Spend resources supporting teachers, not evaluating them [Commentary]

There are many programs known by their acronyms in education; many of these have political origins. People can debate the effectiveness of the various programs, but it is stunning to hear the almost universal objections to one of the newest acronyms: the SLO.

SLO stands for Student Learning Objective. Generally, it is an objective to be chosen by teachers to demonstrate student growth by measuring progress made between a baseline test and a final test.

SLOs are part of the latest attempt to evaluate teachers, implemented this year in Maryland and stemming from the overly-simplistic desires of politicians to "fix" education by getting rid of "bad" teachers. While this goal sounds laudable, if it were simple to accomplish, it would have been done long ago.

Evaluating teacher effectiveness is complex, and until a system is designed that has been proven to be accurate, none should be mandated. A teacher who is very successful teaching gifted students might be less so teaching remedial students. On the other hand, a teacher who is very effective with "remedial" students might not have as effective an approach when trying to appropriately challenge gifted students. A teacher who is struggling at one school could excel at another for many reasons, including class size, student grouping philosophies, administrative styles, parent support (or lack thereof), students' prior teachers, opportunities and resources provided by various school districts, the socioeconomics of the community and so on. This reality does not make for dramatic political sound bites.

Great teaching is, to a certain extent, an art, and we all know that not everyone agrees on great art, even experts. Observers of other professions may be able to accurately judge effectiveness, but effective teaching is not so reliably judged.

The present SLO system robs instructional time from students and teachers and saps administrative time that could be better used supporting them. The SLO system is set up in a way that teachers are being discouraged from choosing challenging objectives because doing so would increase the probability that they won't be considered effective, and they would then have to deal with the consequences of that (though the consequences are not necessarily clear). Furthermore, there is often much subjectivity when teachers use the rubrics to grade students' SLO assessments. Regardless of individual teacher honesty, one could certainly question the validity of assessment results when teachers are grading student assessments that will determine the rating of their effectiveness.

In our county, most teachers are to choose two SLOs. One is normally based in teachers' content area and the other is a "literacy SLO," expected regardless of the subject being taught or teachers' qualifications to evaluate students' English/Language Arts skills. An implication of this is that teachers of classes that deal primarily with non-English-based subject matter will lose time teaching the subjects for which they are best qualified; thus, the curriculum is being skewed as teachers "teach to their own Literacy SLO test". Furthermore, "Literacy Coaches" visit schools to assist teachers in implementing their Literacy SLOs; they quite possibly could be used more productively teaching students. This is not to say that literacy-related teaching is a bad thing; the problem is that it and its assessment are mandated for essentially all teachers.

SLOs are overseen by school administrators, who generally meet with each teacher at least at the beginning, middle and end of each school year. Paradoxically, one consequence of the evaluation system is that otherwise busy administrators generally have less time to observe teachers teaching, as well as to help students, involve parents, solve problems or assist teachers. Instead, they are individually confirming that each teacher has set up each SLO in specific ways and entered artifacts onto an online program.

So what should be done? Contrived individual teacher evaluations should not be used, as they are too complex and variable-laden to be accurate. Instead, efforts should be made to informally identify teachers needing support and then to provide them support. Though there must be a way to remove teachers from the classroom who are not able to become effective, that road should only be pursued after assisting teachers needing it. Support could include mentoring, specific instruction and resources, professional development and reassignment, and it should be implemented rapidly, since students should not be victims. Let's remove the SLO obstacles and put the saved time and money into actually supporting student learning.

Robert W. Miller is a middle school teacher in the Howard County Public School System. His email is robmilfam@verizon.net.

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