Stop thinking of the race to the top and embark on the journey toward excellence.
– Regie Routman
As I learn more about Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), there is much to be impressed with. It uses the SMART framework, which will help us to develop goals that are more specific and attainable. Multiple measures are considered. The Common Core and essential skills are addressed. As a participant said in my session today during Educator Effectiveness training, it forces teachers to dig deeper into their own practices and collaborate with colleagues. All good things.
However, the hangup that I am having is the fact that SLOs are tied to teacher evaluation.
In a paper titled “Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform“, posted by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction on the Educator Effectiveness webpage, Michael Fullan talks about the wrong and right types of drivers when trying to improve schools. One of the wrong drivers is accountability, specifically “using test results, and teacher appraisal, to reward or punish teachers and schools vs capacity building” . Fullan goes on to say that teacher accountability in and of itself is not a bad thing. It just shouldn’t be used to drive school reform.
With this in mind, I have several concerns when I hear that student learning outcomes will directly correlate to teacher evaluation. First, expectations may not be set high enough. If the focus is on attaining the goal instead of setting high expectations for student learning, the bar will most likely be lowered. Wisconsin has already experienced this dilemma. When No Child Left Behind became law, consequences were set in place if a school or district did not see adequate yearly progress in their student’s growth. When schools started missing the mark, the benchmarks for “proficient” and “advanced” (the bar) was brought down so kids would meet the mark. This has most likely resulted in unreliable assessment scores and misinformed professional conversations.
Second, innovation might be discouraged. I’ll use the analogy of swimming. If I am looking to improve my practice as an educator, I have to wade out of shallow water in order to apply new skills and understandings. I need to feel somewhat confident to take these risks, and know that I will be supported if things go less than well. If growth is celebrated in our pursuit of mastery, then professionals are more inclined to pursue these laudable goals. However, if the focus is only on results instead of growth, I might prefer to tread water instead of swimming toward the deeper end of the pool of learning. Innovation is stymied when setbacks during the process of learning are not recognized as points for celebration.
Third, student involvement in developing these learning objectives seems to be absent. If it is their learning that we are truly after, students should be a part of this process. Regie Routman described this well at the Wisconsin State Reading Association convention, when she encouraged educators to help students to understand the learning target instead of just posting it on the board. And how do we understand something? By being immersed in its development, connecting it to prior knowledge, and wrestling with the concept or skill, both with peers and in our own thinking.
All of these areas of concerns ultimately tie into student achievement. If expectations are not high enough, if teachers are not improving their own practices, and if students are not involved in the goal setting, I find it hard to imagine a learning environment that allows students to reach their potential. Educators need to model the same process we want our students to use in pursuit of mastery. As we rethink the purpose of school in the 21st century, I think it is essential that the path we take is one that constantly moves forward. If we don’t, the status quo continues.
What I believe will drive school reform in the right direction is building capacity in educators to be the best we can be now and in the future. Michael Fullan describes this well, when he states that “the mindset that works for whole system reform is the one that inevitably generates individual and collective motivation and corresponding skills to transform the system”. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction posts this important paper side by side with the process for tying Student Learning Objectives to teacher evaluations. I propose we address this possible contradiction by continuing to consider better ways to both improve our school systems and encourage life long learning. In other words, let’s set the bar high and innovate in our practices to ensure students can reach their potential. Learning is about the journey as much as it is about the end result.