Principals Central to Student Learning Objectives

Blog Post
Feb. 27, 2014

Earlier this month, the National Association of Elementary School Principals released the latest edition of Principal magazine, titled Raising the Bar: Data and Evaluations. Here at New America, we've published a couple of recent papers examining the issue of early education and the use of data and assessments in the classroom. Here's our take on the lessons that states--and teachers--can pull from the experience of states already in the deep end on assessing young students, using their data in the classroom, and evaluating their teachers.

The more than 40 states granted No Child Left Behind waivers by the U.S. Department of Education are grappling with fair and accurate ways to use student achievement data to evaluate the nearly 70 percent of educators teaching in untested grades and subject areas. While each of these grades and subjects poses measurement challenges, there are distinct factors to consider for pre-K through second-grade teachers. The developmental growth of children in the early grades is directly linked to their academic growth. The paper-and-pencil tests used with older kids will not work with children in pre-K, kindergarten, and the early grades. And the National Education Goals Panel finds that measures of literacy and numeracy alone do not account for a full picture of a young child’s learning or his teacher’s impact in laying the foundation for their long-term success in school.

New America's recent policy paper, An Ocean of Unknowns: Risks and Opportunities in Using Student Achievement Data to Evaluate PreK-3rd Grade Teachers, found that some states are using student learning objectives (SLOs) to incorporate student growth in teacher evaluations. SLOs ask teachers to set goals for their students and then be judged on how well they met those goals. Some states also use SLOs as one of multiple measures of student learning for all teachers. School districts in at least 20 states are using SLOs. (One of these states is Delaware, whose efforts to improve teacher effectiveness will be discussed further below.)

SLOs seem to be a promising approach—albeit more as a tool to help teachers improve their practice.

SLOs seem to be a promising approach—albeit more as a tool to help teachers improve their practice than as an objective way to assess and compare teachers. SLOs facilitate a formal process for instructionally focused conversations between evaluators (usually principals) and teachers, as well as among grade-level teams and with resource teachers. SLOs can encourage teachers to think more deeply about each student’s needs and how to adapt instruction to meet those needs. Under this approach, teachers use baseline data to understand their students’ levels when they start school and develop targets for how much progress they should reasonably be able to make during the course of their year. Teachers then identify or create an appropriate assessment to measure students’ progress.

But teachers will need more timely and accessible data to successfully implement SLOs. Another recent New America paper, Promoting Data in the Classroom: Innovative State Models and Missed Opportunities, explains that of the large amounts of student achievement data available under No Child Left Behind and other assessments, very little finds its way back to the classroom in time for teachers to leverage it for students’ benefit. Data-driven instruction can help teachers better understand their students’ needs and tailor their instruction accordingly, if they are given the skills and support they need to truly understand the data and apply it in the classroom. Principals will be integral to providing that support.

Teachers will need more timely and accessible data to successfully implement SLOs.

SLOs are resource- and expertise-intensive. Both districts and schools will need to develop capacity and processes for reviewing and approving SLOs. Because principals help set the areas of focus for teachers’ SLOs based on the school’s learning priorities, they will also need professional development to help identify high-quality SLOs and appropriate assessments. If the district allows teachers to create their own rubrics or tests, principals will need to have the time and knowledge to approve these assessments. Teachers will need similar training on how to develop good objectives and rigorous but attainable targets. School districts should help teachers beef up their assessment literacy, especially if they are being allowed to create their own assessments or rubrics. And state leaders must be prepared to provide technical assistance on all of these issues.

Principals will also need to watch for another significant risk with SLOs: the potential for manipulation. Teachers may set expectations that are too low or too high. Or they may be tougher in assessing children at the beginning of the year and easier at the end of the year. This is particularly concerning in pre-K and the early grades, when teachers typically administer assessments to each individual child. In these cases and others, teachers could play too central a role in the evaluation process when they know, at some point, the results will be tied to high-stakes consequences including compensation and employment.

Several states are taking steps to mitigate these risks. Delaware is one, according to New America’s An Ocean of Unknowns report. After receiving one of the first Race to the Top grants in 2010, the Delaware Department of Education began to evolve its existing teacher evaluation system to incorporate multiple measures of student growth. Delaware was already using SLOs as part of its teacher evaluations. To add some standardization to the process, it decided to create an assessment bank for teachers’ use in selecting assessments for their SLOs. The state brought groups of teachers together—including a group of early childhood educators—to identify and develop these measures. Groups of educators also developed a list of common objectives.

Here’s how SLOs work in Delaware:

Imagine a first-grade teacher, Bradley, in a Delaware classroom with 20 students. Because his students do not yet participate in the state standardized test, he falls into “Group 2,” which means 50 percent of the student improvement component of his evaluation is based on his students’ growth on an alternate assessment that he selects (measure B) and the other 50 percent is based on a specific SLO (measure C).

At the beginning of the school year, Bradley meets with his principal to discuss assessments and targets for both sets of measures. Basing his selections on what he already knows about his students, Bradley accesses Delaware’s “online shopping mall” of assessments. Other assessments are available, too, though selecting them would require approval from both his evaluator and the state.

For measure B, Bradley selects the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) and a teacher-created math assessment. The pre-test is given to all students, but Bradley can choose to narrow the focus of his target in the post-test to a cohort of students, such as his 10 lowest performers, or to set different targets for various cohorts of students around the same assessment.

For measure C, Bradley must select at least one growth goal in English, math, or both. Bradley, along with his principal, decides to select a common reading fluency goal and a math goal, and discusses his selected growth goals and the tools used to measure student growth with his principal. Together they determine appropriate targets based upon his students’ needs: 80 percent of the targeted group of students will show improvement in fluency as compared to the start of the school year, and 30 percent more will understand place value.

Measuring these SLOs would be exponentially more challenging for Bradley if Delaware had not already embraced data-driven instruction. Most teachers are required to participate in the Delaware Data Coach Program, and virtually all do. They meet in weekly meetings with trained data coaches as well as their principals and fellow teachers to learn new skills and exchange best practices. A survey conducted one year into the project found that 87 percent of teachers believed looking at student data advanced their abilities to provide differentiated instruction to students.

Measuring student learning for the purpose of teacher evaluation is not easy for any grade or subject, but it is particularly challenging in the early grades. It is important that states and districts be mindful of this: what works for a seventh-grade history teacher will not work for a first-grade teacher. Even in Delaware, SLOs still tend to focus on math and literacy, rather than incorporating measures of non-academic skills, such as a child’s ability to persist at a challenging task. Furthermore, in a recent survey conducted by the Delaware Department of Education, teacher and administrator support for the new teacher evaluation system is dwindling, and one news article cited a lack of communication as a major concern.

It is clear Delaware still has work to do, but its early lessons could be useful for policymakers in other states and school districts. Including early-grade teachers in conversations about appropriate learning objectives for students and suitable measures is an important step. Making professional development a priority will boost efforts to measure student learning for teacher evaluations, particularly when it comes to using data. Providing teachers with easy access to data and time to discuss it with colleagues could help to equip teachers with what they need to adapt their instruction. Assessment banks and common objectives may also improve the quality and comparability of SLOs.

Principals are central to the implementation of SLOs. It is the principals’ job to ensure that teachers are setting attainable but rigorous objectives, and that they are not limiting their instruction to a set of basic, readily measurable skills. Principals also set the tone for whether SLOs are seen by teachers as a tool for improving instruction or as a waste of time. As states and school districts build out their evaluation systems, principals should consider student learning objectives an opportunity to help teachers improve classroom instruction and student learning.