Tennessee teachers were surprised during school assemblies Thursday with a prestigious national teaching award, $25,000 checks, and a visit from the state’s education chief.

Katherine Watkins teaches high school English in Millington Municipal Schools in Shelby County. She serves as the English department chair and professional learning community coordinator at Millington Central High School. She is also a trained jazz pianist, published poet, and STEM teacher by summer.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin learns she is among the recipients.

Paula Franklin teaches Advanced Placement government at West High School in Knoxville. Since she took on the course, its enrollment has doubled, and 82 percent of her students pass with an average score that exceeds the national average.

The teachers are two of 45 educators being honored nationally with this year’s Milken Educator Awards from the Milken Family Foundation. The award includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

“It is an honor to celebrate two exceptional Tennessee educators today on each end of the state,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who attended each assembly. “Paula Franklin and Katherine Watkins should be proud of the work they have done to build positive relationships with students and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce.”

Foundation chairman Lowell Milken was present to present the awards, which have been given to thousands of teachers since 1987.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Students gather around Millington teacher Katherine Watkins as she receives a check as part of her Milken Educator Award.

The Milken awards process starts with recommendations from sources that the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the foundation, which picks the winners.

Last year, Chattanooga elementary school teacher Katie Baker was Tennessee’s sole winner.

In all, 66 Tennessee educators have been recognized by the Milken Foundation and received a total of $1.6 million since the program began in the state in 1992.

You can learn more about the Milken Educator Awards here.