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Study Calls for Clearer Teacher Evaluation Protocols

Protocols for observing teachers in the classroom during an evaluation should be written in such a way as to leave little room for inference so ratings are clear and objective, asserts a report released this week by the New Teacher Project.

For example, the measures should avoid vague requirements like "teacher checks for student understanding," and instead should be tightly written and specific, such as: "Students show through guided practice, exit slips, and role playing that they understand the content of the lesson."

The report lists six "design standards" for teacher evaluations, and writing clear expectations is just one of the six standards. But because all teachers are judged by a set of observation protocol, the issue deserves some special attention here at Teacher Beat.

The ongoing discussion about the appropriate place of test scores in evaluations has sucked up a lot of the air in the teacher-evaluation discussion, but figuring out what to put in observation protocols is no picnic either, as evidenced by debate here in the District of Columbia over its IMPACT teacher-evaluation system.

IMPACT's "Teaching and Learning" framework—used to guide ratings by principals and master educators during their observations—is very specific about how teachers demonstrate that they've met each and every standard. To show that they are correcting students' misunderstandings, for instance, teachers are expected to deploy strategies like "using cue cards, using analogies, using manipulatives or a hands-on model, using 'think-alouds,' " to name but a few listed in the framework.

That level of detail has raised the hackles of some, including George Parker, the president of the Washington Teachers' Union. In The Washington Post, Mr. Parker contended that the IMPACT framework reduces teaching to "bean counting."

Opinions really vary on the value of IMPACT's observation measures. A source of mine, for instance, contended that observation judgments are specific so that it's easier for administrators to document poor performance for dismissals and due-process hearings. On the other hand, some teachers—even those who aren't fans of D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee—told me that they like the detailed standards because it gives them clear targets for how to improve.

There's clearly room for a variety of different opinions on this topic. And here's a question worth asking: How do you get the right "grain size" of detail in these observation standards so that they're objective without being too prescriptive?

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