One thing is certainly clear after two decades of research on teacher performance management: Classroom observations are junk. As the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation most-recently determined in its Measures of Effective Teaching initiative, subjective observations are so ineffective that they are less-useful than student surveys of teachers such as the Tripod system developed by Cambridge Education and Harvard researcher Ronald Ferguson (which can show whether teachers are actually being helpful and building strong relationships with the children in their care. Yet traditionalists continue to oppose any overhaul of teacher evaluations — and have embraced evaluations (including in the form of so-called peer reviews). At the same time, the Gates Foundation and some reformers are ignoring the evidence, in the vain hopes to win National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates over, through their support for the so-called multiple measures approach that combines unreliable and inaccurate observations with more-useful and more-accurate data that can actually help teachers and children alike. This is unacceptable.
In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, Los Angeles teacher Peter D. Ford III, in a response to yesterday’s piece on how Gates Foundation and others make arguments that aren’t based on its own data, offers his perspective. Read, consider, and take action to build cultures of genius that help all of our children succeed.
In 17 years, I’ve never seen a researcher come into my classroom to gather data, so reports such as these are rarely valid to me. If I were a parent, as if a typical parent has the time to read these reports, my focus would be on the intimate relationship between my child and his or her teachers, administrators, support staff and peers at his or her school.
Last year (my first year at my current school) the parents and students were shocked and frankly angry that their child ‘wasn’t making ‘A’s’ in math at the beginning of the year. In time they realized “It’s not Mr. Ford, it’s the math,” recognizing that their prior experiences were deficient (which is why the Principal asked if I wanted to teach here). Now that they’re in high school (and crushing mathematics) “They all love you now,” a parent told me. Would ‘classroom observation’ reveal that level of parent satisfaction? Not even a survey would have captured this sentiment because these parents had left, and if surveyed during the year would have had much more negative responses about me.
As a math teacher I’m less fearful of test scores as evaluating my effectiveness, because for math more than any other subject the content is solid, sequenced, and specific. If I can teach the content to the students, they will learn and demonstrate that learning reasonably well. The ‘problem children’ when it comes to classroom content are Language Arts and History, or is it Lang. Arts and History teachers? If you’re confused, or defiant, as to the content taught, of course your students won’t perform well on tests. Determine the content you should teach, teach it, and the students will show that learning.
Whenever I’ve had the professional autonomy to teach the content as I know it should be taught, my students learn and perform on standardized tests. Whenever a school sought to impose some method of instruction upon me that interfered with my scope and pacing, the students didn’t learn as much and didn’t perform as well.
I suspect the Gates Foundation is trying to make classroom observation sound significant and useful not so much because it is, but to win a wider acceptance from ‘traditionalists’ and make it an easier sell to more school districts. It amazes me that teachers all of a sudden embrace classroom observation when traditionally classroom observations have been called derisively ‘drive-byes’, as administrators rarely have the time to observe a significant arc of a teacher’s classroom practice. Are you there to observe when a teacher takes mountains of student work home to assess? Are you there to observe the hours a teacher spends (as I’m about to do after writing this response at 4:15am PST) preparing for class?
The only sure-fire way to observe teachers effectively is to install video cameras in every classroom and have principals and evaluators review the ‘game tape’ the same NFL and NBA coaches do. Until then classroom observations are flawed and unreliable indeed. When your classroom content is solid and you instruct it, the students will learn and show that learning. Parents and concerned neighborhood adults should be as intimately aware as possible about the commitment of — and content taught by – their children’s’ teachers, and let their choice of schools be the best ‘value-added evaluation’ of teachers.