As of mid-November, Memphis City Schools (MCS) has successfully completed over 6,500 teacher observations for the 2011-12 school year, having trained and certified 615 administrators to help accomplish this tall task. This is a tremendous feat for our schools, not only because we have introduced a new teacher-designed observation rubric (the TEM Teaching & Learning Framework) to our instructional staff, but because we have implemented an observation system that is drastically different from anything MCS has ever experienced.
For the past decade, teachers were only required to be observed once every one to five school years (depending on whether or not a teacher had tenure), and principals kept paper records of these observations that were frequently lost or disorganized and next to impossible to explore from a district perspective. Many in the field would tell you this minimalist approach to observations emphasized compliance with state regulations more than a commitment to improving instructional practices.
These days, all teachers are observed a minimum of four times each school year, and observers have been trained to record their observation notes and scores on handheld devices such as iPads. The result? For the first time ever, our district has extensive real-time observation data for all teachers, schools and observers that we can analyze and respond to throughout the year. The implications for teacher support, observer training, and, most importantly, student outcomes are huge. At the onset, here are four things we are already learning from TEM teacher observations:
Despite time demands, observers are taking their role seriously.
A major anxiety teachers expressed at the beginning of this school year was that observers would not stay in their classrooms long enough to get the “whole picture” of a teacher’s performance. This is because observers are only required by state law to stay in a teacher’s room 15 minutes at a time. However, our data show that observers are staying 29 – 30 minutes in teachers’ classroom, which is twice the time required by state regulations. This means that observers are taking their roles as instructional leaders—and the quality of evidence and feedback they provide for their teachers—seriously, not just checking boxes and signing dotted lines. This is especially significant given that school administrators must now dedicate a much larger proportion of their time to this observer role than ever before.
We are achieving a fairly normal distribution of observation scores.
As with all components of our Teacher Effectiveness Measure (TEM), teacher observation scores are calculated along a 5-point scale with a “5” being the highest possible rating (Significantly Above Expectations) and “1” being the lowest possible rating (Significantly Below Expectations). Many teachers expressed concerns early on that, because the evaluation performance standards are higher than they used to be, most would not be able to meet the new expectations. Our early results show that this is not at all the case and that we are achieving a fairly “normal” (i.e., bell curve-shaped) distribution of scores.
This is good news on both ends of the spectrum as far as teacher effectiveness goes. On the one hand, observers are willing to initiate courageous conversations with some teachers by acknowledging when they are performing below expectations (receiving scores of 1 – 2) so that these teachers can receive intensive support now and throughout the year to improve their practices.
On the other hand, we are excited that teachers are generally meeting or exceeding expectations, which means they are executing the “teacher moves” that we believe lead directly to better student achievement. True, relatively few teachers are achieving an observation score of “5” at this time, but this means that we are doing a much better job identifying the best of the best in our teaching corps than ever before. Just as a great teacher wouldn’t just give all students an A+, observers are reinforcing the point that a “level 5” teaching performance is something that clearly has to be earned through one’s best teaching efforts, not a given. Further, through the new observation process, we are better equipped to help good teachers become great.
We now know where teachers and observers are generally struggling and excelling
Sure, the evaluative and accountability-related purposes of the Teacher Effectiveness Measure (TEM) are well-known among MCS educators, but TEM has much bigger implications for how we as a district can better support teachers and administrators in our schools. For example, our first round of observation data demonstrates that teachers are generally scoring higher on observation indicators dealing with classroom management, such as “Establish Procedures and Routines” and “Manage Student Behavior.” Teachers are scoring relatively lower on the indicators “Use Strategies that Develop Higher-Level Thinking Skills” and “Engage Students in Objective-Driven Lessons.”
Findings like the ones above allow administrators at the district level to address “both sides of the iPad” by injecting targeted training and support resources where they are needed most for teachers and observers alike. For example, district staff members are currently creating new online class sessions on the three lowest scoring indicators above – Teach 5, Teach 1 and Teach 3 – for both teachers and observers. This way, we can provide more intensive guidance to all educators on what level 1 – 5 teaching performances look like for each indicator now instead of leaving it to chance that everyone will simply “figure it out” by the end of the year. Imagine too, the implications for principals who can now pair teachers in their schools who are struggling on specific indicators with teachers who are high flyers in these areas for modeling and mentoring purposes.
The key to a successful observation is focusing the conversation on growth.
Of course, observation ratings in a vacuum don’t tell the whole story about how observations are going in schools from a qualitative standpoint. That’s why MCS implemented a district-wide teacher survey in October during the first observation cycle: to get a better understanding of how teachers are actually experiencing TEM on the ground. Discussing the survey results in full can—and will—be another blog post, but a key take away from the results is that successful observations are those in which the teacher and observer focus the feedback conversation on growth in a supportive, constructive way.
We posed an open-ended question for those who have had an observation and post-observation conference (debrief with the observer) to provide any comments they wished to share about their experiences. Nearly 20% of comments about observations and over 25% of comments about the post conference featured teachers’ positive experiences with the new TEM system. Among them, teachers reported:
• “I like the way this process has provided me with a more in-depth perspective on my lessons and the way I deliver them to my students.”
• “It was very helpful and not critical, which is what I feared.”
• “I like the feedback so I know what I need to work on or expand on. Also the feedback told me some things I may not even have noticed were occurring.”
• “My principal was very helpful and honest about how to improve my score.”
The theme is clear—those educators who are able to have an honest and growth-focused conversation about teaching and learning in their classrooms are the champions of the TEM observation process. Certainly there is still progress to be made in ensuring more and more of our teachers and schools have this kind of experience. We are working with observers through intensive monthly training sessions and on a one-on-one basis to continue building their teacher support and development skills as instructional leaders. It also takes a district-wide culture change to prepare teachers, many of whom have not had this much regular feedback in years, to receive honest observation results and adopt a philosophy of continuous improvement no matter where they fall on the TEM rubric spectrum. However, the early results here are promising that we are forging a new, better path for the good of our schools and city, for when teachers grow, students do too.