Life in the SLO lane

Posted: March 10, 2015 by teachkirsch in Uncategorized
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March Madness usually means Basketball, but what’s making teachers in Baltimore crazy this month is SLOs!

SLOs, or Student Learning Objectives are the new, softer way to attempt to quantify what happens in classrooms. The idea is relatively simple: set some goals for what you want your students to learn, and then see if they’ve met them.

As with most of what is proposed in education, the basic idea is good. But it’s also far more complicated than it seems. My wonderful former principal, Karen Lawrence used to say “we’re not making cars here, these are human beings.” It’s easy to see if you’ve welded the car door on correctly. It’s much harder to tell if a young person has been well educated.

Now to the actual business of the SLO. The idea is that each teacher selects one goal we have for our students for the year, measures student ability at the beginning of the year, sets specific targets for how much students will improve over the course of the year, and then measures what students know by the end of the year.

Even if that system worked perfectly, we’d have the obvious problem of teaching “to the SLO” rather than “to the test.” But this is Baltimore City Public Schools, so we don’t have to worry about any problems that can only arise if the system works perfectly.

Last year was the first time SLOs were implemented in Baltimore, but mid-year it was decided that our scores would not count towards our evaluations, so it was something of a practice run. Then, at the end of last school year, the School Board decided to change the rating scale by which they rate our performance. This is convoluted to explain, so I’ll let you read more here if you’re interested. Similarly, I’ll send you here for an overview of our merit-pay contract, and suffice to tell you that the last-minute changes made by the school board cost many teachers significant raises. The Baltimore Teacher’s Union’s negotiating committee filed a grievance on our behalf. This allowed the school board to tell us nothing about how evaluations would be calculated this year, because they claimed they could not tell us anything until the grievance was settled.

So all this year, teachers in Baltimore have known that our pay would be linked to our evaluations, but have not known what our evaluations would be based on. When we grade our students, we’re expected to use rubrics with which the students are familiar. Yet we do not get the same courtesy.

In mid-January I started to hear a rumble that SLOs were coming. Eyebrows were raised around town: how could something that was supposed to be a year-long process be implemented half way through the year? But we were in for an even bigger surprise. The final data, demonstrating student learning, had to be collected and reported before the end of March! So somehow, teachers were supposed to write SLOs in February, submit them by February 26th, get them approved by administrators by March 9th, and still collect the END data by March 31st.

Even if we had no snowdays during that time period, and even if every school in the district weren’t implementing Common Core aligned PARCC testing for the first time ever during that same time, this would be a charade. Rating teachers based on what we can impart on our students in a month? Come on! It feels like we’ve been written into a bad movie against our will. The next few months will tell if it’s a comedy or a tragedy.


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