Establishing specific goals helps students and professionals make progress
Amy Manchester has worked as a speech language pathologist for 12 years. Her caseload at Richmond Elementary School in the Chariho Regional School District in Rhode Island includes students with autism, dyslexia, language disorders, and other disabilities.
Her job is to make sure her students can access the curriculum. On any given day, that could mean teaching a non-verbal student to use a speech device to ask questions and make comments during class. Or, it could mean teaching a student who is on the autism spectrum the rules of conversation and methods to interpret social cues and body language to help them participate in classroom discussions.
She knows the work she does affects her students’ learning. Until this year, however, her performance evaluation did not put a lot of emphasis on her effectiveness.
But, during school year 2013-2014, Rhode Island piloted a process by which support professionals—library media specialists, school nurses, reading specialists, counselors, psychologists, social workers and language and speech pathologists—were evaluated based, in part, on whether their students achieved specific learning goals and outcomes.
In the past, for example, Manchester might have had a goal of helping students improve their ability to understand words as they were being spoken to them. But the amount of improvement did not affect her performance evaluation. Now, she has specific numerical targets (called student learning outcomes, or SLOs) for lowering the number of pronunciation errors a student makes and for increasing his ability to identify distinct sounds within a word. SLOs are long-term academic goals established for groups of students, which help them understand their progress and helps support professionals like Manchester understand what work still has to be done. Another of Manchester’s goals was to collaborate more with classroom teachers. “A lot of times it is easy to do our work in isolation and the collaboration piece is key [to student learning]”, she said.
Manchester and other support professionals also need to set specific targets for increasing access to student learning (called student outcome objectives, or SOOs) to measure their impact in a different way. Reducing truancy, for instance, is an SOO.
The formal title of the process is the Rhode Island Model Support Professionals Evaluation and Support System. It is an extension of the State’s redesigned teacher evaluation and support system, which puts greater emphasis on student learning and goal setting. Both systems were developed with support of the State’s Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Measuring the Impact of Support Professionals on Learning
“The roles of the support professionals are different from those of teachers, but what they do has an impact on student learning—whether it is attendance, social-emotional issues or health,” said Lisa Foehr, director of the Office of Educator Quality and Certification for the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE).
RIDE convened a small working group of representatives of each profession and conducted focus groups around the State to design the system. In talking to support professionals across Rhode Island, State officials learned that the performance of many support professionals wasn’t being evaluated at all, Foehr said.
Under the new system, Rhode Island support professionals collaborate with their supervisors to establish SLOs and SOOs. Both SLOs and SOOs should be “specific and measurable, based on student information, and aligned with standards, as well as any school and district priorities where applicable,” according to the System’s guidebook. Depending on their role, some support professionals will identify two SLOs, two SOOs, or one SLO and one SOO.
The new system goes into full use for the school year 2014-2015. It requires school districts to evaluate support professionals in three areas:
- Professional practice, which includes collaboration with colleagues and the quality of services delivered.
- Professional responsibilities, which includes fulfilling school responsibilities, communications, and professionalism.
- Student learning.
Setting Goals and Measuring Progress
The student learning component will count the most, Foehr said. But support professionals contribute to learning in a variety of ways, some directly, some indirectly, and some both. A library media specialist, for example, can teach students research skills and a school nurse can teach good health practices. Recognizing the diversity of ways in which professionals can impact student growth, the support professionals are expected to be actively involved in collaborating with their supervisors to determine how their effectiveness is to be measured.
A social worker, for example, might set a goal of reducing the amount of class time chronically truant students miss by checking in with them more often to see how they’re doing and establishing stronger relationships with their families to understand student challenges and develop strategies to promote more consistent attendance.
Mary Ann Canning McComiskey, a veteran social worker at Lincoln High School in Lincoln, is on the working group that designed the new approach. One of her objectives this year is helping her special needs students regulate their behavior in class, follow directions and understand social cues, so that they are less disruptive in class and interfere less with their own as well as their classmates’ learning. Many of the students she works with have social cognition and behavioral issues. To measure her students’ progress, she created an observational tool that allows her to quantify changes in their behavior.
The goal-setting process expects “you to be reflective in your practice and maybe change or modify the interventions,” she said. It also helped her set priorities for how she uses her time.
She acknowledged that many support professionals may be fearful of the new evaluation process. But “it’s not as scary as people think it is,” she said. “I find that it really helps to document the importance of our roles in schools.”
Patrick Cozzolino, a school social worker at Westerly Middle School in Westerly, said one of his objectives this year is to reduce bullying. So, he is coaching teachers on strategies for improving behavior and how to gather data on students’ progress. The process has challenged “me to look at things through a data-driven perspective and to take on more of a leadership role,” he said.
Some supervisors appreciate the consistency in rubric language across the various fields. “I have a clearer understanding of what the expectations are across each discipline and this allows for stronger feedback and a more aligned, common vision for support professionals,” said Andrea Spas, assistant director of special education for the Chariho Regional School District.
One of the biggest challenges is identifying goals that best reflect what the professionals actually do to help students, as well as confirming that reaching those goals has a direct benefit for them, said Jessica Waters, Education Specialist in the Office of Educator Quality and Certification at the Rhode Island Department of Education who is working closely with support professionals to implement the new system.
For example, administering flu vaccines is part of a school nurse’s job, but counting the number of vaccines she administers is not a fair measure of her overall effectiveness. “To have more than half your evaluation based on a single function seems very inauthentic and unfair,” Waters said. “Broadening [student outcome objectives] so they reflect more of the work support professionals do is what we’re working on now.”
While the model is still under development, Waters and members of the working group are optimistic about its direction. “Support professionals are extremely excited that they’re finally being recognized for their important work in schools,” she said. “Very rarely did our principals talk with nurses about how they could support student learning; these conversations are now starting to happen,” Waters added.
- Identifying goals that accurately reflect the full scope of a support professional’s job is a key challenge.
- Clarifying expectations helps evaluators provide more meaningful feedback to support professionals.
- Evaluators need to fully understand that support professionals contribute to student learning in a variety of ways. Rubrics and articulated expectations help.
- Support professionals value the focus on goal-setting and increased use of data to help them improve their practice and increase their impact on student learning.
Q&A with Jessica Waters, Race to the Top Education Specialist
Q. What kind of feedback have you gotten so far from support professionals?
A. Support professionals are extremely excited that they’re finally being recognized for their important work in schools. They’ve spent a lot of time not feeling valued.
Q. What are the biggest challenges with implementation of the new model?
A. The big question we’re grappling with is how to make sure that student outcome objectives are truly representative of a support professional’s job. We are in the process of figuring out how to develop goals that reflect the full spectrum of their role.
Q. What changes are you noticing as this work unfolds?
A. Everyone in the building is now taking responsibility for student learning. Support professionals feel much more a part of the learning community.
- Student Learning Objectives
- Support Professionals Evaluation and Support System Guidebook
- Self-Assessment Forms
- Professional Growth Plans