A number of researchers have been working on ways to make teacher evaluations more meaningful, but a new study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Eric Taylor, University of Bristol’s Simon Burgess, and Shenila Rawal of the Oxford Partnership for Educational Research and Analysis shines light on a different way forward.
The study found that low-stakes peer evaluations resulted in improvements in teacher job performance, as measured by test scores. The study found improvements for both the observed teacher and the teacher doing the observation.
Teachers participating in the study were observed and scored by their peers over the course of two years across 82 secondary schools in England. Both math and English teachers participated. Observees were scored using a rubric based on the Danielson Framework and were observed two to three times a year on average.
Though the study was originally conducted in England, and thus outside of the policies and norms of the U.S. school system, there are key translatable takeaways. “Most U.S. teachers are getting some results from classroom observations, usually conducted by their school principal,” Taylor says. “In this experiment, the feedback came from peers and had no formal stakes attached, and those may have been important ingredients in the improvements.”
“That leaves some potential that U.S. teachers would benefit from low-stakes peer observations separate from administrator observations,” says Taylor.
The study builds on previous findings about the effectiveness of peer partnerships as a professional development mechanism. “This experiment shows one example of how a teacher’s success in her own classroom can benefit from the help of her colleagues who teach in the same school. Learning from colleagues seems to be a valuable but underused resource for improving effectiveness in the work of teaching,” Taylor says.
The study may also offer insights that are valuable for professional learning in sectors beyond education. “Managers and policymakers might consider the goals of evaluation more broadly — goals beyond simply measuring performance,” Taylor says. “After all, teachers in the experiment improved even without formal consequences attached to observation scores.”
- Students in schools where the evaluation process was implemented scored higher than those in control schools where the process was not implemented.
- The number of observations did not significantly impact student achievement.
- Achievement significantly increased for the observer teachers’ classes as well, suggesting that the act of observing peers can be a valuable means of improving teaching practices for all educators.
- When teachers observe other teachers in action, they can gain insight into their own practice and walk away with new ideas for their own classroom and instruction.
- Outsourcing evaluations or simply assigning the task to a school or district leader means that teachers could be missing out on a valuable professional development opportunity and that money may be spent unnecessarily.
- Low-stakes evaluations may be more popular among teachers and teacher advocates, because they don’t penalize or incentivize performance based on student test scores.
- Evaluations can serve broader goals, and deliver broader benefits, than simply measuring performance.