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Aurora Institute

Student Learning Objectives: Insights into Using Competencies as a Growth Model

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments

I’m a TQM-freak. I admit it. I think Total Quality Management and continuous improvement is just the best management practice ever developed. So I distinctly remember the moment ten years ago when I realized the power of competency education when the great team at the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School walked me through their management reports.

By tracking the progress of students mastering learning objectives in their management information systems, YWLCS could generate two powerful sets of reports. In addition to individual learning progression for each student, YWLCS would generate:

Exception Reports: By knowing which students haven’t yet mastered specific competencies, YWCLS can organize groups of students to work with specialists in the classroom or afterschool or Saturday programs for extra help. This allows teachers and the school to organize supports and opportunities during the semester rather delaying interventions.

Instructional Support for Teachers:  Instructional leaders could use a number of reports to help them understand where to target support:

  • Overview of students in a class or all classes taught by the teacher.
  • Comparisons of teachers across specific learning objectives.

With these types of reports, instructional leaders can identify teachers that excel in instruction on specific learning objectives or where they need help.  Reports can identify where the entire school was lagging such as the week before a holiday helping to rethink scheduling or building in time to re-teach.

So I think it is interesting that the concept of Student Learning Objectives (SLO) promoted by the Community Training and Assistance Center as a method of improving teaching including targeting supports and opportunities to individual teachers, performance evaluation and compensation is inching its way across the country.  Developed in Denver where it is rooted in the compensation system, piloted in Austin and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, SLO is now being adopted by states including NY, MD, RI, IN, OH, and HI as a comparable growth measure. (Click here to see an example of the SLO framework).

There is no magic in SLOs – it’s essentially a process in which teachers identify clear learning objectives for a specific group of students (a class or a sub-group), their instructional strategies, methods of assessment, and what they need in terms of support to meet those objectives.  The SLO process formalizes effective practice, triggering powerful conversations among educators about how to help students learn. At its core, it’s a continuous improvement model.

SLO is a healthy complement to competency education.  Within the SLO framework its easy to see how competencies, supported by a healthy management information system, can help teachers have voice and choice about their own professional development as well as instructional leaders to deploy professional development resources effectively. As Jeff Edmison, Senior Manager, National School Reform at CTAC explained, “The broader value of SLO is to align the support teachers need in their classroom.”

SLO are certainly not the same as competency education. It focuses on student achievement but doesn’t go all the way to say we are going to do what it takes to make sure all students become proficient.  It doesn’t ask the question, what supports and opportunities do students need to succeed. Yet the core strategy is the same — organize around explicit learning objectives. In fact, SLO does share some of the same challenges facing competency education including requiring mechanisms for ensuring consistent understanding of proficiency across teachers and a full management information system to take advantage of the data. Otherwise implementation is burdensome and it’s nearly impossible to draw out information to support continuous improvement.

If you know of any district or school that is weaving together competency education and SLO, please let us know.