Monthly Archives: April 2012

When Race to the Top States Talk About Student Learning Objectives, People Listen

Picture a school bus filled with the chatter of smartly dressed 4th graders on their way to school. Amidst the buzz is a little girl telling a friend that her parents’ broker is E. F. Hutton, and “E. F. Hutton said….” At this point in the conversation, voices fade away as everyone on the bus stops and listens to what E. F. Hutton said to the girl’s parents. Even the bus driver turns his head to hear. The commercial’s narrator then chimes in, “When E. F. Hutton speaks, people listen.” Well, that was exactly what happened at the well-facilitated Community of Practice Convening of 100+ Race to the Top delegates this past week in Boston, Massachusetts. When state delegates spoke, people listened–particularly when discussion pertained to Student Learning Objectives and New York State.

Fifteen Race to the Top (RttT) state delegate teams of five to six members each convened in Boston, Massachusetts for a Teacher and Leader Effectiveness and Standards and Assessment Community of Practice discussion. Representing New York were Regents Research Fellow Kate Gerson, NYSED Director of Curriculum Mary Cahill, CA BOCES Network Team Leader Tim Cox, Oceanside Assistant Superintendent Bob Fenter, and myself. What an amazing experience it was to hear of the good reform work being done through Race to the Top across the nation. Agenda items ranged from teacher engagement to Common Core College and Career Ready Standards, though the key area of focus was Student Learning Objectives (SLOs). First and foremost, I learned how much good work is being done across the country and just how far New York has progressed in implementing SLOs.  Dare I say it, NY is a leader in the SLO movement. With a state-wide approach to SLO implementation and outstanding State Education Department support and resources, NY is figuratively writing the handbook on ramping up SLOs on a grand scale (kudos to Commissioner John King, Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz, Kate Gerson, and NYSED staff).

A Pre-Convening Work Session moderated by Phil Gonring of the Reform Support Network started the convening, and presentations by Leigh McGuigan, Leader of the New Teacher Project, and Brent Maddin, Provost of Relay Graduate School of Education provided guidance on quality SLO implementation and Pro/Creating (Procure and Create) assessments to support SLOs. There were many take-aways smart educators and state policy makers will heed to ensure successful implementation. During moderated sessions, state delegate teams worked independently to identify present status of SLO implementation ranging from “Here to Learn” to “Implementing SLOs as Part of Teacher Evaluation Systems.” Each state shared assets they bring to the SLO discussion and the challenges SLOs present.  States later regrouped based on readiness with New York pairing with Georgia as two states implementing SLOs. NY was the sole state in the room fully implementing SLOs statewide. That was a big aha for some in the room, and a reaffirmation of the New York State Education Department, the good work being done by Bill Slotnik’s CTAC at SED Network Team Institutes, and turnkey training efforts of RttT Network Teams across the state.

Two common challenges facing states were the aggressive timeline for implementing SLOs and the concern for high quality, rigorous SLOs. As one educator from the DC/Maryland group stated, “We are looking for SLOs with an appropriate level of rigor and fairness to teachers.” Another near-universal issue was one of consistency. Given the nature of change and the complexities of systemic reform, one can expect great variety as states ramp up SLOs. This is excitingly new for the educational profession, and for the first time, we are asking all teachers to identify learning goals for every student in their classes. Exciting and stressful. Such efforts will require teacher leadership, and it was encouraging to hear panelist Tisha Edwards speak of the Model Teacher program at Baltimore City Public Schools which was designed collaboratively with teachers to develop the intellectual capacity within the city school system for school reform.

Dr. Leslie McGuigan presentation on Supporting Quality SLOs: What States Can Do was based in part on her work in the design and implementation of evaluation and staffing systems. Her recommendation to the audience was, “Be realistic and honest on what can be accomplished short and long-term.” Describing SLOs as a goal-setting process, Dr. McGuigan stated SLOs are complicated, particularly at the teacher level. She urged states to prioritize the work and be gentle in the implementation since writing SLOs is something that improves greatly after the first year. She also recommended to keep teacher evaluation weighting moderate in the area of SLOs, and to be mindful of the continuum of quality control measures (Provide guidelines, templates, tools; train district administrators and teachers; hold administrators accountable for quality; audit and impose consequences; support creation of assessments; create standardized assessments).  Her final point was SLOs are unlikely to be implemented fast, precisely, and cheap (more likely to be two of the three). Dr. Brent Maddin inspired us to take on the creation of item assessment writing, and to seek out quality materials from various sources throughout the nation. He urged us to use anchors when designing performance based SLOs, and to be practical when doing the psychometric testing of items.

There were many key take-aways from this well run Convening, including the following:

  1. Ensure building principal and teacher capacity to write quality SLOs (teacher capacity is essential).
  2. Be sensitive to the time demands and standardize the process where possible without taking away teacher and building principal ownership.
  3. Have a technology tool that includes exemplars, list of available assessments, rubrics…
  4. Hold principals accountable for SLO quality by having superintendents spot check principals’ work.
  5. Have people demonstrate inter-rater reliability on scoring SLOs.
  6. Ensure rigor when setting targets.
  7.  Ensure teacher level goals represent district goals.
  8. Use rubrics to ensure consistency.

Race to the Top state education personnel and policy makers have taken a lot of heat as RttT reform initiatives sweep the nation and enter the lexicon of educators. The process is difficult and uncomfortable. Yet, as a participant in the two-day Convening, I left extremely hopeful about the energy and capacity to bring about systemic reform in public education. There were so many concerned, creative, and passionate educators who shared their successes and issues with the audience, and when they spoke, people listened intently. Solutions were raised, business cards shared, and a renewed sense of awareness arose from these discussions. Unquestionably, Student Learning Objectives are a game changer in this great nation’s educational system, taking educators and district superintendents to the razor’s edge. With so much at stake for our children and this country’s international competitiveness, is there any reason not to go to the razor’s edge to stretch ourselves and the system?


“Stomp” and Student Learning Objectives: Principles for Success

It’s been a long time since my wife and I chaperoned over night school trips, but that is exactly what we did this weekend as we joined Warrensburg Central School Band Teacher Denise Foster, six chaperones, and 23 middle and high school band students for a New York City experience. The featured events were “Stomp”  and “Spiderman” squeezed into a 24 hour period. Spiderman was spectacular, but it was “Stomp” and the post show interactive meet-and-greet session with Keith Middleton and Fritzlyn Hector that drove this reflection. What we learned from the two performers during the 30+ minutes meet-and-greet far exceeded our expectations as the simple question and answer period blossomed into a full-blown practice session. By session’s end, Keith and Fritzyn had all 23 students and willing chaperones doing a four-part broom act on a quarter note tempo. It was incredible, and a few students later commented the evening was one of their best experiences ever. Kudos to Denise Foster for making this all happen.

I try not to mix work with play (yes, chaperoning the trip was great fun), but fresh off a three-day Network Team Institute earlier in the week, I was tuned in to the question and answer period which offered pearls of wisdom (and a lot of laughs) that hold true in all walks of life, including Race to the Top and school reform. A 20-year successful run in Manhattan with national and world tours doesn’t happen by chance, and Keith and Fritz described some key principles that set the stage for Stomp’s success–principles that apply to life in general. Key take-aways were as follows: 1) Work hard, but have fun with the work. 2) Take care of your body. Nourish it with good food, rest, and time for reflection. 3) Follow the beat and pay attention to those around you. 4) Have ownership in all you do. 5) Practice together and often. 6) Have a sense of humor.

Since we’re in the thick of Student Learning Objectives (SLO), how would the “Stomp” principles apply to writing SLO’s? Well, first of all, work hard at them and relish the potential they offer to increase student achievement. Take solace knowing this is the first year for writing SLO’s and that we will all get better at it in the future. Also, stay current and look for the good work being done around you. Find those individuals and schools which are ahead of the pace and pay attention to how they are creating SLO’s. Have teachers own the SLO. It is tempting for central office or school leaders to write the SLO’s and then have teachers justify the rationale for such targets, but districts run the risk of compliance over ownership when teachers are omitted from developing the SLO’s. If we are to make SLO’s work in New York state, and as Ken Slentz said during training last week, SLO’s have never been rolled out at the scale they are in NY, we need to be certain teachers and principals have a vested interest in their creation. Finally, let’s do this important work together, and have a sense of humor and tolerance for the mistakes that are surely to be made as we learn together how to write quality SLO’s.

Common Core Literacy in the Content Areas

This week I’m trying to get a head start in developing our upcoming May 1st full day session for teachers and principals on Bringing Common Core Literacy into the Content Areas, and my productivity is much like April weather–intermittent and scattered. One could also say the same for how well education has integrated literacy into the content areas, and by content areas, I mean non-ELA middle and high school classes. I’m struggling. Perhaps it’s getting stuff done after a lovely Easter weekend with family, or maybe it’s the quiet interlude before our next RttT Network Team Institute. Or maybe, just maybe, I’m stretching myself beyond my comfort zone. With no distractions and few communications, it’s really the perfect environment to be productive, think creatively, and write well. Contrary to that logic, taking what’s in my head and putting it together in a cogent structure has been challenging this week. I know what literacy in science looks like, but what about literacy in other disciplines; and how do we help teachers fully appreciate the instructional shifts Common Core Standards demand?

As a former middle and high school science teacher, I was privileged to teach all science subjects from grades seven through twelve. I had the top students in chemistry and physics, and budding tweens in 7th grade life science. It was great fun. My students read a lot. They wrote more than they liked, and to their dismay, gave oral presentations regularly. My philosophy was simple: take what you’re learning in science and apply it to solve problems, think creatively, and defend a position. Positions could be the use of antibiotics and subsequent growth of super bacteria; or the proposed reintroduction of the grey wolf into the Adirondack Park of New York; or the use of genetic engineering to create superfoods; or whether to choose paper or plastic when checking out at the supermarket. My students had to reference their resources and provide evidence that convinced me and their classmates about their position. What fun! It was work, but it was good work. And my students learned much of their science through literacy.

I realize many years later that what I did with literacy as a science teacher was the exception rather than the norm, and that in many ways, my colleagues and I were independent contractors doing what we did because we loved kids and our subject areas (I just happened to also love literacy). Social Studies, Science, History, Technical Subjects, and Unified Arts teachers have essentially taught in silos these past few decades, with only passing, infrequent attempts to work cross-curricularly with one another and ELA. It’s not that the profession didn’t recognize the value of cross curricular, literacy embedded lessons. On the contrary, I remember feature summer session brochures titled “Integrating Literacy in the Content Areas” that were scattered in faculty rooms, mail rooms, and school offices during April and May. These three-day workshops were designed by Teacher Centers for subject area teachers who weren’t exactly responsible for teaching reading or writing, but who might consider strategies to bridge such essentials into their curricula. Unfortunately, interest in the workshops was limited for a variety of reasons; probably the biggest of which was a misunderstanding about the beneficial role of literacy in all content areas. That’s changing thanks to Common Core Standards.

As I mentioned earlier, planning the literacy workshop has been difficult. I know what to do with science, but what about the other content areas? Fortunately, we have the Internet, and Google, and blogs and all those great bookmarked resources. One of my favorites is Darren Burris’ Common Core Online, which is fed daily via Scoop.It. From Darren’s material I’ve come across many useful resources, including Social Studies teacher Michael Milton’s blog. If you are looking for common core resources, or great ideas and activities for teaching social studies with the common core in mind, then you must check out Darren’s and Mike’s materials. Back to the planning part, I was desperately figuring out how to address the social studies and history teachers’ needs for exemplars of literacy-embedded tasks when I came upon Michael Milton’s materials. With his permission, I will be using two ideas from his site: Connecting Lessons to Common Core: A Missed Opportunity, and Connecting Lessons to Common Core: Enlightenment–Declaration of Independence. I’ll also be pulling some exemplars from the New York State Education Department’s Common Core Toolkit on The science piece will be much easier. We’ll do a close read on some Geo-engineering articles, and then a position paper on invasive species.

Depending on the composition of our audience, other exemplars may need to pulled together. Regardless, our essential questions for the workshop are: 1) What are the CCLS for Literacy in History, Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects and how does the rigor change from 6th-12th grade?; 2) What adjustments in pedagogy, curriculum, and assessments do the CCLS for Literacy call for?; and 3) What are some best practices and resources to implement the CCLS in my classroom? We anticipate a hard days work which I hope our participants find invigorating and assuring. We’ll open with Ronnie Bruce’s Typology Poem, work in a Chris Tovani’s piece on purposeful reading, and spend a great deal of time understanding the standards through best practices, curriculum development, and the six instructional shifts ( I’ll post our best practices and products later this spring). With Courtney Jablonski, my highly talented RttT colleague, back in town from vacation next week, I imagine we’ll have a quality final product to present on May 1st. Meanwhile, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Student Achievement, SLO’s, and Beginning with the End in Mind

Begin with the End in Mind is one of my favorite habits from Stephen Covey’s classic 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Whether we’re talking music, sports, financial planning, families, or travel, people do better when they have a goal in mind and an action plan to get there. And so it goes with Student Learning Objectives, a significant component to the Annual Professional Performance Review for teachers AND principals. Teaching with the end in mind is something good teachers have always done, but now it’s something we are all responsible for doing (It’s hard to believe the profession took this long to implement something that addresses achievement goals for each and every student).

Setting goals is good practice. Years ago a former district of mine hired an innovative superintendent who transformed the district for the better. He focused on a number of things, including action planning and goal setting. I remember during his second year he required all staff members to write a personal goal which he collected. In April, he set up a calendar to meet with every district teacher and administrator to discuss how well each person did in achieving his or her goals.  This was new territory for our district, and set the tone for future work. Though a few goals were poorly written or ill-conceived (“Survive the year,” and “Learn to manage my stress level.”), the culture had shifted towards outcomes and accountability. My goal was to have all students pass Earth Science. I didn’t elaborate how to achieve that, nor did I specify the learning content or the baseline measures of my incoming freshmen. I also didn’t have any baseline data to speak from when setting my targets, nor did I have targets for each student. My, how far we have come.

Writing SLO’s asks the teacher to identify challenging learning targets that ensure all students have the necessary skills and understandings for career or college success. Well-written SLO’s use valid and reliable measures to describe each student’s readiness to learn and outcomes at the end of the year. SLO’s incorporate Common Core Learning Standards and other district priority standards, and are justified as meaningful and rigorous by the writer. Each SLO has a scale ranging from highly effective to ineffective which outlines the levels of performance defined in the SLO. For example, if an individual has a target of 85% mastery on a given exam, there are ranges of scores above and below the 85% mastery target that will determine a teacher’s performance. Working with a building principal, SLO’s are meant to be a collaborative effort leading to goals which are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely).

Later this month, Courtney and I will facilitate the next round of Race to the Top Lead Evaluator Part Three trainings for building principals. Our focus will be on teacher observation, and in particular, Student Learning Objectives (SLO). We are using some of the New York State Education Department (SED) SLO materials including the SLO Guidance Document, Roadmap, Development Guide, and Template (There are also webinars from SED on the topic). Our goal is to have individuals leave our full day session confident in how to develop and evaluate the quality of Student Learning Objectives. We’ll take them through much of the resources CTAC provided us at our Network Team Institute in March, and stretch them with some activities we’ve created to help them fully process the SLO elements. We’re hoping to move our colleagues from the knowledge and comprehension levels to those of synthesis and evaluation. In particular, we will have them brainstorm the characteristics of each SLO element (there are eight) and then work in teams and groups to design an analytic rubric which they will use to evaluate one another’s SLO.

This is uncharted territory in New York State, but preliminary indications are that teachers and administrators are more than ready to design quality SLO’s. A number of schools in our region have begun the important work of developing Student Learning Objectives for their grade levels and departments, and our Race to the Top Network Team found that the more you practice writing SLOs, the better you get (take a look at Example SLO’s we wrote for our Network Team Institute homework assignment for physical education, grade two literacy, and high school earth science classes). As we plan our sessions, we are cognizant of beginning with the end in mind. Our job is to engage the audience in the SLO portion of APPR’s while differentiating the training to ensure all participants are in their Zone of Proximal Development. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.