Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Can We Identify a Successful Teacher Better, Faster, and Cheaper? Evidence for Innovating Teacher Observation Systems

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Can We Identify a Successful Teacher Better, Faster, and Cheaper? Evidence for Innovating Teacher Observation Systems

Article excerpt

Teacher evaluation is under scrutiny in the United States. A study by The New Teacher Project (TNTP), which examined more than 36,000 evaluations, found that 97% of teachers were judged to be "superior" or "excellent" by school principals, raising serious questions about the accuracy and usefulness of these ratings (Weisberg, Sexton, Mulhern, & Keeling, 2009). In the year that report was published, the U.S. Department of Education allocated US$4.35 billion to a Race to the Top contest that provided substantial funding to states that improved their education systems. Two years later, the Obama administration announced it would also award waivers exempting states from some parts of the No Child Left Behind Act. A main requirement of both initiatives was that states develop new ways to evaluate teachers in relation to their students' test scores, based on overwhelming evidence that teachers are the most important influence on student learning (e.g., McCaffrey, Lockwood, Koretz, & Hamilton, 2003; Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain, 2000; Rowan, Correnti & Miller, 2002; Wright, Horn, & Sanders, 1997). By 2013, 35 states and the District of Columbia had made student achievement a significant, or the most significant, factor in teacher evaluations; 28 required annual evaluations of every teacher (Doherty & Jacobs, 2013). The stakes surrounding these evaluations can be high--persistent classroom ineffectiveness is grounds for dismissal in 22 states and the District. While there is a trend toward the use of multiple evaluation measures, classroom observations are nearly ubiquitous; only 6 states do not use them, alone or in combination, to evaluate teachers.

Educators do not agree on the rules for these observations: how often, whether announced, which instruments or rubrics, and who should observe (Hull, 2013). In the absence of evidence concerning the teacher evaluation approaches that best relate to student achievement, states are employing a variety of instruments, assigning various quantities of scarce resources, and putting increased strain on already overworked principals to learn complex observation methods.

There is no shortage of observation instruments on the market or available from researchers. Most assess the degree to which teachers perform according to a set of standards, such as those developed by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Continuum (INTASC), or various individual states such as California's Standards for the Teaching Profession (CSTP). However, observation measures oriented toward a set of teaching standards typically do not have a primary goal of predicting student outcomes, although they are often accompanied by an underlying assumption that teachers with higher ratings will tend to help students learn more. To the extent that the instruments are predictive, it is by happy accident rather than the intentional effort of designers.

Furthermore, most teacher evaluation systems were not designed with users in mind. They tend to be complex and cumbersome, reflecting little concern for the logistical challenges they can impose. A recent follow-up report on this topic from TNTP and Student Achievement Partners (2013) suggests that changes are needed because, in addition to the problem of inflated ratings, observers are asked to do too much, observation procedures are too burdensome, and there is too little focus on feedback. TNTP authors recommend that teacher observation instruments pay more attention to lesson content and streamline rubrics to enhance focus and clarity. In a review of this report, Whitcomb (2014) doubts these suggestions will make a dent in the core problems surrounding teacher evaluations. She criticizes the TNTP report for relying mostly on anecdote and prior TNTP opinion pieces rather than "anchoring] its recommendations in the research literature. …

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