“At least some of the answers to turning around our nation’s struggling K-12 public schools can be found at the nearest preschool.”
With this admittedly “counterintuitive” statement, Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, begins his recent report on teacher observation, published by the Center for American Progress. Citing “decades of experience using observation in early childhood education,” Pianta contends that two major observation systems contain important lessons for efforts to reform teacher evaluations used in K-12 settings.
“At a time of considerable urgency and demand for improvements in our nation’s schools, particularly when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of teachers, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead of looking to the development and implementation of new educational models and methodologies, K-12 educators would do well to learn from the lessons and experience accrued by their counterparts in the early childhood sector, specifically when it comes to teacher performance evaluation,” Pianta writes in “Implementing Observation Protocols: Lessons for K-12 Education from the Field of Early Childhood.” (Full report / Introduction and summary)
“Early childhood education has long embraced the value of observing classrooms and teacher-child interactions. In early childhood education the features of the settings in which children are served are the hallmarks of quality. These features can include health and safety considerations, the materials and physical layout of the space, and the interactions that take place between adults and children — such as conversations, emotional tone, or physical proximity. Standardized observations of these early childhood education features in turn yield metrics that are used in state and federal policy, program improvement investments, and the credentialing of professionals — all uses that K-12 education is now considering.”
Pianta centers his report and recommendations on the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS) and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS). (Pianta is a co-author of CLASS.)
ECERS, Pianta writes, is part of a suite of Environmental Rating Scales (ERS) developed in the late 1970s and 1980s that “have been nothing short of foundational to the development of the early childhood infrastructure in the United States and around the world.” The scales “are observational tools that capture in standardized formats information on a host of features in the settings that serve young children, including physical safety, hygiene, nutrition, educational materials, program offerings (for example, activity schedules), and qualities of social and language interactions between adults and children.”
CLASS, on the other hand, focuses solely on teacher-child interactions – on “what teachers do with the materials they have and the interactions they have with students” — and can complement ECERS.
“Lessons [drawn from the use of classroom and teacher observation in early education] focus on the importance of standardization, trained observers, methods for ensuring the validity and reliability of the instruments, and the use of observational measures as a lever to produce effective teaching,” writes Pianta, who also directs the University of Virginia Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning. “Although these lessons apply to all grades, they may be particularly relevant for K-3 as assessment of student performance using standardized achievement tests is most challenging in those grades.”
Pianta makes several recommendations, including:
- Any measure must provide information in the form of metrics that clearly differentiate those being assessed….
- Observations used in systems of decision making and performance improvement must adhere to standardized procedures….
- It is critical that users select tools that have documented reliability for use across observers, teachers, time, and situations. Effective training programs for observers help to ensure raters are consistent with one another as they make ratings.…
- Any observation of teacher performance must show empirical relations with student learning and development….
- Observations can identify teacher classroom behaviors that matter for students, can describe typical teacher practices, can show how a given classroom or teacher compares with a national or district average, can forecast the likely contribution of a teacher to children’s learning, or can document improvement in teachers’ practices in response to professional development. Users, however, must be cautious to not overstep the appropriate use of observational instruments in their enthusiasm to apply them in any and all circumstances….
- Feedback to teachers is most effective when it is individualized and highly specific, focused on increasing teachers’ own observation skills, promotes self-evaluation, and helps teachers see and understand the impact of their behaviors more clearly.
“More explicit acknowledgement of the expertise already present in early childhood education might actually help K-12 educators proceed cautiously and thoughtfully,” Pianta concludes, “yet move with deliberate speed as they travel along this promising road to school improvement.”