Teacher observation: Imperfect, but a step forward

Evaluating teachers by watching them teach is “tricky, labor-intensive, potentially costly and subjective — but perhaps the best way to help them improve,” according to a Gates Foundation study (pdf) reported in the Los Angeles Times.

The findings highlight the importance of teacher observations, but also pinpoint why they frequently don’t work. The old way — observing a teacher once a year, or once every five years in some cases — is insufficient. And the observers, typically the school principal, frequently don’t know what to look for anyway.

But that doesn’t mean teacher observations should be tossed aside. The best way to evaluate teachers, while also helping them improve, is to use several measures — including data-based methods that rely on students’ standardized test scores, along with an updated teacher observation system, the report found.

Earlier research has looked at student surveys and value-added measures to judge teachers’ effect on students’ performance.

Using these methods to evaluate teachers is “more predictive and powerful in combination than anything we have used as a proxy in the past,” said Vicki Phillips, who directs the Gates project.

Traditionally, 98 percent of teachers are rated effective.

Researchers looked at “measures of success beyond test scores,” adds the Hechinger Report.

That is, can we know for sure that a teacher who receives a top grade on one of the more rigorous and frequent classroom observations is also going to have a classroom of students who get top grades on achievement tests at the end of the year and on other important measures, like interest and happiness in school? . . .  And are the evaluation measures, whether they are qualitative observations or quantitative test scores, accurate in labeling teachers great, ordinary, or bad?

Teachers’ observation scores correlated with their students’ results on a variety of achievement tests, the Gates study concluded.

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  1. This is how its been done for YEARS but b/c someone with money says it, the media treats it like its a revelation.

  2. Really? This is revolutionary?

    Then again, I’ve heard stories for years of teachers being called in to sign evaluations at the end of the year even though they’ve never actually been observed or met with an administrator.

    That’s pretty key in determining quality. And it’s not hard to determine when teachers are poor teachers, managers, and even complete slackers. All you have to do is pop in from time to time.

    I’d have no problem with constant cameras in the classroom … though many would think I’m crazy.

  3. palisadesk says:

    Unfortunately, it’s only as valid — or valuable — as the knowledge and observational skill of the evaluator. Many administrators totally lack understanding of curriculum, teaching practice, effective methods, behavior management, you name it. While we are always hearing about “bad teachers” and how we should get rid of the bottom 5%, or 10% — THAT problem pales in comparison with the issue of bad, stupid, venal or incompetent administrators, who can do far more damage than a “bad teacher” is likely to do.

    On the other hand, the excellent ones are worth triple their salaries. How to sort the wheat from the chaff?

  4. Just curious, but do state regs specify that observers have to be in-district? I was wondering if it would be possible to start a business as an observation/evaluation consultant.

    • Now that’s funny.

      Of course if you’re serious you have to consider that you’d be selling a product your customer actually isn’t interested in purchasing but is being forced to purchase due to political pressure. I guess you’d have to determine whether that’s a viable environment for an on-going business.

      Still, under the right circumstance selling the pretense of accountability might be worthwhile. After all, the assumption of accountability’s been a pillar of the American public education system since its inception so a pretense of accountability might help put off the day of reckoning that’s being driven by the gradually dawning understanding that until now there’s been essentially no accountability.

      • At least my district would be interested, every administrator including the Asst. Superintendent has talked about what a pain observations are and that they spot have the time to do them adequately.
        Teacher’s unions frequently complain about the impartiality of the observation process…seems like this would help with that too.

      • Young Curmudgeon says:

        “you have to consider that you’d be selling a product your customer actually isn’t interested in purchasing but is being forced to purchase due to political pressure. I guess you’d have to determine whether that’s a viable environment for an on-going business.”

        The big four accounting firms still have plenty of clients. And Arthur Andersen did not go out of business due to lack of paying customers.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      I don’t know about your state, but these types of cosultants do exist, yes.

  5. Craig Jerald says:

    Some districts such as Hillsborough County, FL, and DC Public Schools are using master teachers to conduct observations in addition to administrators. Those districts are finding that when properly trained and certified, “peer evaluators” are often more reliable observers and provide more useful feedback to teachers.