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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