Nationwide, Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) have emerged as the “it” component of new teacher evaluation systems. Developed by teachers, SLOs are carefully planned goals for what students will learn over a given time period. This process is designed to evoke critical, evidence-based thought about student growth. SLOs are being implemented in more than 20 states and thousands of the country’s school districts. But are people using them to their greatest effect?
SLOs can and should be far more than a measure of student learning. Implemented appropriately, they drive that learning by strengthening instruction. At CTAC, we’ve documented the student growth that resulted in places like Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Denver, where educators emphasized the learning content and instructional strategies components of SLOs, rather than narrowly focusing on performance measurement.
But too many states and school districts are sticking to that narrow focus, thus deflating the real power of SLOs. Let’s start by asserting that the “why” of evaluation is to help more teachers do a better job with more students, rather than just getting rid of bad teachers. If policymakers agree that this is so, then the “why” for using SLOs is to support teachers to think deeply about what and how they teach. Our research in Charlotte-Mecklenberg and Denver show the pattern of student and teacher success correlates with the degree of emphasis on learning content and instruction.
The SLO process is very different from commonplace goal setting. Much like physicians evaluating patients, teachers begin by analyzing available data on their students. They then use their diagnostic findings to plan a course of action. Determining learning targets for each student establishes a destination. Critically, teachers then map and articulate the learning content and teaching strategies they’ll use to help students achieve the targets. And they identify how they will assess student progress, using district- or state-approved assessments.
Throughout, the principal provides guidance and oversight. The principal or district instructional teams also rate teachers’ SLOs to assure high quality and rigor under district or state standards. At the end of the specified interval of instruction, teachers provide evidence to the principal of the degree of attainment of the student growth targets.
Unquestionably, this is time demanding, hard work. But teachers and principals tell us that it’s also meaningful professional development, the kind that honors teacher professionalism by tapping into the innate motivation to improve. It’s a welcome antithesis to following lesson scripts.
Benefits accrue at school and district levels as well. As teachers self-identify instructional strengths and weaknesses, the principal is better able to provide advice and modeling and the district gains a roadmap for more effectively customizing professional development. SLOs also force attention on system weaknesses—e.g., gaps in the district’s assessment portfolio or in principals’ knowledge of instruction. SLOs don’t cause those gaps, but they do reveal them in clear terms so that they can be addressed directly.
In short, measurement alone won’t lead to improvement. But the evidence is clear that when the emphasis is on instructional content and strategies, SLOs challenge the entire school system to perform better on behalf of teachers and students. That’s a deal our policymakers can’t afford to ignore.