Two years ago, I sat in the 8th floor of the Watergate building at a National Journal dinner on education. The main attractions of the event were researchers from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who were about a year into a three-year intensive study on teacher evaluations. As they described their research, the diners were incredulous.
"Teachers let you videotape them?" Yes. They analyzed 13,000 digital video lessons.
"Weren't they upset at you reviewing them?" Actually, the teachers in the study were thrilled to have the feedback. They were happy to go over their videotapes with an observer.
The final report on the project was released last week. It found that teacher effectiveness can, in fact, be measured in a scientific manner. The process is highly labor intensive, and some evaluative factors can't be measured with raw numbers. If you do it right, it requires time, narrative, and observation. The report says the results are the most stable when they rely on a combination of classroom observations (ideally by multiple evaluators), student surveys, and student achievement measures. The report is sprinkled with cautionary notes: Make sure to include prior test scores of students when looking at achievement or their gains will be overstated. Don't weight a single measure too heavily or teachers will lean towards it and neglect others. Make sure to use observers from outside the school.
The biggest impression I gleaned at the dinner from the researchers was respect. This was serious science by serious researchers who genuinely wanted to find an answer. Their work is good news for teachers. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten virtually crowed in response. "The days of haphazard or check-list observation of teachers must end," she said in a statement. "Teacher evaluation is both an art and a science that requires time, tools, training and trust--ingredients that teachers and principals should have but too often don't."
That said, it's hard to imagine how cash-strapped school districts can implement such a rigorous evaluation system. That's another chapter to be written.
What is most surprising about the Gates' findings? What are the easiest ways teacher evaluations can be tweaked to more accurately reflect effectiveness? How important are student perception surveys? What lies ahead for videotaping teachers' lessons? Do we need to learn anything more about measuring student achievement? Is the task laid out by Gates too daunting for schools to handle?