Making Teacher Observation Matter
This post is a part of the ASCD Forum conversation “how do we define and measure teacher and principal effectiveness?” To learn more about the ASCD Forum, go to www.ascd.org/ascdforum.
Effective teaching is hard to measure, and so we face a conundrum. We know that any assessment of teaching effectiveness must be based on multiple data sources, but the data sources we have are all imperfect. Student growth measures, standardized test scores, classroom observation tools, student surveys- who among us would argue that any of these, or even all of these taken together, give us a completely accurate picture of teacher effectiveness?
Even though our existing measures aren’t perfect, they are the best we have and they can be informative when used wisely. As a profession, we must face two indisputable facts. First, some teachers are better than others. And second, school leaders are responsible for the quality of teaching in classrooms. So, assess effectiveness we must.
Two Approaches to Avoid
One misguided but common approach to this problem is to ignore the value of existing measurement tools, assuming that because they are imperfect they are not helpful. Many teachers are evaluated based on one or two cursory observations by an administrator, who then completes a vague checklist and conducts a hurried conference with the teacher as part of the “end-of-year checkout”. The teacher learns nothing, the data mean little, but the paperwork is done; and it is assumed that the administrator “just knows” the quality of teaching and learning taking place in the classroom. The assessment is a judgment call informed by little or no reliable data.
Equally problematic is the opposite extreme, in which a complicated spreadsheet or database uses numeric formulae to render a score based on several data points- observation ratings, student growth calculations, and others. These data often come largely from measures that have not been validated, using practices that render the scores unreliable. Still, the score is the score and can’t be questioned. The professional judgment of the administrator, who is accountable for teaching quality, counts for nothing.
To bring common sense to this equation, there are two things we can do. First, we should apply both good science and common sense to the selection and implementation of measures. Second, we should use the data from those measures wisely, in ways that both inform and strengthen teacher practice.
Essential Elements of Classroom Observation
Classroom observation systems are at the heart of most assessments of teacher effectiveness, and here we know what works. Here are three essential elements of a classroom observation system that will generate useful data and help leaders leverage that data to positively impact teacher practice.
Element 1: A validated observation measure. It is important to ensure, using findings from quality research, that the observation will capture the practices that drive student learning. Time spent checking boxes and rating behaviors that may or may not impact learning is time wasted. Our profession knows quite a bit about effective teaching that we did not know twenty or even ten years ago. We must take a careful and critical look at classroom observation measures and ask the essential question: “Do we have evidence that higher ratings on this measure lead to better outcomes for students?”
Element 2: Reliable results. Even the most well-designed observation measure will only yield fair and trustworthy results if the measure is used reliably. Observers must be well trained and should be required to meet criteria periodically through reliability testing. The number of observations and the number of observers also affects reliability. Evidence indicates that the most reliable results come from averaging multiple observations by multiple observers (see the findings of the Measures of Effective Teaching Project at www.metproject.org).
Element 3: Useful feedback. Teachers want and need feedback in order to continuously improve their practice. Too often, they leave post-observation conferences with a checklist or score but little real information. Teachers’ and observers’ own perceptions of a lesson are a valuable part of a post-observation conversation, and a starting point for reflective thinking. To complete the picture, teachers also deserve explicit feedback regarding behaviors observed that are more effective and less effective in promoting student learning. When reliable data from an evidence-based observation measure are available, then feedback can be targeted and actionable. Professional development and coaching activities should be closely aligned to this feedback. This way, teachers receive support in improving the elements of their practice that will have the greatest impact on student learning in their classroom.
In the high-stakes world of teacher evaluation, we must remind ourselves that the most important aim of observation and evaluation is not rating teachers, but strengthening teaching and learning. Classroom observation systems may never be perfect, but they should be solid. It is absolutely reasonable to expect the observation process to be fair to all teachers, feasible for schools to implement, and to generate data that makes a difference for students.