Diagnosing or evaluating teacher development needs? A session with the RISE Community of Practice

The primary use for information on teacher development needs in the Global South must remain diagnostic, and result in providing the support teachers need to improve classroom practice.


Image of Julius Atuhurra

Julius Atuhurra

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

The ultimate objective of teacher professional development (TPD) programs should be to equip teachers with the skills, competences and practical capabilities to identify and meet the learning needs of all the children in their classrooms. TPD programs, in turn, must be adaptive enough to identify and meet teachers’ own development needs. To achieve this, reform suggestions have included teachers learning to teach through the study of classroom practice; through sustained, school-based, reflective practice; and through individualized, task/subject-specific, incentive-driven practice. In other words, teachers whose own professional development needs have been identified and met are the ones capable of identifying and meeting children’s learning needs. This sequential two-step process forms a key idea around which this blog is centered.

At their latest group gathering, members of the RISE Community of Practice (CoP) focused attention on tools for identifying teacher development needs to promote foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN) in the Global South. The session included a panel of speakers who showcased some of the available tools for diagnosing teacher development needs – covering teacher competence tests, surveys of teacher beliefs and judgements, and observations of classroom practice. Breakout group discussions touched on the potential for initial and in-service teacher education (including continuous professional development) to identify and address teacher needs.

The tools presented and discussed by the RISE CoP can be categorized into two broad classes – teacher competences, beliefs and judgement assessment tools, and classroom observation tools. In the first class, the Centre for Teacher Accreditation tools are commonly used in India to assess and certify teachers’ technical and professional competences, information that is then used by teachers to pursue better opportunities and progress their careers. Drawing from the practice-based theory of content knowledge for teaching, the Research Triangle Institute’s Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching survey measures what teachers need to know and be able to do in order to teach elementary mathematics effectively. This information is then used to design relevant professional development programs. Tools for surfacing teachers’ beliefs and judgements about the skill or achievement levels of their students are important for understanding their in-class decisions about content coverage and pedagogical practices. The RISE CoP reviewed recently available evidence that suggests teachers’ beliefs and judgements tend to be inaccurate, with serious implications for children’s learning.

In the second class, four classroom observation tools that have been extensively used in the Global South were presented to the CoP – the Service Delivery Indicators (SDIs), the Stallings Observation System (Stallings), the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), and the Teach classroom observation tool (Teach). The SDIs and Stallings are classified as ‘low-inference’ since they require enumerators to just capture (not interpret), against a checklist, what they see happening in the classroom. The CLASS and Teach tools require highly trained observers to judge and score teacher practices and classroom behaviors. This need for ‘high-inference’ has meant that past applications have tended to rely on use of video recording of classroom lessons and subsequent scoring by expert observers. Classroom observation tools are intended to serve system diagnostic and monitoring objectives, with the main goal of informing the design and delivery of TPD programmes. 

The two uses of information on teacher development needs produce conflicting responses

As suggested by the need to tailor TPD to teachers’ specific needs, information on teacher development needs is important for diagnostic purposes as a guide in designing teacher development interventions that will improve their classroom performance. However, the same information can be used for high-stakes performance evaluation purposes – by informing decisions on promotions, deployments, and other career progression aspects. The two uses are likely to produce divergent responses from teachers – co-operate if the goal is to facilitate professional development or conceal development needs if the goal is to evaluate performance. While some tools are explicit about pursuing performance evaluation objectives, the majority state only diagnostic objectives.

Regardless of the stated objective, teachers will likely infer what they perceive as the ‘real’ goal in two ways – by reflecting on the nature of information being collected, and analysing historical use of previous information. Information on certain practices such as teacher attendance, presence, or time-on-task is likely to be perceived as evaluative. While classroom observations prominently feature during school inspection or monitoring visits, rarely is this information used to address specific teacher development needs – such as through feedback or guidance sessions at the end of the inspection visit. Such failures promote the view that school inspection visits are intended exclusively for performance evaluation goals.

To counter this detrimental view in Tanzania, the recently introduced ‘whole school visits’ reform required inspection (school quality assurance) officials to conduct a comprehensive diagnosis, make locally relevant recommendations and discuss these with the school at the end of the visit. When combined with follow-up reminders to implement the recommended actions, this intervention was found to improve classroom practice and children’s learning.

While existing evidence on teacher effectiveness in the Global South reveals deficiencies rooted in content knowledge, time-use, teacher presence, classroom practices, norms and beliefs, there remains a lot to uncover about teacher development needs both in the short- and long-term. How best to support teachers at scale to align their teaching to children’s learning needs is an important question in attempts at transforming children’s classroom instructional experiences.

The primary use for information on teacher development needs in the Global South must remain diagnostic, and result in providing the support teachers need to improve classroom practice. A first step in this direction might be to ensure effective, diagnostic use of information gathered on teacher development needs.

RISE blog posts and podcasts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.