Op-Ed: Who is Doing the Classroom Observations?

Master teachers should be helping their colleagues to improve

By Michael Hoban, NJ  Spotlight

On December 8, 2012, an arbitrator made a very important decision under the new TEACHNJ law.

As the author of the article points out, the significance of this case is that it is the first contested case under the new law that involves a teacher’s classroom performance. And the arbitrator ruled in favor of the teacher over the district.

in essence, the arbitrator ruled that the evidence presented by the district contradicted itself. Here is what he said:

“With reference to TEACHNJ . . . I find that the employee’s evaluation failed to adhere substantially to the evaluation process . . . much of the Board’s best evidence is internally and irreparably contradictory when it comes to the heart of the work of a teacher — actual classroom instruction.”

The heart of this contradiction was the fact that the principal gave the teacher a numerical ranking of zero in four of five subcategories of actual classroom instruction — while giving him a “glowing narrative supervisory commentary regarding Respondent’s [teacher’s] actual classroom instruction.”

The arbitrator said: “In light of the Principal’s narrative, there is no dispute on the salient facts – namely, the Respondent is much more than a four out of five zeroed unsatisfactory classroom teacher.”

As I read the facts in this case, two very significant thoughts struck me:

  • The arbitrator is absolutely correct in stating that actual classroom instruction is the heart of the work of a teacher.
  • Why on earth is the principal (an administrator) doing the classroom observation?

Regarding No.1: it is good to see that this arbitrator recognizes that a teacher must be judged essentially on his/her actual classroom instruction.

In an article on NJ Spotlight, I wrote that classroom observation must be the essential element at the heart of any “teacher evaluation system” and must be at the core of any attempt to “improve teaching” in the state of NJ.

In that article, I wrote: “If anyone tries to convince you that you can judge a teacher’s effectiveness or you can help a teacher improve her teaching without observing that teacher in a normal classroom situation — that person knows little or nothing about teaching.”

“And the single, most effective way to help a teacher improve through classroom observation is videotaping an entire classroom period under the care and guidance of a master teacher.”

But item No. 2 is the one I wish to focus on here. Who is it that decided that a principal (an administrator) should be doing classroom observations? That is like asking a plumber to evaluate the work of an electrician.

Teaching in a classroom and administering a school are two very different skills. It is a grave mistake to assume that any administrator can be a good judge of effective classroom instruction.

Of course, some school administrators may have been effective classroom teachers. But to assume that this is the case would be an error. I have known some very effective principals who quite frankly admitted to leaving the classroom because they “disliked teaching.”

And is there not an inherent conflict of interest when the person (the principal) charged with doing the entire annual evaluation is also the one doing the classroom observation? This model is deeply flawed.

So who is going to do the classroom observations?

I would think that the answer would be somewhat obvious. Clearly, the best and most respected classroom teachers in the district should be the ones observing and helping the other teachers to improve their classroom instruction.

Every school district in the state of New Jersey needs to establish a classroom observation team (COT) made up of “master teachers” — that is, teachers who are recognized as being really good. And these are the people who should be doing the actual classroom observations after some appropriate training, so that all observations are carried out in a uniform manner. Ideally, videotaping of the instruction and a supportive conference between the observer and the teacher would be an integral part of this process.

Of course, I am not advocating that these teachers should be removed from the classroom for this purpose. It would be truly ironic if we were to take some of our best classroom teachers out of the classroom entirely in order to “improve education.”

Rather, depending on the size of the district, the COT would have to have sufficient members so that each individual could do his/her observations with some “released time” from their teaching duties.

In closing, there are four basic assumptions which I feel should be incorporated into any successful district-wide teacher evaluation system (TES):

  • The primary goal of a successful TES must be “teacher improvement” and not some form of punitive action.
  • The primary element of a successful TES must be “classroom observations,” which should count for at least 65 percent of the total evaluation of the teacher.
  • The primary element of a successful classroom observation should be the videotaping of an entire segment of the learning experience (at least 45 to 60 minutes).
  • Classroom observations should be conducted by district-wide designated “master teachers,” who have at least seven years of actual “comparable” classroom teaching experience.

Clearly, “results” must also form a part of a teacher’s evaluation. But “test results” (unless they are truly “value-added results”) tell you very little about how good a particular teacher is. Observing a teacher tells you a great deal more.

And, obviously, the follow-up meeting between the teacher and the observer to review the videotape is the most important aspect of the entire process in terms of really helping the teacher.

I would hope that we could all agree that improvement of teaching must be the essential goal of any teacher evaluation system.

Anyone who knows anything about teachers and teaching understands that a system that does not try to help teachers improve their teaching is doomed to failure. Why would any group of educated people support a system which seems designed more to punish them than to help them?

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