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Will I be judged more favourably if I teach a top set?

In short, the answer appears to be yes.

In the paper: Classroom Composition and Measured Teacher Performance: What Do Teacher Observation Scores Really Measure?, Steinberg and Garrett cite studies which suggest that ‘classroom observation scores tend to be lower among teachers whose students are more disadvantaged and have lower incoming achievement.’  They highlight that this correlation is likely to be the result of several different factors, including the tendency of schools to assign more experienced teachers to classes containing higher achieving students.

In their own study, Steinberg and Garrett found that English and Language Arts (ELA) teachers were more than twice as likely to ‘be rated in the top performance quintile if assigned the highest achieving students compared with teachers assigned the lowest achieving students’, whilst maths teachers were more than six times as likely to achieve a top rating.  They conclude that ‘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 that are fixed over time.


Similarly, in their study on the validity of lesson observations, Cohen and Goldhaber emphasise that observers are prone to biases based on ‘the composition of students’ in a class and they make the point that ‘teachers with students with higher prior achievement receive higher observation ratings.


Finally, in their Lessons Learned study, Whitehurst, Chingos and Lindquist also argue that ‘teachers with higher performing students receive higher classroom observation scores.’  They ask the reader to imagine a scenario where a teacher is given a class of students ‘who are challenging to teach because they are less well prepared academically’ and conclude, sensibly enough, that ‘performing well’ would be ‘tougher’ to achieve.  A key finding is connected to the fundamental biases in the observation system: ‘when observers see a teacher leading a class with higher ability students, they judge the teacher to be better than when they see that same teacher leading a class of lower ability students.

I wrote a blog last year that provided brief guidance on providing feedback after lesson observations.  You can access it by clicking here, but I’ve included the larger part of it below…


Thanks for reading –