Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

2021 Resolution: Let’s Rethink Teacher Observations

With a new administration entering the Whitehouse and a new education secretary soon to be announced, it is a perfect time to talk about rethinking teacher observations. The implementation of NCLB and ESSA led to some significant changes in testing, accountability, and ultimately, teacher observation and evaluation. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, these changes did not have their intended outcomes. To be sure, there were some benefits — increased eyes on teaching, increased likelihood of actual observation happening each year, and increased dialogue about important elements of the teaching and learning process. All good.

However, the observation process remained deeply flawed in most places, despite well intentioned efforts to train observers and engage in the process faithfully. It turns out that it is exceedingly hard for an observer to strip away all factors not related to the teaching while observing. This means that teachers who work in higher poverty schools, teachers with higher needs students, and teachers working in urban centers, systematically get lower ratings for their teaching.

Years of discriminatory housing policies have led to segregated school systems and remarkable fiscal disparities between schools and school districts. And recently, a study by Lauren Sartain and Matthew Steinberg came to the conclusion that classroom and socioeconomic conditions of students not only impede student learning, but they also suppress the quality rating of the teacher being observed.

When reading the conclusions of the study, it seems that we should not be surprised one bit. This study is a cold reminder that our segregationist and discriminatory past reaches into places that we never considered. Obviously, fixing housing policy and education funding equity are front burner issues for the new administration, but ensuring teacher evaluations do not exacerbate the harm already caused should not be left to a second term or even a second year.

I am sure there is no easy solution to the dilemma Sartain and Steinberg’s study presents, but we can start by opening up the dialogue about a successor process. This process should be guided by two powerful principles: the first is from the healthcare field “Nothing about without me.” Ensure that actual educators are involved in the development of the policy that will shape practice. Second, state explicitly that the purpose of observation is to improve practice, and keep that process separate from the dilemma of evaluation.

By adopting these two principles we can create a more fair and effective way to observe teachers and provide feedback, build trust, and improve our systems.

The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.

– Harvey S. Firestone



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