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.

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