Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

As I recently reported, Robert Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, suggests that those interested in K-12 reform learn from systems of teacher observation common in early childhood settings. An earlier report — “Watching Teachers Work: Using Observation Tools to Promote Effective Teaching in the Early Years and Early Gradescalls for utilizing objective observation tools to assess the practice of teachers of young children, birth to third grade. The successful implementation of these observation tools, it notes, requires effective professional development and training in their use.

“Watching Teachers Work” is written by Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative of the New America Foundation, and Susan Ochshorn, founder and principal of the consulting firm ECE PolicyWorks.

Observation “tools can allow for measurements that are far less subjective than many of the checklists and rubrics currently used by supervisors as they pop in and out of classrooms, as long as they include two attributes: They need to be reliable, meaning they can be trusted to provide consistent measures of quality no matter who is doing the observing. And they should be validated, meaning that studies show their measures to be associated with positive impacts on children’s learning, helping them to gain skills in language, literacy, math, social interactions, and other domains,” the report states.

The report is based on in-depth interviews conducted around the country, including Boston. Every two years the city’s public schools evaluate pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms in the city’s public schools using observations from CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System), ELLCO (Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation), ECERS (Early Childhood Rating Scale), as well as from accreditation visits by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

 In Boston, results “stimulate conversations among teachers and principals about how to improve,” the report notes. “During an annual meeting of pre-k and kindergarten teachers, for example, [Jason] Sachs, director of early childhood education, displayed data showing that only one-third of teachers were scoring in the middle-to-high range in the CLASS’s ‘instructional support’ category. Why, he asked, was this happening? ‘We had a comprehensive discussion about the structure of school, the lack of time, the inability to sustain conversations with children,’ Sachs said. ‘Some of the issues have to do with the way schools are set up and some of it has to do with the ways our teachers are thinking about children.’”

The report offers guidance on using observation tools in early learning and primary grade classrooms.

“To provide children with engaging learning experiences and high-quality instruction across the age spectrum, from birth through third grade and on into their later school years, policymakers should embrace the use of research-based tools for observing teachers and other professionals who work with children,” the report notes. “These tools pinpoint how teachers and other professionals can improve their interactions with children to promote their social-emotional and cognitive growth. They are also essential pieces of an evidence-based approach to ensuring that public investments in education are directed to supporting and promoting teachers who are most effective at engaging children in learning and fostering their success.”

The authors outline five general guidelines for policymakers and researchers:

  1. Identification of effective teaching in infant-and toddler care and across the PreK-12 spectrum— whether in teacher-preparation programs, in-service professional development programs, or personnel evaluation systems—should include results from valid and reliable observations of teachers interacting with children.
  2. Observation tools for assessing good teaching should be aligned with standards and assessments across children’s ages and grade levels….
  3. Policymakers and educators in infant-and-toddler care and across the PreK-12 spectrum (including administrators in all settings) should receive training in the purposes and implications of observation-based assessments as well as how to interpret the data from those assessments….
  4. Professional development and high-stakes evaluations of programs and individual teachers should be aligned to ensure that all teachers’ trainings and evaluations are based on common definitions….
  5. Researchers should continue to develop and improve observation tools for identifying effective teaching, with attention given to English language learners and the association between specific teaching practices and children’s outcomes in different academic subjects and across multiple domains, including social-emotional and cognitive growth.