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Research: Classroom observation scores for Tennessee teachers vary by race and gender

New research by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College reveals that Black and male teachers in Tennessee have received lower observation scores than white and female teachers every year since the state’s evaluation system began in 2011. Those gaps among race and gender remain even when comparing similarly qualified teachers who perform the same according to other metrics, such as their value-added to student achievement. 

Jason A. Grissom, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Public Policy and Education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College and TERA’s faculty director, and Brendan Bartanen, assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, examined classroom observation score gaps over time along racial and gender lines using school data from the  2011–12 to 2018–19 school years. Their findings appear in the peer-reviewed Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 

“In Tennessee, we use classroom observation scores to provide teachers with feedback about their practice, and the scores are a big part of overall evaluation ratings, which then inform compensation, retention and other personnel decisions,” Grissom said. “We want observation scores to give accurate information about teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom and not to reflect other factors beyond the teachers’ control.” 

Key findings from the study include: 

  • Black teachers and male teachers in Tennessee consistently receive lower classroom observation scores than their white and female peers each year, across every observation system (e.g., COACH, TEAM) and at every school level. 
  • Black teachers and male teachers receive systematically lower observation scores than their white and female counterparts even when they have similar qualifications and their students achieve similar test score gains.  
  • While the authors find few clues as to what could be driving the gender gap in observation scores, the magnitude of the race gap is influenced by several factors. These include the racial composition of the school’s faculty, the differing characteristics of students who are assigned to Black and white teachers, and the race of the teacher’s observers.

Racial gaps are larger in schools where Black teachers are more “racially isolated”—that is, where they have few Black colleagues. Black teachers also receive slightly lower ratings from white evaluators who are usually principals or assistant principals. Together, these results suggest fewer differences in schools where the teaching faculty and leadership team are more racially diverse. 

Within schools, Black teachers are assigned higher numbers of students with disciplinary histories, who have lower past attendance and who were lower-achieving in the previous year. These differences in students’ characteristics partially explain Black teachers’ lower observation scores, according to researchers. 

Although the findings point to some of the district and school processes that may produce racial gaps in observation scores, the study also left some of the racial gap unexplained. 

“As we work to increase teacher diversity in Tennessee, it is critical that we understand more about the causes of these systematic differences so we can begin to address them,” said Erin O’Hara, executive director of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance. “Are there potential changes needed in the observation rubrics, for example, or in training of evaluators? Through ongoing research, we hope to help the state identify solutions to this important challenge.” 

Download the full brief, Exploring Race and Gender Gaps in Classroom Observation Scores in Tennessee. 

More about the Tennessee Education Research Alliance 

The Tennessee Education Research Alliance bridges the gap between education research, policy, and practice in Tennessee. Through strategic partnerships, we conduct research in collaboration with state and local education leaders to inform policies that affect school systems, educators and, ultimately, students.