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?

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

  1. Sounds like an awesome two days Steve! Thanks for the key take-aways and for sharing your experience during the two day Convening! There is NO reason at all not to go to the razor’s edge to stretch ourselves and the system!

  2. Alicia, it was a great opportunity and we shared and learned so much.

  3. It must have been great to hear how other states are approaching SLOs. As we move so fast, it is good to take a step back and reflect on the process. Thanks for all of the information!

  4. It’s reaffirming to hear what’s going on around the country. NY is in a good place with SLOs.

  5. Laura H. Chapman

    SLOs are a version of Peter Druckers management by objectives, 1954, that savvy corporations have ditched. You are endorsing a managment strategy that has no validity or reliability–not my opinion but the conclusions from four recent reports from the Institute of Education Sciences. Snake oil salesman have been marketing this mischief aided by a $43 million grant to IFC international. Wake up and do your research. The Broad and other foundations paid for the first use of SLOs in teacher evaluation in Denver, in I999, and for the purpose of jump starting pay-for-performance. If you want to be paid for raising test scores and gains in these, pretest to posttest, go for it with no questions asked except how do I do comply with this nonsense. Do your homework.

    • Thank you for your comment Laura. This post was written quite a while ago when the shine of RTTT was in my head. I agree with you in terms of using SLOs for Pay for Performance, but I disagree in that there is no validity or reliability to using student learning objectives to inform instruction. Peace.

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