Getting observations right

Luke Kohlmoos

Recent research has shown that it may be more difficult for teachers of students with certain background characteristics (i.e., low achieving, poor, minority) to score highly on teacher observations. However, Whitehurst, Chingos, and Lindquist’s conclusion in Education Next that we adjust teachers’ observation scores is a disservice to students and teachers alike.

Introducing a score adjustment explicitly lowers the expectations for low-income, minority children. The adjustment Whitehurst describes is based on demographic information which correlates with achievement but does not determine achievement. This is the opposite of what we aspire to as an education system, which is to achieve a system in which the questions of who your parents are, which zip code you were born in, and the color of your skin do not determine how well you perform and how you are treated. What is being communicated is that black and brown children can't have classrooms like white children. If we not only believe that but actually systematize that belief into how we observe classrooms, there is no reason to believe teachers and students will do anything other than meet those lower expectations.

We must ensure that the standards we hold for all students and teachers remain consistently high. This means using the same rubrics, being scored on the same scale, with the same level of transparency.

We know students of all backgrounds are capable of growing quickly, but it is not always easy for observers to recognize that growth comes in different packages. Making sure that observers have the training and ongoing support to use good professional judgment in understanding instruction and providing useful feedback to teachers has to be a priority. Training on effective observation with score-norming activities over the summer or online is merely the first step. Focusing more training time on how to effectively give feedback is part of the answer, but training time is valuable; ultimately, without normed scoring, high-quality feedback is unlikely.

Conducting more co-observations—where observers are able to collaborate, discuss, and learn from each other in real-time—provides more authentic learning for leaders that is more likely to address the specific and detailed challenges that observers face as they do their work. This approach is also more consistent with the type of learning practices that are most effective for teachers: ongoing, job-embedded, and peer-driven.

Perhaps most importantly, investing heavily in making sure those who supervise school leaders are spending time in schools, coaching the leaders they supervise, and actively working with school leaders to improve their observation practices will set the tone for a school district. The message must be clear that everyone from district officials to school leaders to teachers are in this together, working to create an environment where all students will learn. Setting that culture of continuous improvement is part of the responsibility of district leadership. Providing support to the leaders who are working directly with teachers must be part of the job description of any principal supervisors. Just as the success of teachers is now part of the job of a school leader, the success of school leaders must be part of the job of a principal supervisor.

Our observers will get better over time. In many ways, patience and stability is an important part of the answer. Leaders will develop a stronger mastery through practice and exposure, especially after seeing the fruits of their labor play out in the form of higher teacher morale and more student learning.

There are biases in all measures. Knowing what those biases are, or are likely to be, is an important part of understanding data. But what we are seeing is progress. It is progress not just for students, but for teachers who finally have access to information about their performance that is based on the premise of continuous improvement and transparency. Our current struggles with making evaluation and feedback systems as effective as possible is not something we can score-adjust our way out of; it is something we must face head-on by building better and stronger leaders who will put our teachers in a position to succeed.

And if we do believe that it is harder to teach effectively in schools with high rates of poverty and track records of bad outcomes for students, then a better policy conclusion is to pay the teachers in those schools more than the teachers in other schools. Those schools need better teachers to break even. The teachers in those schools are likely performing better than they appear. And it starts to equalize the incentives in terms of recruitment. 

Score adjustments for observations feels like missing the forest for the trees. What we currently have is a major step forward in feedback systems for teachers. A separate and unequal system of measurement for teachers of low-income, minority students is a step backward under the guise of fairness. The idea isn't to provide perfect fairness to teachers, although we strive for that, or even to help teachers improve, although that is central to the whole strategy. The idea is to help students learn. Lowering expectations for the students who need us the most is not a way to do that.

Luke Kohlmoos is currently preparing to go traveling with his wife and previously led the Tennessee Department of Education's teacher evaluation work. Follow him @lukekohlmoos