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.

hiring crisis

Want ideas for easing Illinois’ teacher shortage? Ask a teacher.

PHOTO: Beau Lark / Getty Images

West Prairie High School is feeling the teacher shortage acutely.

The school — in a town of 58 people in downstate Illinois — hasn’t had a family and consumer science teacher for eight years, a business teacher for four years, or a health teacher for two years. The vacancies are among the state’s 1,400 teaching jobs that remained unfilled last school year.

To alleviate a growing teacher shortage, Illinois needs to raise salaries and provide more flexible pathways to the teaching profession, several teachers have urged the Illinois State Board of Education.  

“If we want top candidates in our classrooms, we must compensate them as such,” said Corinne Biswell, a teacher at West Prairie High School in Sciota.

Teachers, especially those in the rural districts most hurt by teacher shortages, welcomed the board’s broad-brush recommendations to address the problem. The board adopted seven proposals, which came with no funding or concrete plans, last week. It does not have the authority to raise teacher pay, which is negotiated by school districts and teacher unions.

“I appreciate that ISBE is looking for creative ways not only to approve our supply of teachers, but looking at the retention issues as well,” said Biswell, who favored the recommendations.

Goals the board approved include smoothing the pathway to teaching, providing more career advancement, and improving teacher licensing, training and mentorship.

However, teachers attending the monthly meeting disagreed over a proposal to eliminate a basic skills test for some would-be teachers and to adjust the entrance test to help more midcareer candidates enter the profession.

Biswell and other teachers warned that some of the recommendations, such as dropping the test of basic skills for some candidates,  could have unintended consequences.

Biswell urged the state board to change credentialing reviews to help unconventional candidates enter teaching. When issuing a teaching credential the state should look at a candidate’s work and college grades, and a mix of skills, she said, and also consider adjusting the basic-skills test that many midcareer candidates take — and currently fail to pass.

She told the board a warning story of teacher licensing gone wrong. When a vocational education teacher failed to pass the teacher-entry tests, he instead filed for a provisional certification. That meant he ended up in the classroom without enough experience.

“We are effectively denying candidates student teaching experiences and then hiring them anyway simply because we do not have any other choice,”  said Biswell, who is a fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to bring teacher voices into education policy.

But other teachers want to make sure that credentialing stays as rigorous as possible. In the experience of Lisa Love, a Teach Plus fellow who teaches at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a public school in Chicago, too many new teachers don’t know what they are in for. “Being able to be an effective classroom teacher requires a lot of practice and knowledge and education that you can bring to the table in the classroom,” Love said. “Unprepared teachers are more likely to leave the classroom.”

Over the years, she has seen that attrition.

Teach Plus surveyed more than 600 teachers around Illinois about the teacher shortage and how to solve it. The survey found that most teachers wanted a basic skills requirement but also flexibility in meeting it.

The survey also found a divide between current and prospective teachers, as well as rural and urban teachers, on several issues. For example, the majority of current teachers said it wasn’t too difficult to become a teacher, while people trying to enter the profession disagreed. Educators in cities and suburbs didn’t find it too hard to become a teacher, while teachers in rural areas did.

Better pay came up for several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat.

Illinois legislators passed a bill to set a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers in Illinois, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last summer.

Love noted that she has spent years getting advanced degrees related to teaching. And yet, she said, “I don’t make the salary of a doctor or lawyer but I have the same loans as a doctor or lawyer and the public doesn’t look to me with the same respect.”

But how much do the tests actually measure who might be good at teaching in the classroom? Gina Caneva, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said that written or video tests are very little like the daily work of being an educator. “Being a teacher, you are really out there in the field, you have to respond on your feet,” she said. “These tests don’t equate to the teaching profession.”

Chicago Public Schools is trying to tackle the teacher shortage problem by offering a teacher training program that would offer would-be teachers the chance to get into a classroom and earn a master’s degree in two years.

Some educators also suggest that there are region-specific barriers that could go. Caneva suggests that Chicago get rid of the requirement that teachers live in the city, and instead draw talent from the broader Midwest.

The seven measures the state board passed to improve the teaching force came from Teach Illinois: Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms, a yearlong partnership between the board and the Joyce Foundation.

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its challenges. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. One of my former coaches used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise; injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support. Keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people who didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spend outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology.