Bias in Teacher Observations, As Well

Following a post last month titled “New Empirical Evidence: Students’ ‘Persistent Economic Disadvantage’ More Likely to Bias Value-Added Estimates,” Matt Barnum — senior staff writer for The 74, an (allegedly) non-partisan, honest, and fact-based news site backed by Editor-in-Chief Campbell Brown and covering America’s education system “in crisis” (see, also, a prior post about The 74 here) — followed up with a tweet via Twitter. He wrote: “Yes, though [bias caused by economic disadvantage] likely applies with equal or even more force to other measures of teacher quality, like observations.” I replied via Twitter that I disagreed with this statement in that I was unaware of research in support of his assertion, and Barnum sent me two articles to review thereafter.

I attempted to review both of these articles herein, although I quickly figured out that I had actually read and reviewed the first (2014) piece on this blog (see original post here, see also a 2014 Brookings Institution article summarizing this piece here). In short, in this study researchers found that the observational components of states’ contemporary teacher systems certainly “add” more “value” than their value-added counterparts, especially for (in)formative purposes. However, researchers  found that observational bias also exists, as akin to value-added bias, whereas teachers who are non-randomly assigned students who enter their classrooms with higher levels of prior achievement tend to get higher observational scores than teachers non-randomly assigned students entering their classrooms with lower levels of prior achievement. Researchers concluded that because districts “do not have processes in place to address the possible biases in observational scores,” statistical adjustments might be made to offset said bias, as might external observers/raters be brought in to yield more “objective” observational assessments of teachers.

For the second study, and this post here, I gave this one a more thorough read (you can find the full study, pre-publication here). Using data from the Measures of Effective
Teaching (MET) Project, in which random assignment was used (or more accurately attempted), researchers also explored the extent to which students enrolled in teachers’ classrooms influence classroom observational scores.

They found, primarily, that:

  1. “[T]he context in which teachers work—most notably, the incoming academic performance of their students—plays a critical role in determining teachers’ performance” as measured by teacher observations. More specifically, “ELA [English/language arts] teachers were more than twice as likely to be rated in the top performance quintile if [nearly randomly] assigned the highest achieving students compared with teachers assigned the low-est achieving students,” and “math teachers were more than 6 times as likely.” In addition, “approximately half of the teachers—48% in ELA and 54% in math—were rated in the top two performance quintiles if assigned the highest performing students, while 37% of ELA and only 18% of math teachers assigned the lowest performing students were highly rated based on classroom observation scores”
  2. “[T]he intentional sorting of teachers to students has a significant influence on measured performance” as well. More specifically, results further suggest that “higher performing students [are, at least sometimes] endogenously sorted into the classes of higher performing teachers…Therefore, the nonrandom and positive assignment of teachers to classes of students based on time-invariant (and unobserved) teacher
    characteristics would reveal more effective teacher performance, as measured by classroom observation scores, than may actually be true.”

So, the non-random assignment of teachers biases both the value-added and observational components written into America’s now “more objective” teacher evaluation systems, as (formerly) required of all states that were to comply with federal initiatives and incentives (e.g., Race to the Top). In addition, when those responsible for assigning students to classrooms (sub)consciously favor teachers with high, prior observational scores, this exacerbates the issues. This is especially important when observational (and value-added) data are to be used for high-stakes accountability systems in that the data yielded via really both measurement systems may be less likely to reflect “true” teaching effectiveness due to “true” bias. “Indeed, teachers working with higher achieving students tend to receive higher performance ratings, above and beyond that which might be attributable to aspects of teacher quality,” and vice-versa.

Citation Study #1: Whitehurst, G. J., Chingos, M. M., & Lindquist, K. M. (2014). Evaluating teachers with classroom observations: Lessons learned in four districts. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. Retrieved from

Citation Study #2: Steinberg, M. P., & Garrett, R. (2016). Classroom composition and measured teacher performance: What do teacher observation scores really measure? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 38(2), 293-317. doi:10.3102/0162373715616249  Retrieved from