Classroom Observation Not Necessarily Best Tool for Teacher Evaluation

An age-old conundrum in education is how best to evaluate teachers. While there is controversy around linking test scores to teacher performance – in fact, that requirement has been removed from the newly passed ESSA – classroom observation has often been held up as an essential element. According to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE) and the American Institutes for Research (AIR), however, evaluations based on observing teachers in the classroom often fail to meaningfully assess teacher performance. The researchers found that student academic achievement from the previous school year has a tremendous influence on the outcome of classroom observation and that any meaningful teacher evaluation must take into account the composition of students in the classroom.

“The misidentification of teachers’ performance levels has real implications for personnel decisions, and fundamentally calls into question an evaluation system’s ability to effectively and equitably improve, reward, and sanction teachers,” wrote Researchers Matthew Steinberg, Penn GSE, and Rachel Garrett, AIR.

Key findings

  • Math teachers were six times more likely to be among the top performers when assigned students who were the highest achievers the previous year. English language arts (ELA) teachers with high achievers in their classroom were twice as likely to be among top performers.
  • Only 37 percent of ELA teachers and 18 percent of math teachers assigned the lowest-performing students were highly rated based on classroom observation scores.
  • When teachers were assigned a class with higher incoming achievement, they were more likely to see an increase in their measured performance.
  • Teachers with higher achieving students are rated higher in “communicating with students” and “engaging students in learning.” These areas reflect teacher interaction with students, so they tend to be student dependent.
  • However, measures that depend more on the instructional strategies teachers bring to the classroom — “using questioning techniques” and “assessment to drive instruction” — were largely uncorrelated with student achievement.

Read “Study calls into Question the Effectiveness and Fairness of Many High-Stakes Teacher Evaluations,” Penn GSE (January 14, 2016)


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