Classroom observations to rate teachers are shifting focus to students


Bull Run Middle School principal Matthew Phythian (left) meets with Robert Knight, an 8th grade civics teacher, to discuss his teacher evaluation. (Matthew Phythian, Bull Run Middle School)

The new mandate in Virginia to make student achievement a significant part of teacher evaluations is bringing more than an infusion of test scores. It’s also changing the way classroom observations are conducted.

The scheduled or unscheduled visits from administrators have long been a cornerstone of teacher evaluations. But increasingly, principals are turning their gaze from the way teachers are delivering lessons to how well students are learning them.

Matthew Phythian, the principal at Bull Run Middle School in Gainesville, said when he started conducting observations five years ago, he would write down almost everything the teacher said in an effort to capture the whole lesson. By the end, he could even tell you, for example, “if they used the transition word ‘okay’ 25 times,” he said.

But over the past few years he has begun to pay much more attention to the students. Are they listening? Are their eyes on their teacher? Are they talking to their friends about what they are learning?

“I may sit down by a student and ask, ‘So what are you learning about today?,” he said. He’s hoping to hear more than “I’m learning math.” Better would be: “‘We are learning about numerators and denominators and how to reduce fractions,’” he said. Such a response would let him know that they are paying attention and grasping the material, he said.

The change in focus reflects the broader shift nationally from evaluating teachers primarily on inputs, such as their training and experience and delivery, to their outcomes, or how much their students learn and grow in their class.

Gail Connelly, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, said that principals are spending more time than ever doing observations as tougher teacher evaluations are being adopted across the country.

The shift in focus to student learning and achievement is helpful, she said, but it’s also important to focus on certain instructional techniques and practices that research shows pay off.

Phythian said his observations aim to capture both. In addition to student achievement, Virginia teachers are evaluated on their professional knowledge, instructional planning, instructional delivery, assessment of learning, learning environment, and professionalism.

At the end of every observation, Phythian gives feedback to the teacher that he hopes will give him or her an opportunity to develop a skill. ‘It’s all about continuous improvement,” he said.

For the participating students, who don’t know they are taking part in a teacher evaluation, he gives them a “SOAR card” which they can exchange for a small prize for “contributing to the learning environment.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in Northern Virginia.
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