March 2, 2023

Administrators: Are Your Observers Calibrated?

This is the first in a series of posts supporting district leaders in building strong calibration systems for observers who support teacher growth, including school leaders and coaches.

Schools and districts across the country are implementing evaluation and feedback systems aimed at improving teaching practice. However, teacher quality hasn’t really improved much, and more importantly, student achievement isn’t making much progress.

And although the intent of the system is to provide teachers with quality feedback and coaching, when you start to dig in at the school level, you realize that a few keys things may be presenting challenges:

  1. Observers aren’t aligned in their assessment of quality instruction.
  2. School leaders don’t have a sense of the quality of coaching that they and their observers are providing teachers.
  3. Teachers are getting conflicting or unhelpful feedback.

If any of the above feel relevant to your situation, this is likely a sign that the team of observers (including school leaders, coaches, lead teachers, and other support providers) is not calibrated on what to look for or how to use the data to move instruction. Perhaps it’s time to do take a refreshed look at your district’s calibration systems.

Calibration is critical at all levels of a district, but a special emphasis on consistency among school leaders, coaches, and observers at school sites is paramount. Inconsistently applied observation and evaluation tools can undermine professional development and human capital systems as well as erode confidence and trust among teachers in building-level leadership.

At a more macro level, calibration provides a “level playing field” for teachers across a district, and can help inform district-wide professional development needs.

While calibration is most often associated with teacher evaluation ratings, it’s important to expand the definition to include calibration of the instructional coaching processes happening at the school and district levels. Consistent instructional coaching is a key factor in improving instruction and student growth.

Assuming you have a calibration system in place and you’re not sure it is contributing to the strength of your teacher coaching and feedback system, the following three reflection questions may help you figure out why.

1. Are your calibration systems giving you a snapshot of the quality of your observers?
Your observers likely fall into three tracks: rock stars who have a firm understanding of instructional practice and the alignment to the framework, those who are doing satisfactory work but have areas where they could improve, and those who require extra support in really identifying effective instruction. We often see the effectiveness of observers fall along the typical bell curve.

As I discussed in a previous post, “Rethinking Observations: 3 Reasons to Focus on Observers First,” by improving observer quality, district and school leaders can better gauge and improve the quality of the entire observation and feedback system. On the other hand, if efforts to support observers fail to produce adequate results, it may be an indication that the system itself needs to be re-examined.

2. Is your system a springboard for personalizing professional development for your observers and school leaders?
In most districts, while there tends to be a wide variety of professional development to help teachers grow in their specific content areas, observers (including school leaders and coaches) tend to not have as many opportunities to hone their own practice. For a calibration system to be effective, observers must be thoroughly and regularly trained on the frameworks and associated rubrics in order to be consistent and fair. Often this requires an approach that moves beyond one-size-fits-all.

Today there are many online learning solutions that allow observers to participate in customized, specific training and calibration exercises.

3. Are your observers given opportunities to “recalibrate” several times during the school year?
As the Measures of Effective Teaching Project recommended, it’s important to provide multiple ways for observers to stay calibrated, both individually and in group sessions. These methods include using live or video-recorded classroom lessons.

It’s important to provide “recalibration” opportunities for observers in the same building (or district) annually, bi-annually, and quarterly in order to identify which areas of the framework need additional alignment among observers. Ideally, support should include a targeted focus (the more granular areas of inconsistency among observers the better) with a variety of follow-up tools and resources, including video, to support observers at different performance levels.

At the end of the day, observers should have a clear understanding of performance indicators and be able to identify and assess them in authentic settings throughout the year.

In my next post, I’ll walk you through how successful schools and districts have turned to video as their primary tool to transform their calibration systems. Don’t miss the next blog post in this series on calibration. Subscribe to Insight ADVANCE’s blog.


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