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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.