Using Classroom Observations in the Evaluation of Special Education Teachers

Authors: Nathan D. Jones, Courtney A. Bell, Mary Brownell, Yi Qi, David Peyton, Daisy Pua, Melissa Fowler, Steven Holtzman

Project Summary

While teacher evaluation systems and policies have evolved nationwide during the past decade, the use of structured classroom observation tools remains nearly universal. This paper examines one of the most popular observation systems in the country—Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching (FFT)—and asks the question: “How well do common observation systems capture the full range of teaching skills and behaviors that special educators need to use to teach effectively?”

Key Findings

To address this question, the authors examined more than 200 video lessons from a sample of 51 elementary and middle school special education teachers in Rhode Island. Lessons were then evaluated by expert raters and scored using two observation systems—the FFT and the Quality of Classroom Instruction (QCI), the latter of which is believed to more closely reflect the kinds of instructional practices valued by the special education community. Overall, the authors find that FFT has only limited use in assessing the quality of instructional practices most valued in special education.

Implications and Recommendations

These findings provide the first comprehensive empirical evidence of a how a popular observation system functions for special education teaching. There are critical implications for school, district, and state leaders as they consider the impact of these observation systems on students and teachers. In addition to the often high-stakes decision-making associated with evaluation ratings, these findings suggest that special education teachers may not be receiving the type of evidence-based feedback that they need to improve their practice; and, in fact, they may instead be encouraged to implement instructional strategies counter to best practices for serving students with disabilities.This is also important for general education teachers, as they may be steered away from the explicit, systematic instructional practices shown to be particularly beneficial both to students with disabilities as well as all students, for instance, learning how to read. 

Project Resources

Supporting Resource – Observing Special Education Toolkit: A companion set of resources to help principals and other administrators effectively observe special education teachers and provide meaningful, evidence-aligned feedback