Finding the right mix to observe teachers

Bridgeport science teacher Christine O’Neil yearns for more feedback on how to become a better teacher, but her principal rarely has the time to observe her more than twice a year.


Bridgeport science teacher Christine O’Neil talks observations with the state’s consultant for teacher evaluations

“I would love to have a dozen pop-in visits each year so my evaluation isn’t done in isolation,” said O’Neil, a middle school teacher on the panel charged with creating the state model to evaluate teachers. “From the teachers I’ve talked to, principals don’t pop in very often.”

The issue was the subject of a meeting Tuesday of the Teacher Evaluation Committee, part of the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council. Statewide, there is no requirement regarding how often a public school teacher should be evaluated or how long a teacher should be observed, and the practice varies by district.

That’s about to change. Starting in two years, the state’s 50,000 public school teachers will have to be evaluated annually in accordance with the model that this state panel develops. And for the first time, the results of those evaluations will be required to determine whether a teacher gets and keeps tenure. The new education reform law also speeds up dismissals of poorly evaluated teachers.

The State Board of Education decided earlier this year that 40 percent of a teacher’s grade will be based on these observations, 45 percent to 50 percent will be based on student performance — which includes standardized tests — and the remainder on student, parent and peer surveys.

What has yet to be determined is the frequency of the observations and if unannounced visits will be part of the mix.

“There’s a whole lot of things that need to be worked out,” Lori Rossomando, president of Stamford’s teachers’ union, said of a possible guideline that includes unannounced observations. “That’s the most dangerous component. When you are really trying to help someone it shouldn’t be a ‘gotcha’ approach.”

James Marpe, a member of the Westport Board of Education who is also on the Teacher Evaluation committee, disagrees.

“It should be a combination” of announced and unannounced observations, he said. “That is how you get an accurate picture.”

Marpe said the state should not avoid good policy because of the risk that a few bad principals will use unannounced observations inappropriately.


That didn’t sit well with teacher union leaders.

“That will cause havoc and chaos” for teachers stuck in those situations, said Linette Branham of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Most districts are required to inform teachers in advance when they will be observed, and the precise observation conditions are typically laid out in union contracts.

In Bridgeport, O’Neil said she gets at least 24 hours’ notice.

But that’s not to say principals aren’t allowed to do “pop-ins” to see how a teacher is doing; they just can’t use the information they receive in those impromptu visits against the teacher. Rossomando said if an unannounced, informal visit raises concerns for the principal, that visit can be followed up with a scheduled evaluation.

“We want everyone focused on helping a teacher improve,” she said. If teachers believe their tenure could be in jeopardy or dismissal could be a result of that “pop-in,” then it’s not going to be a constructive process that will improve the teacher.

“The trust will not be there,” she said.

O’Neil agrees, but she is convinced there has to be a way for this panel to find middle ground for teachers to get more feedback without it being punitive.

Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Tennessee use unannounced visits to rate their teachers, and John Luczak, from Education First, the state’s evaluation consultant, has noted that other districts are also doing this.

In Connecticut, New Haven Public Schools and the Achievement First charter schools in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven all require unannounced visits, according to a report from Public Impact, a national school reform group that advocate for charter schools and teacher evaluations linked to student performance.

“A mix of announced and unannounced visits is always best,” said David Cicarella, the president of the New Haven Education Association said during an interview of the minimum of one announced and two unannounced visits his district requires. “If it’s done properly there’s no problem… Announced visits let you see that teacher’s potential and multiple unannounced visits gets a you good picture of what the teacher is doing from day-to-day.”

An unfunded mandate?

Observations may be the best practice, but they can also be time consuming for principals.

“The best practice is having multiple evaluations, but principals are so busy dealing with discipline and behavior issues they just don’t have time,” said O’Neil, regarding her Bridgeport alternative middle school.

Some panel members criticized one proposal to observe nontenured teachers three times a year for 20 minutes, and tenured teachers twice annually, some saying that was too short a time, others insisting it was too much.

And then there’s the Capitol Region Education Council officials who are already asking the state where they are going to find the time for that.

“That seems very prescriptive and cumbersome,” said Denise Gallucci, a CREC superintendent.

“You need to see the whole lesson from opening to close,” Cicarella said. “You need to have minumums so a valuable observation is actually done. We’ve had no requirements for this long and look where we’re at.”

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, members seemed to be backing off setting a specific 20-minute requirement of evaluations that must take place each year, and leaving it up to local discretion.

Asked if she thought her school would ramp up observations without being required to do so, O’Neil sighed. “I am optimistic,” she said.

One solution suggested Tuesday would be to train a team of highly rated teachers to conduct some of these evaluations. A recent report by the Measures of Effective Teaching project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation showed a multiple-evaluation and evaluators approach provides a more holistic evaluation.

“This is a very healthy way to do this. The more observations, the more reliable the evaluation. It would be a win-win for Connecticut,” Luczak said.