Increasingly it is recognized that one approach to improving educational outcomes in the United States is through increasing the quality and effectiveness of teaching and teachers’ interactions with students. Unfortunately, most of the professional development models in current use for improving quality and impact have very little evidence of benefits for teachers or students (Kraft, Blazar, & Hogan, 2018; Yoon, Duncan, Lee, Scarloss, & Shapley, 2007). This gap between the needs of students for effective instruction and teachers’ exposure to scalable, effective professional development is a tremendous impediment to improving student learning and closing skills gaps. Observing teachers’ classroom interactions and practices is a potentially useful lever for improvement, when coupled with aligned professional development. The use of standardized observations, if they reliably and validly measure classroom interactions that impact student learning, is a direct and effective mechanism for improving teaching practices with the potential to link inputs to teachers with desired outcomes for students.
Certainly this idea of classroom observation is not new or novel. Every principal spends time observing teachers and most teacher education programs have some way of providing students with feedback on their practicum experiences in classrooms. Still the vast majority of these observations rely on unstandardized, informal, and unvalidated procedures (Doherty & Jacobs, 2015). For example most school districts, principals, and mentor-teachers derive their own set of ideal or targeted teacher practices for observation, some based on empirical research and some simply a reflection of personal preference or broad educational theory. Descriptions of these practices, often anecdotal and unsystematic, then serve as a basis to inform teacher professional development, or even teacher evaluation. In short the typical approach to observation is lacking in explicitness, consistency, and established links to student learning resulting in the “widget effect,” an idea coined in a 2009 report highlighting that measures of teacher effectiveness vary but results are consistent—nearly every teacher is effective (all widgets are the same; Weisberg, Sexton, Mulhern, & Keeling, 2009). We argue that without the more systematic use of standardized, reliable, and validated observational tools the ultimate value of most observations, and the feedback they provide to teachers, is limited, particularly when the aims of such approaches include documentation and improvement of practices in a very large number of classrooms (often in the thousands). Without a standardized, validated observation system in place, teachers are likely to receive very different types of feedback and support depending on grade-level, school, or on the person doing the observing. And moreover, it may not be clear whether the behaviors being observed are ones that influence student learning. Such approaches are unlikely to build capacity in a school or district or result in system-level improvements or increased student learning.
The use of standardized observations that can be leveraged to provide professional development and improvements to teacher practices is the focus of this chapter. We begin by reviewing the history of effective teaching and classroom observation. We then discuss contemporary frameworks for identifying high leverage teaching practices that emphasize practice-focused teacher training. We then discuss the selection of a system for observing teacher practices. We provide an example of a widely-used standardized observation protocol for effective teaching, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS). Finally we discuss leveraging observational systems, such as the CLASS, for professional development.