The Observer Effect: Right Now (Part 3 of 6)

By , February 9, 2012 9:00 am


Van Halen – Right Now

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Now we’ve reached the third post in the “Observer Effect” series, having learned both what the Observer Effect is1, and the nitty-gritty of why and how it can powerfully co-opt even systems designed with the best of intentions2. So before I get around to actually making recommendations about how school systems need to account for the reality of the Observer Effect, it’s worthwhile taking a look at how the Observer Effect interacts with our current system of teacher evaluations and observations.

Recent white papers3, op-eds4, and lawsuits5 have all shown that, even among people who disagree incredibly, there is a consensus that the current teacher evaluation system is broken. The reality that almost everybody receives a satisfactory evaluation is just the tip of the iceberg (under the surface we find that because of this, no one is helping us get any better).

In conversations will a multitude of colleagues, I’ve found that my bi-yearly evaluation is fairly typical. Namely, I submit a form addressing the ways I will seek to improve my teaching this year, and then, on a predetermined date, an administrator will show up in my classroom with a checklist, and proceed to “observe” my instruction. Finally, a few weeks later, I will take a look at their observation notes, all of which rate me as satisfactory or higher, sign the thing, and then I’m done.

That’s literally it.

Now many have pointed out the obvious flaws in this system, so I won’t repeat them, but what I’d like to do is take a quick look at how the Observer Effect (i.e. how the process of being observed actually impacts the results of my evaluation) interacts within this current system.

Using the framework from the last post, we notice the following process of the Observer Effect:

  1. Principal wants her teachers to effectively teach students.
  2. Principal announces observation procedure (submitting a form called a “planning sheet”, a 30 minute observation, discussing and signing the form).
  3. Me, hearing about this type of observation, considers my options
  4. Options are some combination of (A): Thoroughly prepare a planning sheet, in which I’ve thoughtfully considered how I want to improve this year. Ask my principal to observe my most challenging class. Ask for specific ways of improvement in the post-conference. Or (B) Fill out a “jargony” planning sheet, with words like “scaffolding”, “multiple-modalities”, and “student outcomes”. Have my principal come during my easiest class. Simply nod and smile at the post-conference, and sign my name, breathing a sigh of relief knowing that I won’t have to repeat the process for another two year.
  5. Observation/Evaluation occurs.
  6. I as a teacher, demonstrate a certain level of mastery of the teaching profession.

A couple of notes of the reality of the Observer Effect.

First, my performance evaluation (the outcome) is largely a function of which of the options in Step 4 I take. The fact that I know that I’m being observed, and I know how I’m being observed actually affects the results of my observation.

Second, and more importantly, the specific option I choose is largely a function of the observation content (“How rigorous will my observing principal be?”), its form (“Will this evaluation actually help me get better?”), and its result (“How much weight will this observation play in my future career?”).

The Observer Effect guiding my decisions leads me to pick Option B (question 4 above), simply because my principals are typically too overburdened with running the school to be extremely rigorous, my evaluation won’t help me get any better as a teacher, and has virtually no impact on my future career. Time after time for me, it’s Option B.

So in summary, the point of this post of connecting the Observer Effect to the current evaluation system shows that not only is the current system flawed, but that the Observer Effect (i.e. teachers knowing how the system is flawed) actually exacerbates the situation.

If we’re going to improve evaluation (which everyone and their mother says we should be doing), we’ve got to design a system which does not ignore the reality of the Observer Effect in observation and evaluation.

More on exactly how to do this in the upcoming posts!

Stay tuned.








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