Smart Teachers

A superintendent’s perspective on the importance of teacher data and the implications of applying it to improve classroom performance.

GUEST COLUMN | by Robert Thomason

Recently, so much time and energy have been spent discussing student data – how to collect it, how to use it and what it means. While this is a hugely important piece of the puzzle for schools and districts nationwide, it seems like we talk about teacher data far less often.

Teacher data has made recent news, often talked about in the context of teacher evaluations and state mandates surrounding this hot topic. While reading the article, “The Data Dilemma in Education” by Jeremy Friedman, I was struck by one section:

“Data integration and data standardization are major obstacles for school districts. As districts collect increasing amounts of information on their students, from attendance records to test scores, they are seeking new ways to store, analyze and view this data to improve the academic performance of students and help teachers improve their processes.”

I stopped and asked myself, why isn’t teacher data being discussed in the same manner?

In February 2011, Petersburg City Schools implemented a small-scale pilot of a new teacher observation and walkthrough system to help accomplish this. For the Petersburg’s administrative team it was a high priority to collect teacher data in the classroom as well as store and sort it. But then what? What do we do with the data we’ve collected? How do we use it? The ability to view data, analyze it to identify trends, and improve results in the classroom is imperative. With these goals in mind, Petersburg City Schools made the decision to implement the system developed by observe4success.

The administrative team began visiting classrooms more often than ever before and using shorter, more frequent, less formal visits. The data collected over time was interesting and extremely relevant to achieving our goals. Teachers were receiving timely feedback about observations and as a team we were able to identify strengths and more importantly build on those strengths together. The data also gave us a concrete way to identify areas where a given teacher might benefit from increased ongoing support and helped us identify a path for how we could work together to address those areas.

The feedback from staff and preliminary outcomes were great. As a result we increased our use of the observation and walkthrough software to the entire district, expecting more of the same. Initial conversations produced concerns about how simplified the observation process actually was, to which I always humbly disagreed. Simple is good, simple does not mean less, and in this case simple means less time and fewer district resources dedicated to produce better results. It does not mean less thorough, less concern with the technical aspects of instruction, or less support and feedback.

About a month into our implementation, something amazing began to take place. A positive buzz about the process and the impact of data collected over time took root. Teachers were talking about their own evaluations and the walkthrough process because they saw it as beneficial. A teacher took the time to stop by my office and voice praise of the observation and feedback process. He said the observation criteria along with the non-threatening way the data was presented caused him to rethink and revisit what he is doing in the classroom and what could be improved. Later that day, the same teacher was talking about the process in the lunchroom — and as we all know, lunchrooms can be deadly places for teacher discussions — but in this case, the discussion was positive and led to other curriculum related topics and collaboration!

Introducing something new has its challenges and when it comes to teacher data and observation, the hill can be even steeper to climb. Administrators, especially principals and assistant principals, are the “front line communicators” to convey the importance and the relevance of applying teacher data to improve classroom practices and, equally important, to support those practices that are working. The ability to automate this process and create clear, concise reports with available 21st century technology makes this a much less painful and time-consuming process. As administrators, it is imperative that teacher data is collected fairly and without bias, and crucial to analyze and share the data in constructive ways. By having access to teacher data collected over time, instructional leaders are able to identify areas in need of additional support while linking the findings to available professional development opportunities.

It is easy to fall into the “flavor of the month” trap and simply follow the latest educational practices improvement trend. How can a district maintain focus, vision, and purpose in order to leverage scarce and valuable resources to provide the most “bang for the buck” and long term positive impact? Teachers are, by and large, competent, caring, committed college graduates. These are smart people. Teachers who are not competent, caring, and committed to student success need to seek other employment. Current tenure laws need to be revisited in terms of 21st century conditions. As educational leaders we must stop “evaluating” 100 percent of the instructional staff as if they were the “needy” 3 percent who should not be teaching.

We must provide appropriate support in the form of ongoing, focused, and purposeful in-service, research based, non-threatening observation and analysis of instructional performance using an introspection model vs. an inspection model. When given the opportunity to collaborate, competent and caring teachers can and do perform at higher levels. In the end, students are the greatest beneficiaries!

As Alaska and other states enact new legislation with regard to the teacher evaluation process, it’s apparent that this discussion will be amplified. Teacher effectiveness can and should be gauged by some combination of student data and teacher data. But how much, how often, and what it all means are still very much undecided. In the quest for documentation of student achievement, we must not lose sight of the importance of teacher data as a tool for growth. Teacher data, if collected and analyzed properly, has the ability to change school cultures, help teachers improve, open lines of communication, and create an atmosphere of collaboration, which is a recipe for success.


Dr. Robert Thomason
is the Superintendent
of Petersburg City School District in Petersburg, Alaska. Write to:


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