A Harvard researcher shares her national perspective on improving professional development
One of the biggest challenges in K-12 education is finding an effective and productive way to evaluate teacher performance. In a world where technology is rapidly reshaping the classroom, it’s natural to look to its potential, especially considering that many schools now have the technology to do classroom observation via video. However, these same schools aren’t yet convinced whether the investment will change status quo evaluations. To find out, in 2012, the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard, where I work, piloted the Best Foot Forward Project (BFF), a study that grew out of the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project.
BFF began with pilot programs in large districts in Georgia and North Carolina as well as Relay Graduate School of Education. In an effort to gather data from large and small districts in both urban and rural areas, we then expanded the study to include Los Angeles Unified School District, the state of Delaware, and a number of districts in Colorado.
We randomly selected half the teachers to be in a treatment group that would take videos of themselves in the classroom. These videos were then passed along to their principals for evaluation purposes. We also had remote peers provide our treatment group teachers with formative feedback on their subject matter. The control group did “business as usual” when it came to their evaluations.
To capture the video, we used a camera that had been manufactured specifically for the project. It had two lenses so that it could record two different views of the classroom at the same time. In the last year of the project, we wanted to use technology that many teachers already had and knew how to use, so we also recorded with an iPad connected to a microphone and mounted on a Swivl tripod. We have since published a toolkit, available on our website, which advises educators on how to pick the right video technology for their district. It includes recommendations for cameras, microphones, and viewing platforms, such as Insight ADVANCE. As we had done in the MET study, we had teachers choose which videos they would submit to the principal for evaluation.
Our two-year impact study ended in May 2015, and we found that teachers in the treatment group had a better experience of evaluation than those in the control group. Here are the top three reasons why:
- The conversation was less adversarial. As anyone who has ever sat through a job evaluation can tell you, they can be combative, and it is hard to change the way you do your job based on a conversation in which you are constantly on the defensive. Using classroom videos as a common reference point, teachers and principals in our treatment group found that they agreed more during their evaluations, which made teachers more open to constructive feedback.
- They got more specific and more actionable feedback from their principals. Audiovisual documentation made it clearer what teachers were doing right, as well as the areas in which they could use some improvement.
- They saw more of what their students were doing. In today’s tech-enabled classrooms, there’s a lot going on at once, and teachers can’t always take it all in. Videos helped them see what they were missing. One great example of this was a teacher who recorded a class, and only when watching the video realized that a student had been bouncing a golf ball against the wall throughout the entire period.
Principals benefited from video observation as well.
- Their conversations with teachers were more fruitful. In the less adversarial atmosphere I described above, the door was more open to collaboration between principals and their teachers.
- They spent more time observing instruction and less time doing paperwork. Although the principals in the treatment group did spend more time overall on the evaluation process than their peers in the control group, a greater percentage of that time was spent watching their teachers teach.
- They had more flexibility in when they did their observation. Rather than taking time out of their school day to be in a certain classroom at a certain time, principals could watch videos at home, during lunch, or whenever was most convenient for them.
Interestingly, one of the areas in which principals struggled when watching videos was in seeing student behavior and performance.
District size matters
From the focus groups we held with Best Foot Forward participants, we observed notable differences among the different districts. Teachers from smaller districts, where they were accustomed to frequent observation, were less satisfied with the results of their video observations than teachers from big districts who had had fewer observations. This is probably because larger districts have more difficulty delivering quality feedback at scale. Principals are responsible for evaluating many more teachers within the same period of time.
Since completing BFF, we have had a great deal of international interest in video observation pilots from countries like Brazil, Argentina, Singapore, and South Africa. No matter where we continue our work, we look forward to finding ways to make teacher evaluations less about recrimination and more about collaboration.