The Case for Classroom Observations

A recent longitudinal study by economists at Harvard University and Columbia University shows strong teachers create outcomes extending beyond the classroom and into adulthood. Students with effective teachers are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers, are more likely to attend college, and earn more money as adults.

How does one identify an effective teacher? Many evaluations use student test scores and a predictive algorithm, attributing scores higher or lower than predicted to a specific teacher. While such “value-added” measures are a useful baseline, they are limited in their ability to identify why a teacher is effective or ineffective. Value-added measures are also controversial; many attributed last year’s scandal in Atlanta, where teachers and administrators changed student answers on standardized tests, to the district’s use of test data in teacher retention decisions.

A better approach to identifying effective teachers has been found by the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The MET Project has demonstrated a fairly intuitive result: a metric combining a teacher’s value-added data with classroom observations and student surveys is a more accurate indicator of teacher effectiveness than value-added data alone.

Classroom observations enhance evaluation accuracy, but also create logistical challenges. As the MET Project points out, observations need to be calibrated across schools and districts to ensure consistency. Observations informing human capital decisions need to be conducted over multiple days. Finally, budget pressures have led many schools and districts to reduce assistant principal positions and central office staff, limiting the number of administrators available to conduct classroom observations.

Despite the time and resources they require, classroom observations are a worthwhile investment. As demonstrated by the MET Project, observations enhance the completeness and accuracy of an evaluation. More importantly, they enable teachers to identify their strengths and areas for improvement while receiving real-time feedback from evaluators. Such real time feedback is correlated with strong school performance. Even as resources continue to become increasingly scarce, schools and districts should prioritize classroom observations because of their value in developing and evaluating teachers.

What problems do you see with classroom observations or teacher evaluation more broadly?

Teachers and administrators: have you experienced challenges related to classroom observations? If so, how did you overcome them?

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