Watching Teachers Work

Using Observation Tools to Promote Effective Teaching in the Early Years and Early Grades
Policy Paper
Nov. 8, 2011

Identifying good teachers is a high priority in education reform, yet the debate rarely focuses on how education might improve if policies were based on teachers’ individual interactions with their students. This report argues for improving early education up through the third grade (PreK-3rd) by actually watching teachers in action using innovative observation tools in combination with evaluation and training programs.

Watching Teachers Work: Using Observation Tools to Promote Effective Teaching in the Early Years and Early Grades paints a picture of the dismal state of early education for many children – especially the disadvantaged – who are rarely given access to the kinds of stimulating, content-rich conversations that provide them with the cognitive and social-emotional skills they need to succeed throughout their years in school.

With many states currently redesigning their teacher-evaluation systems, the report urges policymakers to include objective observation-based assessment as a measure of teacher effectiveness. “Observation tools allow for measurements that are far less subjective than many of the checklists and rubrics currently used today,” the report says.

Based on in-depth interviews at several leading sites around the country already using observation tools, the report describes how strong teaching and caregiving can be fostered in infant-toddler programs, pre-K settings, and elementary schools. The report also describes how objective observation could be used to improve teaching across the full education spectrum, PreK-12th grade.

The report offers 17 recommendations to policymakers at all levels of government, as well as to educators and teacher-preparation programs. Among them: Use valid and reliable observation tools to identify, promote and reward good teaching; harness the power of these tools to integrate professional development with formal evaluation; and use observation-based assessments to promote PreK-3rd reforms, providing teachers with a common language for describing good teaching across pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and elementary schools.

This report was written by Lisa Guernsey, director of the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative, and Susan Ochshorn, founder and principal of ECE PolicyWorks LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in early care and education (ECE) policy research, program development, and project management.

For more, see a presentation on the paper as well as video from New America’s event on January 26, 2012: Watching Teachers Work: Using Data from Classroom Observations to Improve Teaching, which included conversations with teachers across the PreK-12 spectrum.

NOTE: On December 8, the New America Foundation uploaded a new version of this paper that included corrections to the sidebar on page 8 that describes an initiative in Louisiana. Older versions of the paper erroneously described the Louisiana initiative as applicable to teachers in pre-K and child care centers; the initiative does not involve state-funded pre-K programs. The older version of the paper also erroneously stated the cost of the Louisiana initiative as $125,000 in its early phase. The initiative cost $125,000 to evaluate, not to develop. We regret the errors.