Within my last post, about “Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) [and] What (Little) We Know about Them…,” I requested more information about SLOs and Laura H. Chapman (whose work on SLOs was at the core of this prior post) responded with the paper also referenced in the prior post. This paper is about using SLOs as a proxy for value-added modeling (VAM) and is available for download here: The Marketing of Student Learning Objectives (SLOs)-1999-2014.
Chapman defines SLOs as “a version of the 1950s business practice known as management-by-objectives modified with pseudo-scientific specifications intended to create an aura of objectivity,” although “the apparent scientific precision of the SLO process [remains] an illusion.” In business, this occurs when “lower-level managers identify measurable goals and ‘targets’ to be met [and a] manager of higher rank approves the goals, targets, and measures,” after which performance pay is attained if and when the targets are met. In education, SLOs are to be used “for rating the majority of teachers not covered by VAM, including teachers in the arts and other ‘untested’ or ‘nontested’ subjects.” In education, SLOs are also otherwise called “student learning targets,” “student learning goals,” “student growth targets (SGOs),” or “SMART goals”—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-oriented and Relevant, and Time-bound.
Why is this all happening in Chapman’s view? “This preoccupation with ratings and other forms of measurement is one manifestation of what I have called the econometric turn in federal and state policies. The econometric turn is most evident in the treatment of educational issues as managerial problems and the reification of metrics, especially test scores, as if these are objective, trustworthy, and essential for making educational decisions (Chapman, 2013).”
Chapman then reviews four reports funded by the US Department of Education that, despite a series of positive promotional attempts, altogether “point out the absence of evidence to support any use of SLOs other than securing teacher compliance with administrative mandates.” I also discussed this in my aforementioned post on this topic, but do read Chapman’s full report for more in-depth coverage.
Regardless, SLOs along with VAMs have become foundational to the “broader federal project to make pay-for-performance the national norm for teacher compensation.” Likewise, internal funders including the US Department of Education and their Reform Support Network (RSN), and external funders including but not limited to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Teach Plus, Center for Teacher Quality, Hope Street Group, Educators for Excellence, and Teachers United continue to fund and advance SLO + VAM efforts, despite the evidence, or lack thereof, especially in the case of SLOs.
As per Chapman, folks affiliated with these groups (and others) continue to push SLOs forward by focusing on four points in the hope of inducing increased compliance. These points include assertions that the SLO process (1) is collaborative, (2) is adaptable, (3) improves instruction (which has no evidence in support), and (4) improves student learning (which has no evidence in support). You can read more about each of these studies in Chapman’s report, linked to again here, and the evidence that exists (or not) per report.