Substantial Opportunities for Improving Teacher Evaluations Lie in the Area of Classroom Observations

Liz Sablich:, (202) 238-3507, Brown Center on Education Policy, the Brookings Institution
Ashley Inman:, (707) 332-1184, Education Next Communications Office

Substantial Opportunities for Improving Teacher Evaluations Lie in the Area of Classroom Observations

Researchers recommend adjusting classroom observation scores for student demographics, using observations conducted by trained external observers

Over the past few years, tools such as classroom observations and student achievement data have increasingly been used to assess teachers in new evaluation systems emerging across the country.  Now a new study in Education Next from researchers at the Brookings Institution examines the strengths and limitations of such teacher evaluation systems.

In their examination of evaluation systems in four urban school districts that are at the forefront of the effort to evaluate teachers meaningfully, the authors of the study, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, Matthew M. Chingos, and Katharine M. Lindquist, found:

• Despite the attention paid to the use of test scores in teacher evaluations, only a small fraction of teachers (just one fifth in the studied districts) are actually evaluated based on test score gains. And for all teachers in those districts, classroom observation scores were more heavily weighted than test score measures, comprising between 50 and 75 percent of teachers’ overall evaluation scores. Thus, the researchers conclude that “most of the action and nearly all the opportunities for improving teacher evaluations lie in the area of classroom observations.”

• The authors find there is bias in the classroom observation system due to student ability: Teachers with students with higher incoming achievement levels receive classroom observation scores that are higher on average than those received by teachers whose incoming students are at lower achievement levels. Therefore, they emphasize that districts should “adjust teachers’ classroom-observation scores for the background characteristics of their students, a factor that can have a substantial and unfair influence on a teacher’s evaluation rating.”

• The quality of information gathered from classroom observations depends on how many are conducted.  Moving from one to two observations increases both the stability and predictive power of observation scores. However, three observations provide as much predictive power as do five, so the researchers recommend two to three annual classroom observations per teacher.

• Observations conducted by in-building administrators, such as principals, have less predictive power than observations conducted by evaluators who come from outside the building, such as central administration staff members. As a result, the authors recommend at least one annual observation be conducted by “a trained observer from outside the teacher’s school without substantial prior knowledge of, or conflict of interest with respect to, the teacher being observed.”

The study’s lead author, Russ Whitehurst notes that “the move toward meaningful teacher evaluation is to assure greater equity in students’ access to good teachers,” and concludes that this research “provides reasons for optimism that new, meaningful evaluation systems can be designed and implemented by individual districts.”

The study, “Getting Classroom Observations Right: Lessons on How from Four Pioneering Districts” is available now on and will appear in the Winter 2015 issue of Education Next, released in November.

About the Authors

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst is director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, where Matthew M. Chingos is a senior fellow, and Katharine M. Lindquist is a research analyst.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit:

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