Blog: The Educated Reporter

Observing Classrooms: Spotting Signs of Teacher Quality

With most schools back in session for the new academic year, it seemed like a good time to catch up on one of the most popular sessions from EWA’s 66th National Seminar, held in May at Stanford University. Today’s guest blogger is Maura Walz of EdNews ColoradoStream sessions from National Seminar in your browser, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes.Formore on this topic, you can also check out EWA’s new Reporter Guide to Visiting School Campuses. 

Like many journalists who write about public schools, I have never been a teacher, nor have I attended education school. And so the task of reporting on classroom practice often intimidates me: How can I understand what is actually going on in a classroom, much less accurately convey to a reader if, how and why learning is happening there?

In many ways it can be easier to cover the education world outside of classrooms – the sniping between districts and unions; legislative wrangling over education budgets; emotional debates over where a school should be located or whether to shut it down.

But there’s a danger to covering the education beat without spending a lot of time in classrooms, GothamSchools and Education News Network editor Elizabeth Green argued at EWA’s annual conference. “The center of everything is what happens in classrooms.”

That realization has changed Green’s journalism, she said. “Over the last more than five years, I may have gone from a person who covers education politics and policy to a person who tries to cover education,” Green said.

One person who helped spark that change, Green said, was Pamela Grossman. The Nomellini Olivier Professor of Education at Stanford, Grossman’s research focuses on teacher education and classroom practice in English language arts. Grossman and Green spent an hour discussing what the indicators of good teaching are, and how journalists can analyze and describe what they observe in schools.

“When people go into classrooms, they often start with looking at the teacher and what the teacher is doing,” Grossman said.

But she urged the gathered reporters to take a more nuanced view of how the work of teaching plays out in a classroom by focusing on the “interaction between the teacher, the student and the content.”

For example, what if you walk into a classroom and the students are in small group discussions? How do you know what kind of teaching has happened – or is happening? The answer, Grossman said, is to examine the kind of work the students are doing. How intellectually challenging is it? Who is doing most of the intellectual work in the class? And reporters should also consider what kind of teaching would have been needed for the other students also to reach that level.

“Partly what you want to look for in a classroom is what are the kids being set up to do?” Grossman said. “The work of teaching is invisible if you’re just looking at the teacher. But when you look at the kids, there’s so much that the teacher has done in terms of enabling that work.”

To demonstrate, Grossman showed clips from a lesson from a Los Angeles teacher named Yvonne Divan Hutchinson, in which students discussed Willie Ruff’s memoir “A Call to Assembly.”

Grossman pointed out several key elements of Hutchinson’s approach over the course of several snippets – the way she started the discussion by clearly outlining her expectations; the way she drew students back to the text by reminding them to justify their opinions with textual examples; and the way her students used academic vocabulary and academic ways to disagree with each others’ opinions, which is evidence of earlier work Hutchinson had done.

 Investing some time in observing a class helps, too.

“Teaching is something that unfolds in time, and it is really hard based on snippets” to know everything that has happened, Grossman said. “That premise of trying to stay in a classroom long enough to see a whole lesson is a really good one.”

With policymakers and lawmakers putting a growing emphasis on improving teacher quality and evaluations, some reporters in the session worried that even knowing what to look for in classrooms isn’t enough to tie their observations to those policy discussions.

But Grossman and Green noted that the important work for journalists is to be descriptive and to report on the many factors that can influence both what happens in classrooms and how classroom work gets measured and reported.

“I’m a reporter; I’m not an evaluator,” Green said. “We’re not here to say, ‘This is a good or bad teacher.’ What we can do is point to many different ways of measurements… Is there another piece of evidence that we can put in the story and say, ‘This is a dilemma.’”