District Trendline

March 2016: Observations

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The role of student growth in teacher evaluations has been in the spotlight lately. While student growth has been the hot topic and some states are considering changes to the student growth component of their evaluation systems (read NCTQ's take on the impact of the Every Student Succeeds Act on this here), observations are another essential component of teacher evaluations that receive far less attention, yet affect more teachers. This edition of Trendline looks at how often teachers are observed, for how long and by whom.

Frequency of Observations

On average, across the districts in our database, a tenured teacher is observed a minimum of 2.5 times; a plurality of districts requires teachers to be observed a minimum of one time during an evaluation cycle. The graph below includes both formal and informal observation requirements. 

Five districts do not require tenured teachers to be observed at all. The evaluation system in Kansas City (MO) does not require observations and tenured teachers in Sioux Falls (SD) may choose an evaluation option that does not include any observations. In Kanawha County(WV), teachers with more than six years of experience are no longer observed, while tenured teachers with less than six years of experience are observed two times a year. Teachers in Burlington (VT) who have a satisfactory evaluation are not observed after their second year of tenure. Clevelandalso uses evaluation ratings to determine the number of required observations for tenured teachers: those who receive the highest evaluation rating the previous year are not observed, while all others are observed four times.

Over half of the districts in the database (72 out of 128) vary the number of observations required depending on a teacher's years of experience, evaluation rating or tenure status. For example, in Nashville,teachers with the highest rating are formally observed one time with two informal observations while teachers with the lowest rating are formally observed four times.

Length of Observations

Among the 91 districts in the database that specify the minimum length of a formal observation for tenured teachers, the most common observation length is 30 minutes, followed by the length of one lesson or class period. The shortest minimum length is 10 minutes in Springfield (MA). 

In the graph above,Birmingham and Mobile are counted as having 30 minute observations, but this is the requirement for elementary teachers; for middle and secondary teachers observations are a full class period.

Among districts that do not specify a length of time, five districts (Mesa, Jefferson County(CO), East Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Cincinnati) include a vague requirement in contract or board policy that observations must be of sufficient length for teachers to demonstrate their skills and justify the evaluator's conclusions.

Third party review

Generally, principals are in charge of observing and evaluating teachers, but in some cases third parties are also involved. Since we last looked at this topic, a smaller percentage of districts in the database (two percent today compared to seven percent in 2013) require the use of third party evaluators, but a larger percentage of districts (15 percent currently compared to six percent in 2013) have optional third party review.     



There are three districts that currently require third party evaluators. In the District of Columbia"Master Educators" perform at least one of a teacher's formal observations.[1] In Greenville County(SC) a team of three people evaluates the teacher, one of whom is a teacher from another school, and in New Haven former teachers validate the scores of any teacher who receives the highest or the lowest evaluation rating.

In districts where the use of third party evaluators is optional, frequently these policies allow the use of district-level administrators or instructional supervisors during the evaluation process. Of the 19 districts where the use of third party evaluators is optional, four (Cincinnati,Pinellas County(FL), Montgomery County (MD) and St. Paul) specifically allow principals to request assistance in observations from the district and two (Duval County(FL) and Newark) note that third party administrators may be used to observe struggling teachers. Newark's contract also states that if a school has a particularly large number of either high or low ratings, third party evaluators may be used to validate scores.

Peer review

In over half the districts in the database (51 percent), peers are a part of the observation and evaluation process in some way, with 35 percent of districts making this involvement optional.[2] Since we last looked at this issue in 2015, the percent of districts in the database where peers serve as evaluators for some or all of the district's teachers has decreased from 23 percent to 15 percent, while the percent of districts in the database that make peer involvement optional has increased from 28 percent to 35 percent. 


There are seven districts that involve peers in the observation and evaluation process for all teachers (Denver, the District of ColumbiaHillsborough County(FL), Montgomery CountyMinneapolisGreenville County (SC) and Shelby County(TN)).  In five districts (OaklandJefferson County (KY), St. PaulOklahoma Cityand Milwaukee) peer observations are required, but the feedback is either used for formative purposes or to inform the administrator without the peer giving a rating. The two charter management organizations in the database (Aspireand Green Dot) both include peer surveys as five percent of a teacher's evaluation.

In districts that make peer involvement optional, 24 allow this feedback to be consequential to the evaluation process while 14 allow this feedback to be used for informational purposes.

As states and districts continue to refine and improve their teacher evaluation systems, keep reading the Teacher Trendline to stay up to date. You can also access all of the information the Teacher Contract Database has to offer on evaluations by running a custom report.

[1] The District of Columbia is changing its evaluation system for the 2016-2017 school year and will no longer be using Master Educators.

[2] A peer could be a current or retired teacher who is employed at either a school or district level. A third party evaluator could be anyone, including a current or former teacher, from outside of the school. Some evaluators may thus be counted in both groups.