What You Won't See in Classroom Observations

What You Won't See in Classroom Observations

What You Won’t See in Classroom Observations

When it comes to classroom observations, your role as a school leader can resemble that of a field researcher. You take detailed, objective notes. You observe everything around you, from the objects in the classroom to the behavior of teachers and students. You analyze your findings and draw conclusions using a rigorous, pre-established framework. Most of all, you have an opportunity to gain groundbreaking insights that further your most important responsibility: ensuring students get the top-notch education they deserve. With that in mind, it’s important to evaluate those frameworks themselves, and find opportunities to augment them.

Common Observation Frameworks—and What They Miss

If you’re conducting teacher evaluations in the US, chances are you’re using one of these four frameworks:

  • Danielson’s Framework for Teaching

  • Marzano’s Teacher Evaluation Model

  • Stronge Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Performance Evaluation System

  • Marshall Teacher Evaluation Rubric

These frameworks evaluate teachers on as many as 60 core competencies, encompassing many of a teacher’s key duties, from planning and preparation to self-reflection and community outreach.

But while these frameworks are comprehensive, they still have shortcomings. Nearly all US teachers are rated as effective by their administrators—but nationwide, standardized test scores have stagnated. In 2015, 75 percent of US 12th-graders were not proficient in math. What gives?

Here are four observational factors to consider so you can fully capture learning - even cues that may get missed during standard classroom observations.

Your teachers’ approach—in context

If a principal walks into a classroom unannounced, she might see an entire hour of direct instruction—without knowing that the day before and the day after, the teacher will work in small, differentiated groups. On the other hand, what you see may really be what you get: Perhaps your teacher’s performance in an observation truly is what they do day in and day out. Spot checks are great, but these small datasets may not be representative.

“Background characteristics”—and how they color your evaluations

Most administrators are savvy about how variables like race, income, and previous performance can affect teachers’ evaluation scores. However, as recently as 2015, Whitehurst, Chingos, and Lindquist called for more systematic study of how students’ background characteristics influence teachers’ observation scores.

Observers have been trained on legal note-taking and objectivity, but when they consciously “check themselves” for bias, they might enter classrooms with specific assumptions about what their biases might be. Perhaps an observer has recently read about how students’ race can unfairly influence teacher evaluations. She’s determined to be as fair as possible—but this focus might cause her to forget other biases she might have, like the stigma around remedial classrooms. (If you or your observers need a refresher on best practices for objective observation, Sideridis’s article in Research in Education is a great place to start.)

Your teachers’ talent for connecting with students on the fly

There is a documented connection between teachers’ adaptability and their effectiveness. However, planned observation days have limitations when it comes to measuring this competency. Teachers have a strong incentive to choreograph lessons that check all the boxes for core competencies. If your framework has dozens of competencies, that may not leave time to help a struggling student or reinforce a concept that students aren’t grasping.

Even in the planned observation setting, you can still tell and show teachers that you value adaptability and personal connection with students. Rigorous observation frameworks can feel exhaustive, but it’s still possible—and wise—to go beyond the framework in this key area.

Student engagement at every desk

If your district uses one of the dominant teacher evaluation frameworks, your teachers may need to show competence in 20 or more core proficiencies. They might be understandably reluctant to give students the floor or let them work in small groups, even if this is normally an important part of their teaching practice. Make sure teachers feel comfortable engaging students in a variety of ways by being flexible in how you measure student engagement. For instance, students chattering in groups might not look like they’re getting much done, but the noise level could conceal some great information-sharing.

Instead, adapt your observation practice to identify the hallmarks of good engagement for the specific type of lesson you are observing. Silence may be golden during direct instruction--but for group work, heated conversation can be a sign of success. You can also adopt broader frameworks to assess student engagement, such as the SLANT framework.

Let your teachers shine in and out of observations

Observations showcase your teachers’ competence, but they don’t always reveal the full extent of their passion and their meaningful connections with students. Make sure your teachers have opportunities to shine in this area!

Sometimes, the best way to do that is simple: Solicit teachers’ feedback on the observation process. Do teachers feel your evaluation methods are fair and comprehensive--or are they not being fully recognized for their excellence? Your own staff might have the clearest insight into how your observation process could be tweaked to fully capture their performance.

Parents and students’ voices can be helpful as well—especially in capturing student growth in SEL and other hard-to-measure competencies. Often, the best way to find out what your evaluations are missing—and get started on filling the gaps—is just to ask.

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