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I recently took part in a discussion about the merits of teacher evaluations based on student growth. This national trend to find a method for quantifying art education comes labeled in several different acronyms but is most commonly referred to as SLOs (Student Learning Outcomes).
The stated purpose of implementing SLOs tends to vary depending on who you ask. Responses often include that SLOs empower art teachers as professionals, give administrators measurable data in which to rate teachers, and help us keep our jobs. There is a common denominator in all of these examples, but ironically, the purpose of student learning objectives seems to have little to do with the students.
Growth, no matter what the subject, is admirable. My son recently took part in a bi-annual physical fitness challenge in his PE class. He had to demonstrate how many sit-ups he could do in a minute. The data from the end of the year was then compared to the beginning of the year in order to demonstrate growth.
Ironically, my son did more sit-ups in his first attempt despite participating in a semester of gym class. Does this lack of quantitative data show a lack of growth? I don’t believe so. Throughout the year, my son learned sportsmanship, cooperation, and, perhaps most importantly, that there is an entire world of activity beyond the virtual. Can these attributes be measured in sit-ups or any other means for that matter? And if they can’t, do they still hold value?
Reiterating what has already been written, growth in art is commendable. Students are often thrilled to see a comparison of previous and recent works once they learn a new skill. As art teachers, we strive to help our students improve as well. That’s the reason we teach techniques. However, teaching skills and techniques is only one fraction of why our art classes exist. Our classes allow for exploration and learning through discovery and play. Our students find new ways to plan and to practice. They dive into processes which may or may not produce a product at all. All of these are important but not all are measurable.
Some have argued that even though we might not like it, SLOs are here and there is nothing we can do about it. I agree with the first half, the SLOs are here. However, many a poor education initiative has begun and then fallen once the shortcomings have been exposed. The SLO may get its 15 minutes of fame, but it should not be part of our vision for the future of art education.
It is possible to argue the responses given for the purpose of the SLO. If it empowers art teachers as professionals then have we not been professionals up to this point? If it gives administrators measurable data in which to rate teachers and help us keep our jobs then it also gives them reasons to cut our positions.
Beyond the argument, we may be missing the most important point. If we reduce our lessons to the measurable, we chance diminishing every other aspect of our programs. When we become overly focused on the measurable we will lose discovery, play, exploration, risk-taking, problem-solving, practice, and process.
I realize this may sound radical but what if the future of art education wasn’t about growth or measurable data? What if the future of art education was about allowing kids time to make art?
How do you feel about SLOs in the art room?
Do you think your district would ever allow you not to give grades in art?