Get observed teaching by someone with no teaching experience?

I was about to write a searing post about an organization I knew next to nothing about, but upon looking further, I’ve changed my opinion. Here’s the chain of events leading to a new conclusion.

Basically, I saw a job post on Idealist.org by a non-profit organization called Turnaround for Children, looking for:

“former teachers, education researchers, and current graduate students in social sciences and education to visit schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem, and Queens to conduct systematic observations of teachers’ classrooms. Observers will receive training in a widely-used observation protocol [Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS)], and will use this protocol to observe classrooms in various school settings.”

At first this sounded alright to me. My mind ran with the idea of former teachers conducting observations of teachers in various contexts—being that external person to balance out any bias that principals and other school-based observers may have. That could be a good thing.

Then I read on to the job requirements:

  • Bachelor’s degree in education, social sciences or related fields of study required. Teacher certification or former classroom experience preferred.
  • Experience in performing classroom observations preferred (experience with CLASS protocol preferred); experience in quantitative or qualitative data collection preferred.

This is where I started getting red in the face. So, the organization would ideally have experienced teachers conduct the observations (though one year could constitute experience, I suppose), but they would actually settle for people with no teaching experience observing—and evaluating?—practicing teachers?

I decided to read up on the organization. Here is their website, and here is an article, Addressing Poverty In Schools, by Joe Nocera about the history of the organization and its founder, Dr. Pamela Cantor. They seem to have a good mission, in which they come into struggling schools and work with the most at risk students—those students who have been traumatized and are just not getting what they need in the school’s regular structures. From experience, I know that there is a good handful of students in every high-needs school that need more than the regular classroom structures and relationships can give them to address the issues they face and prepare them to be students. When these needs go unmet, such students can act out severely and really upset a whole school environment. If this organization, founded by a psychiatrist, has found a way to fill this need, I’m in favor.

Here, also, is a blog post by teacher Larry Ferlazzo, called “Mixed Feelings About ‘Turnaround For Children’.” I wonder, like Larry Ferlazzo does, why the DOE doesn’t build the capacity of its own teachers and counseling staff, through additional hires and hybrid roles, to do this work internally?

Back to the question of non-teacher observers. On the one hand… my guess is that these outside observers, trained to use CLASS, are measuring the effects of the intervention program itself. I’ve often said that data collection cannot reasonably be added as a duty for teachers on top of everything else we do. So hiring outside people could be a decent alternative.

I also wonder, are these observations also used as part of teacher evaluations? Is this one of the “multiple measures” being implemented in addition to testing data? My understanding is that in turnaround schools, principals have the right to dismiss teachers quickly. I’m a little hazy on whether principals must use due process once the initial “restructuring” takes place. If so, I’m worried that observations done by individuals with no teaching experience would be used to determine who is effective and who is not, and that would be neither fair nor accurate.

Would we ever see outsiders with no experience in the field evaluating other types of professionals’ work? Can you imagine doctors or lawyers being observed by, say, me with a little training and a rubric? I highly doubt it. I’m hoping that the data used from these observations is purely for the organization to assess its own work. Then, it’s still not ideal (as the organization has stated), but probably won’t be doing any damage to practicing teachers either.

In Nocera’s article, I learned that Turnaround for Children has been meeting with officials in Congress and the White House about its work and, we can assume, the possibility of extending it to schools across the country. This could be a very good thing if the organization is really building the capacity of schools to meet the psychological needs of traumatized students. An independent evaluation of the organization in 2008 suggested that the positive impact was strong, but that Turnaround needed to “put more emphasis on improving the academic environment in the classroom” (also from Nocera’s article). I imagine this is where data from the CLASS becomes important, and where the observations would need to be conducted by impartial outsiders.

I think I’ve turned around my own assessment of Turnaround For Children and the work of Dr. Cantor. I would just caution the organization, and others that are being called on to work with teachers to improve schools, to remember that teaching is highly skilled, professional work. If we don’t treat teachers as professionals, we’ll never have the schools we want and that students need. Every step toward real transformation must be taken with this in mind. Otherwise, it’s easy to have the best intentions, but undermine the very people you need to carry out the change. We will never move forward that way.

 

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