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Observe teachers of the youngest children too, researchers say

Teachers should undergo standardized observations well before their students can read, talk, or even walk, according to researchers who discussed the role of observations in improving teacher quality during a panel on Tuesday.

Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative of the New America Foundation, and Susan Ochshorn, founder of ECE PolicyWorks, touted the potential of engaging caretakers and educators working with the infant through five-year-old group in observations and feedback that push towards effective teaching.

Guernsey and Ochshorn recently co-authored  Watching Teachers Work: Using Observation Tools to Promote Effective Teaching in the Early Years and Early Grades, in which they cite a 2011 study that shows a strong correlation between students struggling in the early grades and dropout rates later on. They argue that the same kind of innovations that are being touted for K-12 teachers would push teachers of even younger children to improve, which would in return ensure children are receiving quality educational experiences from the start.

“Today’s early education system is weakened by discrepancies between standards and measurement tools used for K-12 teachers and those for professionals in child care and pre-K programs,” they write.

While New York State is requiring the implementation of a new teacher evaluation system starting in kindergarten, the logistics are still undecided for teachers instructing non-testing grades. Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching is currently being piloted as the city’s answer to improving teacher observations, though that too starts with kindergarten teachers. The state is also rolling out the new common core standards, standardizing expectations as early as pre-kindergarten. However, assessing whether students achieve proficiency in those standards, especially for non-tested grades, is still up in the air.

In presenting their findings at an event hosted by New York University, Guernsey played a video of a caregiver watching three toddlers. In the clip, the caregiver was tapping one of the young girls on the back, pretending to put her to sleep. When the girl popped awake, the care giver asked if the girl had her own baby she could put to sleep and then nudged the girl to find a doll and a blanket. Through their interaction, text rolled across the screen, pointing out the caregiver’s use of slow talk, her high-pitched voice with a sing-song quality, her simple grammatical sentences, and her use of repetition.

Though this scene is light years away from what effective teaching might look like in a Regents-level classroom, it is still indicative of the fact that there is a need to define and standardize effective teaching all the way down through toddlerhood and infancy, according to Guernsey and Ochshorn.

“The architecture of the brain is created here,” Ochshorn said, calling the early years the strongest “laboratory for learning.”

Guernsey said that she hopes to engage Danielson in thinking about how to stretch her framework to hold relevance for pre-school instructors. For now, alternative observation systems are being piloted such as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), which evaluates teachers on their class’s emotional climate, organization and instructional support.

Standardizing the observation cycle from pre-K through the early elementary grades would, Guernsey said, bring pre-K and K teachers into conversation with their peers and foster collaboration about effectively teaching students social/emotional skills and about preparing them for their future classroom experiences.

In a panel discussion after the presentation, city educators discussed the impact of the city’s Danielson observations pilot.

“I have found it to be a lot more powerful and informative for me than observation systems that were in place in the past,” said Kristin Broderick, a first-grade teacher at P.S. 77. She added that while the prospect of not  scoring highly effective on the new system was scary at first, the explicitness of the feedback has helped her develop. The new system, designed to better evaluate the growth of teachers, has also pushed Broderick to think about the ways that she evaluates the growth of her students, she said.

Watching Teachers Work