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Teacher-Observation Frameworks Need Slimming, Advocacy Group Says

Popular frameworks for judging teachers' on-the-job performance are too complex and also too content-agonostic, contends teacher-training group TNTP in a new white paper.

Without fixes, those conducting the observations are likely to be overwhelmed and unable to focus on the most important aspects of teaching. As a result, evaluation results will continue to be inflated and teachers won't receive effective professional development, the paper says.

The paper, issued Tuesday, highights new questions about such teacher observations. In policy discussions, observations have taken a back seat to the controversy over methods of judging teachers based on how their students perform on standardized tests (i.e., "value added" analysis). But observations are the most expensive and time-consuming component of the systems, and much remains unknown about how they will work on the ground at the scale districts envision.

TNTP recommends several changes to the frameworks. First, the frameworks should be based more heavily on ensuring that the content taught is aligned with grade-level standards. That way, a teacher can't get an "effective" rating for teaching 5th graders an engaging lesson using content designed for 3rd graders.

Second, the frameworks themselves should be slimmed to highlight the most important features so that observers can concentrate on those and develop a richer sense of each teacher's abilities, the paper says. This could be done by combining elements that seem to measure the same teaching skills, according to TNTP.

Neither is necesarily an easy task. In New York City, for example, the district began its evaluation work by piloting only parts of the observation framework, only to run into trouble with the teachers' union for not using all 22 indicators.

Many different observation frameworks exist, such as the well-known one crafted by consultant Charlotte Danielson and another by Robert Marzano, a well known speaker, to those created by states. Some of them, including recent iterations of the Danielson framework, are proprietary and are being licensed out to publishers and professional-development providers such as Pearson and Teachscape, which train teachers and principals on how to use them, raising interesting issues of ownership. 

Formerly the New Teacher Project, TNTP has been a major advocate for revamped systems since its influential "Widget Effect" report in 2009. 

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