Getting 
Classroom 
Observations 
Right

Education Next Issue Cover

Lessons on how from four pioneering districts



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WINTER 2015 / VOL. 15, NO. 1

It is widely understood that there are vast differences in the quality of teachers: we’ve all had really good, really bad, and decidedly mediocre ones. Until recently, teachers were deemed qualified, and were compensated, solely according to academic credentials and years of experience. Classroom performance was not considered. In the last decade, researchers have used student achievement data to quantify teacher performance and thereby measure differences in teacher quality. Among the recent findings is evidence that having a better teacher not only has a substantial impact on students’ test scores at the end of the school year, but also increases their chances of attending college and their earnings as adults (see “Great Teaching,” research, Summer 2012).

ednext_XV_1_whitehurst_img01In response to these findings, federal policy goals have shifted from ensuring that all teachers have traditional credentials and are fully certified to creating incentives for states to evaluate and retain teachers based on their classroom performance. We contribute to the body of knowledge on teacher evaluation systems by examining the actual design and performance of new teacher-evaluation systems in four school districts that are at the forefront of the effort to evaluate teachers meaningfully.

We find, first, that the ratings assigned teachers by the districts’ evaluation systems are sufficiently predictive of a teacher’s future performance to be used by administrators for high-stakes decisions. While evaluation systems that make use of student test scores, such as value-added methods, have been the focus of much recent debate, only a small fraction of teachers, just one-fifth in our four study districts, can be evaluated based on gains in their students’ test scores. The other four-fifths of teachers, who are responsible for classes not covered by standardized tests, have to be evaluated some other way, including, in our districts, by basing the teacher’s evaluation score on classroom observations, achievement test gains for the whole school, performance on nonstandardized tests chosen and administered by each teacher to her own students, and by some form of “team spirit” rating handed out by administrators. In the four districts in our study, classroom observations carry the bulk of the weight, comprising between 50 and 75 percent of the overall evaluation scores for teachers in non-tested grades and subjects.

As a result, most of the action and nearly all the opportunities for improving teacher evaluations lie in the area of classroom observations rather than in test-score gains. Based on our analysis of system design and practices in our four study districts, we make the following recommendations:

1) Teacher evaluations should include two to three annual classroom observations, with at least one of those observations being conducted by a trained observer from outside the teacher’s school.

2) Classroom observations that make meaningful distinctions among teachers should carry at least as much weight as test-score gains in determining a teacher’s overall evaluation score when both are available.

3) Most important, districts should adjust teachers’ classroom-observation scores for the background characteristics of their students, a factor that can have a substantial and unfair influence on a teacher’s evaluation rating. Considerable technical attention has been given to wringing the bias out of value-added scores that arises because student ability is not evenly distributed across classrooms (see “Choosing the Right Growth Measure,” research, Spring 2014). Similar attention has not been paid to the impact of student background characteristics on classroom-observation scores.

Observations vs. Value-Added

The four urban districts we study are scattered across the country. Their enrollments range from about 25,000 to 110,000 students, and the number of schools ranges from roughly 70 to 220. We have from one to three years of individual-level data on students and teachers, provided to us by the districts and drawn from one or more of the years from 2009 to 2012. We begin our analysis by examining the extent to which the overall ratings assigned to teachers by the districts’ evaluation systems are predictive of the teacher’s ability to raise test scores and the extent to which they are stable from one year to the next. The former analysis can be conducted only for the subset of teachers with value-added ratings, that is, teachers in tested grades and subjects. In contrast, we can examine the stability of overall ratings for all teachers included in the districts’ evaluation systems.

We find that the overall evaluation scores in one year are correlated with the same teachers’ value-added scores in an adjacent year at levels ranging from 0.33 to 0.38. In other words, teacher-evaluation scores based on a number of components, including teacher- and school-level value-added scores, classroom-observation scores, and other student and administrator ratings, are quite predictive of a teacher’s ability to raise student test scores the following (or previous) year. The year-to-year correlation is in keeping with the findings from prior research on value-added measures when used on their own as a teacher-performance metric. The degree of correlation confirms that these systems perform substantially better in predicting future teacher performance than traditional systems based on paper credentials and years of experience. These correlations are also in the range that is typical of systems for evaluating and predicting future performance in other fields of human endeavor, including, for example, those used to make management decisions on player contracts in professional sports.

We calculate the year-to-year stability of the evaluation scores as the correlation between the overall scores of the same teachers in adjacent years. The stability generated by the districts’ evaluation systems ranges from a bit more than 0.50 for teachers with value-added scores to about 0.65 when value-added is not a component of the score. Evaluation scores that do not include value-added are more stable because they assign more weight to observation scores, which are more stable over time than value-added scores.

Why are observation scores more stable? The difference may be due, in part, to observations typically being conducted by school administrators who have preconceived ideas about a teacher’s effectiveness. If a principal is positively disposed toward a particular teacher because of prior knowledge, the teacher may receive a higher observation score than the teacher would have received if the principal were unfamiliar with her or had a prior negative disposition. If the administrator’s impression of individual teachers is relatively sticky from year to year, then it will be less reflective of true teacher performance as observed at a particular point of time. For this reason, maximizing stability may not increase the effectiveness of the evaluation system.

This leaves districts with important decisions to make regarding the tradeoff between the weights they assign to value-added versus observational components for teachers in tested grades and subjects. Our data show that there is a tradeoff between predicting observation scores and predicting value-added scores of teachers in a subsequent year. Figure 1 plots the ability of an overall evaluation score, computed based on a continuum of different weighting schemes, to predict teachers’ observation and value-added scores in the following year. The optimal ratio of weights to maximize predictive power for value-added in the next year is about two to one (value-added to observations), whereas maximizing the ability to predict observations requires putting the vast majority of weight on observations.

ednext_XV_1_whitehurst_fig01-small

We do not believe there is an empirical solution for the ideal weights to assign to observation versus value-added scores. The assignment of those weights depends on the a priori value the district assigns to raising student test scores, the confidence it has in its classroom-observation system as a tool for both evaluation and professional development, and the political and practical realities it faces in negotiating and implementing a teacher-evaluation system.

At the same time, there are ranges of relative weighting—namely between 50 and 100 percent value-added—where significant increases in the ability to predict observation scores can be obtained by increasing the weight assigned to observations with relatively little decrease in the ability to predict value-added. Consequently, most districts considering only these two measures should assign a weight on observations of at least 50 percent.

Classroom Observation

The structure, frequency, and quality of the classroom observation component are also important. The observation system in place should make meaningful distinctions among teachers. An observation system that provides only two choices, satisfactory and unsatisfactory, for example, will result in similar ratings being given to most teachers. As a result, the observation component will not carry much weight in the overall evaluation score, regardless of how much weight is officially assigned to it. An evaluation system with little variation in observation scores would also make it very difficult for teachers in nontested grades and subjects to obtain very high or low total evaluation scores; they would all tend to end up in the middle of the pack, relative to teachers for whom value-added scores are available.

In all of our study districts, the quality of information garnered from classroom observations depends on how many are conducted. Figure 2 shows that moving from one to two observations (independent of who conducts them) increases both the stability of observation scores and their predictive power for value-added scores in the next year. Adding additional observations continues to increase the stability of observation scores but has no further effect on their predictive power for future value-added scores.

ednext_XV_1_whitehurst_fig02-small

In districts that use a mix of building leaders and central administration staff to conduct classroom observations, the quality of the information also depends on who conducts the observations. Observations conducted by in-building administrators, e.g., the principal, are more stable (0.61) than those done by central administration staff (0.49), but observations conducted by evaluators from outside the building have higher predictive power for value-added scores in the next year (0.21) than those done by administrators in the building (0.15). The higher year-to-year stability of observations conducted by the principal or assistant principal compared to out-of-building observers is consistent with our hypothesis that a principal’s observation is influenced by both her preexisting opinion about a given teacher and the information that is derived from the classroom observation itself.

Classroom observations are expensive, and, for the majority of teachers, they are the most heavily weighted contributor to their individual evaluation score. Observations also have a critical role to play for principals who intend to be instructional leaders, as they present a primary point of contact between the school leader and classroom teaching and learning. It is important to balance what are, in part, the competing demands of empowering the school leader to lead, spending no more than necessary in staff time and money to achieve an effective observation system, and ensuring that observation scores are based on what is observed rather than on extraneous knowledge and prior relationships between the observer and the teacher.

Our data suggest that three observations provide about as much value to administrators as five. We recommend that districts conduct two to three annual classroom observations for each teacher, with at least one of those being conducted by a trained observer from outside the teacher’s school without substantial prior knowledge of, or conflict of interest with respect to, the teacher being observed. Districts should arrange for an additional classroom observation by another independent observer in cases in which there are substantial and potentially consequential differences between the observation scores generated by the primary observers.

Bias in Observation Scores

A teacher-evaluation system would clearly be intolerable if it identified teachers in the gifted and talented program as superior to other teachers because students in the gifted and talented program got higher scores on end-of-year tests. Value-added metrics mitigate this bias by measuring test-score gains from one school year to the next, rather than absolute scores at the end of the year, and by including statistical controls for characteristics of students and classrooms that are known to be associated with student test scores, such as students’ eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch.

But as noted above, classroom observations, not test-score gains, are the major factor in the evaluation scores of most teachers in the districts we examined, ranging from 40 to 75 percent of the total score, depending on the district and whether the teacher is responsible for a classroom in a tested grade and subject. Neither our four districts, nor others of which we are aware, have processes in place to address the possible biases in observation scores that arise from some teachers being assigned a more-able group of students than other teachers.

Imagine a teacher who, through the luck of the draw or administrative decision, gets an above-average share of students who are challenging to teach because they are less well prepared academically, aren’t fluent in English, or have behavioral problems. Now think about what a classroom observer is asked to judge when rating a teacher’s ability. For example, in a widely used classroom-observation system created by Charlotte Danielson, a rating of “distinguished” on questioning and discussion techniques requires the teacher’s questions to consistently provide high cognitive challenge with adequate time for students to respond, and requires that students formulate many questions during discussion. Intuitively, the teacher with a greater share of students who are challenging to teach is going to have a tougher time performing well under this rubric than the teacher in the gifted and talented classroom.

This intuition is borne out in our data: teachers with students with higher incoming achievement levels receive classroom- observation scores that are higher on average than those received by teachers whose incoming students are at lower achievement levels. This finding holds when comparing the observation scores of the same teacher with different classes of students. The latter finding is important because it indicates that the association between student incoming achievement levels and teacher-observation scores is not due, primarily, to better teachers being assigned better students. Rather, it is consistent with bias in the observation system; when observers see a teacher leading a class with higher-ability students, they judge the teacher to be better than when they see that same teacher leading a class of lower-ability students.

Figure 3 depicts this relationship using data from teachers in tested grades and subjects for whom it is possible to examine the association between the achievement levels of students that teachers are assigned and the teachers’ classroom-observation scores. Notice that only about 9 percent of teachers assigned a classroom of students who are “lowest achieving” (in the lowest fifth of academic performance based on their incoming test scores) are identified as top-performing based on classroom observations, whereas the expected outcome would be 20 percent if there were no association between students’ incoming ability and a teacher’s observation score. In contrast, four times as many teachers (37 percent) whose incoming students are “highest achieving” (in the top fifth of achievement based on incoming test scores) are identified as top performers according to classroom observations.

ednext_XV_1_whitehurst_fig03-small

This represents a serious problem for any teacher-evaluation system that places a heavy emphasis on classroom observations, as nearly all current systems are forced to do because of the lack of measures of student learning in most grades and subjects. Fortunately, there is a straightforward fix to this problem: adjust teacher-observation scores based on student background characteristics, which, unlike prior test scores, are available for all teachers. We implement this adjustment using a regression analysis that calculates each teacher’s observation score relative to her predicted score based on the composition of her class, measured as the percentages of students who are white, black, Hispanic, special education, eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, English language learners, and male. These background variables are all associated with entering achievement levels, but we do not adjust for prior test scores directly because doing so is only possible for the minority of teachers in tested grades and subjects.

Such an adjustment for the makeup of the class is already factored in for teachers for whom value-added is calculated, because student gains are adjusted for background characteristics. But the adjustment is only applied to the value-added portion of the evaluation score. For the teachers in nontested grades and subjects, whose overall evaluation score does not include value-added data, there is no adjustment for the makeup of their class in any portion of their evaluation score.

When classroom-observation scores are adjusted for student background characteristics, the pattern of observation scores is much less strongly related to the incoming achievement level of students than is the case when raw classroom-observations scores are used. A statistical association remains between incoming student achievement test scores and teacher ratings based on classroom observations, but it is reduced substantially.

States have an important role to play in helping local districts make these statistical adjustments. In small districts, small numbers of students and teachers will make these kinds of adjustments very imprecise. We estimate the magnitude of this issue by creating simulated small districts from the data on our relatively large districts, and find that the number of observations in the adjustment model can have a large impact on the stability of the resulting evaluation measures.

The solution to this problem is also straightforward. States should conduct the statistical analysis used to make adjustments using data from the entire state, or subgroups of demographically similar districts, and provide the information necessary to calculate adjusted observation scores back to the individual districts. The small number of states that already have evaluation systems in place address this issue by calculating value-added scores centrally and providing them to local school districts. This should remain the norm and be expanded to include observation scores, given the important role they play in the evaluations of all teachers.

Conclusions

A new generation of teacher-evaluation systems seeks to make performance measurement and feedback more rigorous and useful. These systems incorporate multiple sources of information, including such metrics as systematic classroom observations, student and parent surveys, measures of professionalism and commitment to the school community, more differentiated principal ratings, and test-score gains for students in each teacher’s classrooms.

Although much of the impetus for new approaches to teacher evaluation comes from policymakers at the state and national levels, the design of any particular teacher-evaluation system in most states falls to individual school districts and charter schools. Because of the immaturity of the knowledge base on the design of teacher-evaluation systems, and the local politics of school management, we are likely to see considerable variability among school districts in how they go about evaluating teachers.

That variability is a double-edged sword. It offers the opportunity to study and learn from natural variation in the design of evaluation systems, but it also threatens to undermine public support for new teacher-evaluation systems to the extent that the natural variation suggests chaos, and is used by opponents of systematic teacher evaluation to highlight the failures of the worst-performing systems. The way out of this conundrum is to accelerate the process by which we learn from the initial round of district experiences and to create leverage points around that learning that will lift up the weakest evaluation systems.

Our examination of the design and performance of the teacher-evaluation systems in four districts provides reasons for optimism that new, meaningful evaluation systems can be designed and implemented by individual districts. At the same time, we find that our districts share, to one degree or another, design decisions that limit their systems’ performance, and that will probably be seen as mistakes by stakeholders as more experience with the systems accrues. We focus our recommendations on improving the quality of data derived from classroom observations. Our most important recommendation is that districts adjust classroom observation scores for the degree to which the students assigned to a teacher create challenging conditions for the teacher. Put simply, the current observation systems are patently unfair to teachers who are assigned less-able and -prepared students. The result is an unintended but strong incentive for good teachers to avoid teaching low-performing students and to avoid teaching in low-performing schools.

A prime motive behind the move toward meaningful teacher evaluation is to assure greater equity in students’ access to good teachers. A teacher-evaluation system design that inadvertently pushes in the opposite direction is clearly undesirable. We have demonstrated that these design errors can be corrected with tools in hand.

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst is director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, where Matthew M. Chingos is a senior fellow, and Katharine M. Lindquist is a research analyst.




Comment on this article
  • R. William says:

    Interesting article and findings. I have a couple of questions about your controls and recommendations.

    If 3 observations in one year are highly predictive of observations in adjacent years and of “stability,” then why not recommend more cost and time efficient strategies such as reducing the number and/or frequency of observations for highly rated teachers? Why not recommend observations every 2 or 3 years for highly rated teachers (unless some other evaluation factor triggers a review)?

    Did you account for the non-random assignment of students to classrooms (as distinct from student characteristics in classrooms)? (e.g. http://aer.sagepub.com/content/51/2/328 )

    Did you test the hypothesis that continuity of evaluation ratings tied to observations are more reflective of professional practice because such ratings are not tied to the fluctuations in test scores caused by non-classroom (exogenous) factors or the non-random assignment of students?

    Did you control for continuity of administrators when implying that teachers are evaluated by the same administrator year-to-year and consequently influenced by prior perceptions?

    I look forward to reading your responses.

  • P Skalac says:

    Improving teacher evals — consequently, improving teacher ed programs

  • Dr. Charles L. Mitsakos says:

    MIRRORS
    FOR THE
    CLASSROOM

    a guide to observation techniques
    for teachers and supervisors

    Charles L. Mitsakos

    Cover designed by Sr. Irene Richer, p.m.

    charles@charlesmitsakos.com

    Copyright © 2012, 2011, 2006, 2004, 2001, 1998, 1995, 1986, 1980
    by Charles L. Mitsakos

  • Joe Prisinzano says:

    This is a well-written and thoughtful article. The findings are fascinating and show the bias inherent to teacher observation. However, it also seemingly downplays the growing evidence that value-added scores, while mathematically elegant, are quite inconsistent in practice. Here is an example written by John Ewing, president of Math for America, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/leading-mathematician-debunks-value-added/2011/05/08/AFb999UG_blog.html.

  • Bill Honig says:

    The authors should be complimented for pointing out two major flaws in existing teacher evaluation schemes using observation and value added measures (VAM) based on test scores. Teacher observations tend to track the socio-economics of the students and thus unfairly disadvantage teachers of those students and incredibly only one fifth of teachers teach the courses that are tested under VAM while many are held accountable for the results of other teachers. Such a defective system steeped in unfairness should never have been foisted on teachers. These evaluation schemes should be halted immediately.

    Unfortunately, contrary to what the authors assert value-added measures using test scores also tend to track socio-economics. According to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Statistical Association VAM measures even though said to be independent of students’ background, actually are highly influenced by the socio-economics of the class.

    The authors also claim that VAM and classroom observations are “quite predictive” of future student test score performance and use the correlation of .33-.38. Actually, that number represents a fairly low level of correlation. Remember the authors countenance using these measure to determine who gets fired, so the measures should be highly accurate. Yet, the two agencies cited and other independent evaluations of VAM measures such as the one by Mathematica have found a wide variation in year to year assessments of +30 to -30 which means a teacher at the median could be ranked 80% one year and 20% the next. You can’t build a profession on that level of inaccuracy.

    The authors also make the risible claim that this level of randomness is consistent with other enterprises and use professional sports contract determinations as an example. They advocate that two short visits to the classroom each year should suffice. Can you imagine a baseball team making a personnel judgment on one inning or a football team on only one series of downs?

    Finally, the authors represent those that are advocating firing bad teachers and pressuring the rest as the primary method of improving educational performance and tend to ignore other measures of improving student performance which produce substantially higher boosts in performance. Bad teachers should be fired after given a chance to improve but making this policy the mainstay of a reform effort not only is not the best way to accomplish this goal, but detracts from policies that produce substantially higher student growth without the considerable collateral damage caused by high-stakes evaluation policies.

    First of all, the quality of all teachers, while significant, is not the only important influence on student performance and only accounts for about 5-15% of student achievement according to various research studies. It is unfair to single out teachers as the primary cause of any perceived low student performance while neglecting to address other essential factors.

    Additionally, concentrating on just the sliver of teachers who are currently incompetent, even if fair and accurate, will effect only a small fraction of the limited amounts of teacher influence cited above and thus is far too weak a reed to rely on for a successful school improvement strategy. Such misplaced focus on the few assumed lowest performers fails to address other important determinates of student achievement such as the quality of the curriculum and instructional materials, the extent of poverty and lack of support services, the level of school funding (yes, money makes a difference), site and district leadership especially in building the systems to connect teaching, curriculum, and instruction and continuously improve all three, the degree of engagement of teachers, students, and parents (school climate), the amount and quality of professional development for all teachers and investment in team building. Schools that address these areas have produced large student performance gains compared to the meager results of those districts and states relying primarily on high-stakes evaluation.

    Finally, the authors tend to view teaching and schools from a static, individualistic perspective. Their perception of schools views each teacher as isolated in his or her classroom with little prospect of improvement and design their remedies accordingly. (Tellingly, they say the purpose of evaluation is to determine whether or not to retain a teacher, not as a means to gather information on how to improve performance) They ignore the tremendous potential for raising teacher and student performance by building systems of continuous improvement for all teachers and by encouraging teachers to work together to that end. Moreover, they neglect the potential of capitalizing on teachers’ professional dedication to their students and willingness to improve their practice through collaboration.

    As a result of these misguided strategies, and much to the advocates of high-stakes evaluation chagrin, their initiatives have not produced appreciable results. During the past few years the adoption of these evaluation policies has intensified. Yet, in 2013, overall average scores of the well-respected, non-high-stakes national score card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), have stalled since 2007 or made little progress while our best districts and other nations have continued to improve.

    These failures could have easily been predicted since the proposed high-stakes accountability solutions fly in the face of modern management theory on how to create high-performing enterprises and ignore what the most successful schools, districts, states, and nations have actually done. None of the top performers used a “fire the worst teachers” strategy or relied on the pressure of high-stakes accountability as the centerpiece of their improvement initiatives in becoming world-class performers.

    Successful jurisdictions couched their initiatives in language of respect and trust. They relied on measures and resources to encourage engagement, cooperative effort, and continuous improvement aimed at improving the quality of the whole school staff. These strategies are widely used in industry and are especially appropriate for high-performing professional enterprises. Such organizations are staffed by professionals who deal with complicated and difficult problems on a daily basis and require these skilled practitioners to repeatedly adapt craft knowledge to complex situations. Highly productive schools and districts understand that the secret to top performance involves unleashing the power of participation and team work to improve and enhance the performance of each individual and that punitive, high-stakes schemes often undermine engagement and cooperative effort.

    Specifically, these world-class educational performers have provided all students with a more active, challenging and engaging liberal arts curriculum as envisioned by the Common Core Standards. Ideally, the effort of schools across this country to implement the Common Core Standards or a comparably ambitious curriculum could become the center-piece of an effective alternative reform movement and a catalyst for engaging teachers and developing school capacity to improve instruction. The key is to detach implementation of the Common Core Standards from the high-stakes punitive measures too often combined with them.

    As mentioned above, one of the critical ideas used by almost every jurisdiction which has substantially improved student performance is developing and supporting school teams to continue to wrestle with how to teach this more demanding curriculum. Teachers at the school compare notes, visit each other’s classrooms, and continually revise instruction. They are given effective professional development around implementing the core curriculum, quality materials, and principals and coaches who understand how to develop collaborative teams and improve instruction. Under such conditions it becomes readily apparent which teachers need to improve or leave and the judgments are based on much more than a few visits and faulty measures.

    This collaborative approach is used substantially by business, taught in the business schools, and was originally pioneered by W. Edwards Deming in revamping Japanese industry (initially, no one would listen here) and eventually US manufacturing. The argument then was similar to what is being said now about teachers—the American work force is weak and that’s why we can’t compete. When the Japanese auto companies came here and obtained huge productivity increases using American workers and Deming techniques it became clear that it was the fault of management strategy not the capabilities of the work force.

    That is what the most successful schools and districts have done. They respect, support, and encourage their teachers and pay them decently. They have placed instruction and teaching based on this ambitious core at the center of improvement efforts and turned schools into learning institutions concentrating on building the capacity of school staffs to continuously improve instruction mainly through on-site teamwork. They have re-oriented management (especially principals) and provided time and resources to assist these efforts. On the whole, teachers in the US spend more time in the classroom than their counterparts in top performing countries and almost no time collaborating with other teachers on how best to improve instruction. Conversely, staffs in the most successful countries and districts in Asia, Europe, and North America spend less time teaching and invest the difference in working with each other to improve instruction and consequently get better results.

    These successful jurisdictions don’t ignore accountability. Effective accountability should be broader than a sole or primary reliance on test scores. Measures assessing rates of such indicators as graduation, college preparation, passing advanced placement courses, curriculum breadth and depth, student engagement, school climate, student suspensions or teacher absences are employed by the better districts. Montgomery County, Maryland also uses teacher engagement measures.

    Data based in part on reasonable student testing and just-in-time student assessment is useful if it feeds information back to the teachers and schools to assist in improvement. Negative fall-out from testing is minimized if it is not used primarily for formal teacher evaluations or to assess school progress toward impossible, politically established goals but is seen as part of a collaborative effort to improve school and individual performance over the long haul.

    Nor do these successful jurisdictions neglect the problem of incompetent teachers. It turns out that efforts to dismiss or counsel out low-performing teachers after giving them a chance to improve becomes more effective if the measures are part of a cooperative endeavor to improve instruction. First of all, many low performing teachers actually improve with helpful support. Secondly, low performers cannot easily hide in their classrooms if there is an extensive team effort underway and the exposure causes many to improve or resign. Montgomery County, Maryland and Long Beach, San Jose, and Garden Grove, California are examples of US districts which have embedded teacher evaluations in a broader instructional improvement effort, obtained teacher support, and used peer-review techniques. They have found that this approach has proven more successful in dismissing or counseling out the worst teachers who can’t or won’t improve than the traditional method relying on a purely negative, high-pressure strategy.

    The ineffectiveness of current federal and state policies based on the conventional reform agendas should not have been surprising. Fifty years ago Deming warned of the negative side-effects of over-reliance on evaluation strategies—fear tends to make employees disengage, narrow their efforts or game the system so they can appear compliant, and divert attention from and motivation to participate in developing cooperative teams and structures for continuous improvement.

    That is exactly what has occurred too often in US education during the past decade under policies pursued by high-stakes evaluation advocates. Knowledgeable educators predicted that these initiatives would fail, but their warnings were ignored. As foretold, high-stakes accountability has resulted in narrowing the curriculum, gaming the system or cheating, using unproven and unfair reward and punishment tools (such as the recent teacher evaluation debacles in many states), and encouraging superficial teaching to the test to the detriment of deeper learning. It has diverted attention from, de-emphasized, or belittled those policies which actually produce substantial results. For example, many principals now spend an inordinate amount of time formally evaluating each teacher by visiting all classrooms several times a year with 200 plus item checklists instead of spending the time necessary to build effective efforts to improve curriculum and instruction–evaluation run amok. No wonder the results have been disappointing.

    More importantly, harsh or unfair management techniques have created widespread alienation of teachers, the very opposite of the engagement needed to teach effectively in the difficult circumstances encountered in this country. This is why recent polls of American teachers found that teachers score among the highest on scales of liking their profession but score among the lowest on satisfaction with their working environment. Ironically, studies also show that teachers yearn to break out of the traditional isolated culture of most schools and work together with their colleagues in an effort to become better at what they do. We should give them the chance to enlist in this crucial effort.

    Public education has always been central to the continued health of our democracy and our way of life. So-called reformers have foisted a set of initiatives on our schools based on an outmoded management philosophy and a flawed analysis of what it takes to improve education. These policies which ignore history, research, and experience have been studiously avoided by the best schools and districts. The reformers’ proposals not only thwart the measures actually needed to improve our schools but their initiatives threaten to put the whole enterprise of public education at risk. We need an immediate course correction to follow the lead of our most successful schools and districts in creating effective learning communities at each school and finally building the educational profession that this country deserves.

  • TH says:

    Formal teaching observations are fundamentally flawed and at best provide only a glimpse into a teacher´s effectiveness. Here is one discussion I offer in support of my view –
    http://teaching-abc.blogspot.com/2014/07/are-lesson-observations-worthwhile.html

  • Eugena Robinson says:

    This article on observing teachers is excellent. The brightest students are placed in the best schools with the brightest students. Their ‘A’ score is secure. We will never be able to balance the scales on teacher effectiveness and supervision. What strikes me here is that school principals are administrators and they rely on the scores given to them. We need to see more class teachers getting inproved scores because their supervisors demonstrate best practices for them. This is a difficult task. Thanks to the writers of this report, you had me on the edge of my seat because you have said it precisely as it is.
    I was an External Examiner.

  • Anita says:

    Classroom observations are hugely problematic and are inherently unreliable. I am reminded of this discussion:

    http://teaching-abc.blogspot.com/2014/07/are-lesson-observations-worthwhile.html

  • Galton says:

    Bill Honig’s comment above is brilliant. The reformers across the nation and the authors of this article would be well served by reading his comments.

    Pride goeth before the fall, however.

  • Randy says:

    Classroom observation may not sometimes be a gauge to teachers’ constant practice inside the classroom. They teach best only when an observer is around. Videos are the best tools to discover whether a conventional or updated teacher still teaches best despite the unavailability of the observer.

  • Marie says:

    Incompetent principals who were never good teachers but just got lucky in getting jobs as principals should not be allowed to observe and determine a teacher’s worth when they themselves are no good. Yet, they have that power and often base evaluations on whether or not they like a teacher, bad teachers who are sorry educators get rated high because they are great kiss ups and those who speak up about things needing corrected are often punished when evaluated for speaking up. Also, one or two visits to a classroom does not really tell whether a teacher is good or not so good. The whole evaluation process needs to be changed and quality observers from the outside who can objectively rate teachers should be used to eliminate the wrath of incompetent principals who use the evaluation instrument as a weapon to shut teachers up who speak about legitimate concerns and who use the evaluation instrument to push out veteran teachers so all beginning teachers who are job scared will rate them high in their evaluations at the end of the year even though they don’t deserve it.

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