February 8, 2016

Rethinking observations: 3 reasons to focus on observers first

If you’re a district or school leader, chances are you already understand the incredible potential of observations to help educators grow and improve their practices. But most likely, you’ve also come to realize that great observation and feedback are, like so many other things in education, easier said than done. 

There’s no question that truly effective observation systems can be difficult to implement and are often dependent upon a variety of factors and competing priorities.

According to Toward Trustworthy and Transformative Classroom Observations, a 2015 report from the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), one of the most crucial components of effective observation systems is also the one that is most often overlooked: the quality and capacity of observers.     

As you think about your district or school’s observation system and start planning for the upcoming school year, here are three big reasons to focus on supporting observers first:

#1. Quality. By improving observer quality, district and school leaders can better gauge and improve the quality of the entire observation 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. Equity. If observation processes aren’t fair and don’t yield impartial assessments of performance, then there really isn’t much of a point to do them at all. As the SREB concluded in their analysis, many teachers and even administrators view observations as nothing more than acts of compliance because there is little trust in their validity. Observers must be thoroughly trained on the framework and rubrics in order to be consistent and fair.

#3. Accuracy. 
This goes hand in hand with equity, in that there really is no reason to even observe teachers if ratings are not accurate and reliable. What’s more, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching Project’s Ensuring Accurate Feedback from Observations, inaccurate feedback can be harmful to teachers’ practices and morale. To overcome this challenge, ensure that observers have a clear understanding of performance indicators and can identify them in authentic settings.

Now that it’s clear why you should focus on observers as you plan for the next school year, take a look at an article I recently wrote for Education Week to learn how to give school leaders the support they need. 


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