Changing Cultures Around Teacher Observations

For many schools and districts, teacher observations can be a source of frustration and tension. Best Foot Forward, a research project at Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research, is trying to change that. By using video and other tools and strategies, Best Foot Forward seeks to create collaborative school cultures about giving and receiving feedback on instructional practice without placing additional burdens on administrative or teacher time. Best Foot Forward used Panorama’s survey platform and reports to complement their work on teacher observations, and to provide a more well-rounded look at effective teaching.

Best Foot Forward was born out of 2012’s Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project, which confirmed that teacher observations could be used to find particularly strong classroom practice when combined with other measures. A small subgroup of teachers in the study were given the opportunity to film themselves teaching and submit these videos to a principal instead of having them conduct more traditional in-person observations. MET researchers suggested not only that teachers could recognize their strongest instructional practice, but also that videos could accurately capture the full range of teaching practice, even if teachers themselves selected the videos submitted for observation.

Best Foot Forward set out to explore these findings on a larger scale in a study that has taken place in four states and several districts across the United States over the last three years. Panorama partnered with Best Foot Forward to collect student perception data about their classroom experiences with the teachers participating in the study, as another finding of the MET Project was that student perception data is another critical way to measure teaching effectiveness.

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Best Foot Forward has released a toolkit of resources for implementing video observations in your school or district.

At the outset, researchers at Best Foot Forward had a hunch that having teachers film their best lessons for assessment would strengthen and improve school cultures around teacher evaluations. Teachers would have a high degree of confidence that the feedback they received on their teaching was fair, while administrators would have real evidence to refer to while giving teachers feedback on their practice. Mark Nelson, Best Foot Forward’s project coordinator, who provided extensive on-the-ground implementation support to the teachers in the four participating districts, spoke to the fact that “it can be painful to watch yourself teach, but you learn so much from it. You can’t change what you don’t remember.” Participating teachers and administrators confirmed this hypothesis: the videos led to more productive conversations about practice as well as more tangible action steps for improvement — all while minimizing conflict, anxiety and defensiveness on both sides.

Panorama’s Director of Research, Dr. Hunter Gehlbach, had another hunch: that conducting observations in this way would also help teachers see their lessons and classroom climate from their students’ perspective, leading to greater teacher empathy for the student experience. Teacher self-reports confirmed this hypothesis, while Panorama student surveys will be used to explore whether teacher self-reports and administrator evaluation feedback match students’ perceptions.

For Panorama, supporting Best Foot Forward’s work has been an exciting way to learn more about how to use data (in this case, videos) to transform cultures around giving and receiving feedback and to take meaningful action. While Panorama was most closely involved with a part of the research that won’t be released until the spring, we feel privileged to be learning from Best Foot Forward about how to do evaluation work that is productive and equitable.

Mark Nelson reminds us of why Best Foot Forward and Panorama’s work is incredibly important in the rapidly changing educational landscape.

“Teachers are hungry for feedback,” he said, “and they want to know how their students are experiencing their teaching and classrooms. We want to make that feedback as actionable as possible for them.”

— Mark Nelson, Project Coordinator, Best Foot Forward

We look forward to continuing to partner with Best Foot Forward and other research projects to help strengthen teaching practices and classroom climates in the United States and around the world.

To learn more about Best Foot Forward and the preliminary findings from the study, visit http://cepr.harvard.edu/best-foot-forward-project.

To download Best Foot Forward’s toolkit of resources about how to implement video observations in your school or district, visit http://cepr.harvard.edu/video-observation-toolkit.

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