Consider this scenario: A principal pops into a classroom a couple of times a year and uses a checklist to evaluate a teacher's performance, gaining little understanding of her style or effectiveness.
Or this one: A coach regularly observes a teacher throughout the year and follows up by offering advice on how to improve his engagement with students.
Which scenario is likely to lead to better teaching?
As a national conversation heats up about how best to evaluate teachers, education experts are examining that question by taking another look at classroom observation to determine if it can be a more-effective tool for professional development. And they're looking to early-childhood education, which has traditionally focused on the whole development of a child, rather than just academic outcomes.
"The right kind of professional development for those working with our youngest children is the cornerstone of quality improvement," said Susan Ochshorn, founder of ECE PolicyWorks and one of the authors of "Watching Teachers Work: Using Data from Classroom Observations to Improve Teaching." "It's here that the earliest relationships form a sort of laboratory in which cognitive and social development are kind of joined at the hip."
Observation can be effective for professional development because understanding the interactions between adults and kids are "paramount" to building a foundation for learning, she said during a panel discussion on the ideas behind the policy paper Thursday at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C .
Ochshorn and co-author Lisa Guernsey, director of the foundation's Early Education Initiative, joined two teachers and Education Sector senior policy analyst Elena Silva to discuss how improved observation tools could lead to better teaching.
"Imagine how education might change if policies were based on actually watching teachers at work, rewarding good practice and fostering improvements," the two experts wrote in the report's executive summary. "Valuable and reliable 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."
The report noted that initiatives underway throughout the country are using "observation-based assessments to jump-start comprehensive changes across prekindergarten and the early grades."
Consider this from a North Carolina 1st-grade teacher who has participated in an assessment program developed by the FirstSchool Program at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina.
With FirstSchool Snapshot, observers map out a teacher's entire day and record how teachers interact with theirstudents. Coaches and facilitators meet regularly with teachers and principals to provide feedback and ideas for more effective teaching.
"They took that data and let you look at it from a different window," said teacher Andi Green in a video shown during Thursday's session.
Green said she discovered that even though she knows children learn better in small groups, she was spending a "huge" part of her day focusing lessons on the whole class. The observation data provided "a true picture of what I do" and helped her change her teaching style.
"I found out that I was a bit of a control freak," and needed to let go so that the students could blossom, Green said. The assessment process identified areas for growth, something that had never occurred in her previous evaluations, she added.
Noreen Thompson, who teaches at AppleTree Early Learning public charter school in Washington, D.C., said she has learned how to improve her teaching from an ongoing dialogue that she has with a coach who's observed what's working and what isn't in her classroom.
"I really feel confident about that continuous discussion," she said during Thursday's panel discussion.
While better observation tools can provide a more complete picture of a teacher's effectiveness, they aren't "a silver bullet," Guernsey noted.
But, she said, they can provide a common language and standards of professionalism for teachers that can lead to greater alignment and continuity from early education through the early grades.