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How Feedback for Teachers and Principals Helped Their Students Do Better in Math

Providing extra feedback for teachers and principals may help boost student achievement in math, according to a new federal study.

While more districts nationwide are incorporating classroom observations and feedback into teacher evaluation systems, there have been relatively few studies of whether such feedback improves student learning.

Researchers from the American Institutes of Research, on behalf of the federal Institute of Education Sciences, randomly assigned more than 100 elementary and middle schools across five states—including 1,000 math and English teachers—to either their usual professional development or additional observations and feedback in the areas of classroom practice, student growth, and principal leadership. 

The sessions were straightforward and fairly brief, about 45 minutes each. Yet after the first year, the researchers found students in participating schools performed better on state math tests than students in schools that did not provide additional feedback for staff members. Those math gains were equal to about four extra weeks of learning. 

"The effect here was not large, but it was meaningful and consistent," said Michael Garet, a study co-author. "It suggests there is something about feedback that is promising."

Math growth was not as substantial in the second year, and feedback produced no gains for English learning in either year, but feedback also significantly improved trust between teachers and principals, and principals' instructional leadership skills, the researchers found. 

"It's important to understand how infrequent this sort of feedback usually is," said study co-author Andrew Wayne. "In our districts, [feedback] was on average only once every two years for veteran teachers, and for probationary teachers, it was 1.6 times a year. This was [feedback] an additional four times a year for all teachers. It probably seemed pretty intensive to the teachers."

Participating schools got feedback in all three areas at the same time, so the study can't tease out whether it was one particular area or all of them combined that led to the math gains.

But Garet said the evaluation did change the way he thinks about the role of feedback in teacher training. While the researchers originally thought negative feedback in a particular area would spur teachers to seek out professional development to improve their practice, they found that the teachers who participated in the feedback sessions were no more likely than teachers in the control schools to seek out separate professional development. 

"I now believe the feedback is the professional development," Garet said. "It is the conversation, the reflection on the teaching, thinking about what aspects of the lesson improved student learning or didn't. It's both a form of evaluation and a form of professional development." 

The researchers used written records rather than actual recordings to analyze feedback sessions, but Garet said they still found some common things observers could do that seemed to improve the sessions, such as:

  • Pointing to specific examples in the observed lesson that illustrated both strengths and weaknesses; 
  • Explaining the research and theory behind why a particular instructional strategy promoted student achievement or didn't; and
  • Guiding the teacher or principal to identify and analyze specific examples on their own.

Wayne plans to dig into more on best practices for feedback as part of an upcoming evaluation of MyTeachingPartner, a video-based coaching-and-feedback intervention. 


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