Diving Into the Oceans of Unknowns

On Tuesday at the New America Foundation, the Early Education Initiative hosted a panel discussion on “An Ocean of Unknowns,” a recent paper by senior policy analyst Laura Bornfreund. At the outset, Kevin Carey, director of the education program here at New America, framed the discussion around an inconsistency in the development of teacher evaluation policies: Too little attention has been paid to the early grades, which currently fall outside of most states’ standardized testing systems, and thus need to find new ways to collect evidence of student learning to use in teacher evaluation. The lack of focus on the early grades comes “despite the evidence showing the importance of teacher quality is as strong or stronger for young children than it is for anyone,” Carey said.

“An Ocean of Unknowns” reports on the range of approaches districts and states are trying to assess student growth in the youngest grades, and to use this data to evaluate teachers. Bornfreund outlined three commonly used student achievement growth measures: student learning objectives (SLOs), shared assessments and shared attribution. She found that, of the three, student learning objectives, which require teachers to set individualized growth goals for students based on diagnostic tests, were the most common. Every panelist agreed that SLOs seem to be the future of teacher evaluation systems in the early grades.

The panelists largely agreed with the report’s recommendation to pilot SLO programs before full implementation. States and districts should “continually evaluate these systems as they’re rolling out,” said Thomas Schultz, program director for early childhood initiatives at the Council of Chief State School Officers. Kate McMahon, director of the IMPACT teacher evaluation system in Washington, D.C., said that even more important than piloting was an iterative process in which system designers were “willing to take enormous amounts of feedback every year and to make changes.” This method helps produce greater teacher and administrator buy-in, she said.

Andrew Krugly, a former elementary school principal and currently director of education at the Educare Learning Network/Ounce of Prevention Fund, said that at the administrator level, a number of unexpected challenges can crop up, from how to use data to difficulties with teachers being resistant to take on student teachers for fear of the potential hit to their SLO scores. At the district level, McMahon remarked that training teachers and administrators on how to set goals for their students that meshed well with their data systems could be surprisingly hard. The district was finding that teachers were often setting complex or difficult-to-measure goals. “In our review of 10,000 goals in our first year,” she said, “half of them would not have necessarily produced one simple score.”

Sandi Jacobs, a vice president at the National Council on Teacher Quality, suggested that states and districts wait to tie SLO systems to high stakes consequences until some of these challenges are overcome. Schulz commented that although “the technical challenges are unbelieveable,” the progress toward measuring teachers based on student growth rather than credentials is a step forward from which “we should not go back.”

This post originally appeared on the New America Foundation's Early Ed Watch blog. You can watch the video of the panel at the original post.