What to Do Next With Teacher Evaluations

12/18/2015 04:40 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2016

Teacher evaluation is a contentious issue. It tends to be more so when evaluation systems must show evidence of a teacher's contribution to student learning, as federal initiatives have recently required. The stakes are high, since how a teacher is rated affects his or her continued employment, advancement, and even compensation.

In the wake of much controversy, the newly reauthorized federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) now prohibits the U. S. Secretary of Education from interfering with state decisions on teacher evaluation. Nonetheless, it remains the case that since 2009, many states have enacted laws putting new evaluation systems in place, all either requiring or permitting school districts to consider student performance when they review teacher performance.

That places the burden on local school boards and superintendents to figure out an approach that is not only fair but also supports good teachers and respects their professionalism, rather than one that is threatening and punishing. Can it be done?

Thousands of districts are responding to this challenge by using Student Learning Objectives (SLOs). Introduced in Denver in 1999, SLOs are carefully planned goals for what each teacher's students will learn over a given time period. As a starting place, SLOs acknowledge that the aim of teacher evaluation is to help more teachers be more effective with more students, not to simply get rid of bad teachers. By implementing SLOs, districts can strengthen teachers' responsibility for and impact on student learning--but without imposing arbitrary measurements. Implemented appropriately, SLOs drive learning by bolstering instruction.

The SLO process doesn't impose a single measure of success on every student and teacher. Much like physicians evaluating individual patients, teachers begin by analyzing available data on each of their students. They then use their diagnostic findings to plan a course of action.

Determining learning targets for each student based on the student's starting points, as well grade and subject curriculum expectations, establishes a destination. Teachers then map and articulate the learning content they'll help the students to master and the teaching strategies they'll use to help students achieve the targets. They also identify how they'll assess student progress, using a range of district- or state-approved assessments.

Thoughtful application of SLOs leverages the entire school system. Principals provide guidance and oversight. Instructional teams discuss and 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 of the degree of attainment of the student growth targets.

A well-implemented SLO strategy empowers teachers to construct a forward-looking approach to raising student achievement. SLO plans guide classroom practice throughout the year. Because teachers themselves craft the objectives, they see SLOs as a reasonable component of performance review.

Schools and districts benefit as well. As teachers identify their instructional strengths and weaknesses, principals are better able to provide school-wide advice and modeling. The district gains a roadmap for more effectively customizing professional development. Moreover, SLOs highlight shortcomings that districts must address--for example, gaps in the district's assessment portfolio or in principals' knowledge of instruction.

Our research at CTAC demonstrates that student and teacher success correlates with the up-front quality of SLOs. Important for quality is the degree of emphasis leaders place on two elements: careful delineation of the content and standards students will master; and how the teacher will provide instruction. Our SLO studies in Denver found that students whose teachers had high quality SLOs outperformed their peers on a multi-year basis.

The bottom line is that while SLOs are being used for evaluative purposes, their instructional value--rooted in teacher ownership of the process--is what matters most. District leaders who only implement SLOs to comply with teacher evaluation requirements risk backlash from teachers. They also squander the opportunity to use SLOs to spur higher levels of student learning.

It's clear that measurement alone won't lead to improvement. But when SLOs emphasize what's being taught and how--the essence of what goes on in a classroom--they challenge the entire school system to perform better on behalf of teachers and students. That's a deal state policymakers can't afford to ignore.