Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Teacher Observations Aren’t the Only Way to Improve a School

By Peter DeWitt — April 22, 2013 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Improving teaching and learning usually leads us to think of teacher observations. After all, school leaders are not just what some call the lead learners, they are also the lead evaluators. These days, teacher observations are on our everyday schedule, and have been at the cornerstone of state mandates. Most school leaders have to observe all of their staff at least twice a year.

To the outside perspective, observing each teacher twice a year doesn’t sound like a lot. Keep in mind that schools have anywhere from 25 teachers to hundreds of them. Of course, those schools that have hundreds of teachers most likely have multiple administrators. However, the pre-conference, observation and post-observation do take time, which is on top of other duties that school leaders have as well (i.e. discipline, budget, parent communication, district duties, etc.).

Personally, I enjoy the announced and unannounced observations that I have to do on a daily basis. Most of the teachers I work with enjoy them too...after I leave. It’s nerve-racking for them, but very exciting for me. Teachers just usually feel better after it’s completed because the anticipation of the observation is usually the worst part.

As a school leader, we all get to see great teaching in action. Most educators can agree that great teaching and learning is one of the reasons why we love the career so much. It makes sense that state education departments have put this as the cornerstone to teacher evaluation. However, some educational researchers do not believe that classroom observations are the only way to improve teaching and learning because school leaders may not know what to look for in the first place.

Dufour and Mattos say (2013),

The premise that more frequent and intensive evaluation of teachers by their principals will lead to higher levels of student learning is only valid if two conditions exist. The first is that educators know how to improve student learning but have not been sufficiently motivated to do so. The second is that principals have the time and expertise to improve each teacher's professional practice by observing that teacher in the classroom. Neither of these conditions exists."

The Element of Time
Dufour and Mattos take their research a little deeper in the April edition of Education Leadership (ASCD). They ask, “Do principals have the time and expertise to enhance student learning through classroom observations? Is this the best way to improve a school?”

Any leader who has done teacher observations know that if those observations are viewed as something to check of the list of “to-do’s” for the day, it’s a waste of time to even step foot in the classroom. Teacher observations take time and effort, and the conversations that take place in the pre-conference as well as the post-conference are just as important as the observation itself.

This has proven to be problematic in states that put too much of an emphasis on observation as part of an evaluation. Dufour and Mattos say,

Consider Tennessee, one of the first states to receive a Race to the Top grant. The Tennessee model calls for 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation to be based on principal observations, 35 percent on student growth, and 15 percent on student achievement data. Principals or evaluators must observe new teachers six times each year and licensed teachers four times each year, considering one or more of four areas--instruction, professionalism, classroom environment, and planning. These four areas are further divided into 116 subcategories. Observations are to be preceded by a pre-conference, in which the principal and the teacher discuss the lesson, and followed by a post-conference, in which the principal shares his or her impressions of the teacher's performance. Principals must then input data on the observation using the state rubric for assessing teachers. Principals report that the process requires four to six hours for each observation."

This type of observation schedule cannot possibly offer effective feedback to teachers. Observations are supposed to be one way to improve teaching practices but this type of schedule offers nothing more than meeting a state mandate. Teachers, school leaders and students deserve better than that.

Collaborative Learning
Improving schools does not just happen through teacher observations, because according to Dufour and Mattos, school leaders do not always know what to look for when they enter a classroom, especially if they lack to experience at the level they are leading. It’s the professional learning opportunities offered to staff that can go a long way to improve teaching and learning.

Observations are definitely important because they provide leaders with a window into the classroom culture and they get to see student engagement in action. But teacher observations are not at the core of what we need to do to improve schools. The professional learning we embrace, share with others and use in our classrooms and school is at the core of school improvement.

Every school, even those with great test scores, can improve. That improvement may focus on school culture, working with student diversity or gleaning the best information from student data. It depends on what each school needs and not every school needs the same thing, which is why one-size-fits-all mandates are sometimes harmful. Improving a school is really up to the district leader, building leader and staff to decide.

Connect with Peter on Twitter

DuFour, Rick & Mike Mattos (2013). How Do Principals Really Improve Schools? Educational Leadership. ASCD. April 2013 | Volume 70 | Number 7 The Principalship Pages 34-40

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.