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What Are Trust-Based Observations and Why Do We Need Them?

By Craig Randall
What Are Trust-Based Observations and Why Do We Need Them?

Craig Randall and school leaders in Trust Based Observation training. (Photo source: Craig Randall)

Let’s start with the what.

Observations are supposed to support growth and lead to improved teaching and learning. 

Is there a problem? Yes, observations don’t work.

Research shows that the observation models we’re using now (think Danielson, Marzano, or any model that rates pedagogy), are not improving teaching and learning. Two recent major studies on teacher evaluation make that clear:

  • The Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching Project, designed to use teacher evaluation (Danielson in 85% of the districts) to improve teaching and learning, showed, “no significant and sustained teacher or student performance improvement (Stecher, et. al., 2018).
  • The Annenberg Institute for School Reform’s The Effect of Teacher Evaluation on Achievement and Attainment meta study of all state mandated teacher evaluation reform efforts in the United States of America from 2009 through 2018 resulted in: “No improvement (2021).”

Why don't they improve teaching and learning? They try to do too much! 

For 55 years, experts in teacher evaluation have been warning about the difficulty of combining observation for both growth and evaluation.

  • Goldhammer, in Clinical Supervision, wrote, "Separate the observation that we do to support growth from the observation that we do to make retention decisions (1969).”
  • Danielson herself, in Teacher Evaluation to Enhance Professional Practice, acknowledges “the seeming incompatibility of the observation process for growth and evaluation (2000).”
  • Stronge in Handbook on Teacher Evaluation, says, “They are often described as mutually exclusive (2003).”

And research backs it: 

For 40 years research has told us that observations can’t simultaneously support growth and evaluation.

  • Teacher Evaluation: A Study of Effective Practices, a study of school districts identified as having highly developed teacher evaluation systems, saw a pattern, and posed the question, “Can one observation tool be used to both support growth and to make evaluative decisions?” Their answer was, “No. A single teacher evaluation process can serve only one goal well (Wise, et al.,1984).”

What happens when an observation tool strives to both evaluate and support growth? Evaluating pedagogy paralyzes teachers. 

This information is newer and it’s time to use it to guide a new course of action in observation.

  • O’Leary, in Classroom Observation shared research results from interviews with thousands of teachers being observed and they show that “when we evaluatively grade teachers it inhibits their growth and relational trust diminishes. The result is teachers become cautious and fearful, and stop taking risks and innovating in their practice (2014).”
  • Rosenberg, in Nonviolent Communication adds clarity by saying, “When we combine observation with evaluation, we decrease the likelihood that others will hear our intended message. Instead, they are apt to hear criticism and thus resist what we are saying (2015).”

What does improve teaching and learning? Relational trust empowers teachers to improve. 

It’s so simple.

  • Bryk and Schneider answer that question in Trust in Schools. Their research on what helps schools improve shows that fostering growth through the observation process requires relational trust, writing, “Relational trust is central to academic achievement…it reduces a teacher's sense of vulnerability and that acts as a catalyst for change by minimizing feelings of risk, that creates the space for teachers to feel safe experimenting with new practices.” Their research also shows that “schools with high relational trust were three times as likely to improve literacy and math scores (2002).”
  • Hattie, in Visible Learning, adds, “When observers take supportive actions, trust develops, which reduces the vulnerability that teachers experience as they take on new and uncertain tasks; it facilitates teachers’ efforts to innovate in order to develop more effective instruction, and leads to greater effort to implement successful innovations (2009).”

So, if what we’ve been doing doesn’t promote growth and we know why, do we continue performing the proverbial definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result)? Or do we do observations differently?

Trust-Based Observations (TBO)

Trust-Based Observations break the mold by following the research. As counterintuitive as it sounds, TBO uses the observation process to build trusting relationships so teachers feel safe experimenting, innovating, and taking risks to improve. The results are improved teaching and learning, a culture of trust, and as John Hattie describes TBO, “collective teacher efficacy in action.”

What specifically does TBO do?

It begins by:

  • Separating evaluation from observation.
  • Not rating pedagogy.
  • Working precisely during the reflective conversations to build relational trust.

It continues with building mastery. School leaders are trained to:

  • Use the revolutionary observation form that doubles as a hyperlinked professional resource tool.
  • Hone their observation lens in nine core research backed, specific, and detailed areas of pedagogy.
  • Identify and share those observed pedagogical strengths.

Add in:

  • Connecting professional development to TBO areas of pedagogy, annual goals, and teacher choice.
  • Frequent 20-minute unannounced observations so observers see authentic teaching.
  • Valuing teachers as professionals by beginning reflective conversations by asking teachers:
    • What they were doing to help students learn
    • What they might have done differently.

And the results are:

Leaders say:

  • “The changes we have seen in teacher practice at the start of this year is nothing short of remarkable!”
  • “It has already started to accelerate the trajectory of improvement within everyday classroom practice. The teachers feel excited again!”
  • The staff have all made comments that this is the way we are doing things now. Let us have a go. Let us take the risk.”

Teachers say:

  • “I am being told what my strengths are and that is making me want to work to be even better.”
  • “TBO is really helpful, it was so amazing. I have never had a discussion like this.”
  • “Totally empowering.”

So, there are two options:

  1. Continue doing observations the same way the last generation has and expect a different result “this time.”
  1. Model healthy risk-taking for teachers in our building by embracing a new method of observation that inspires growth and creates a culture of trust.

The choice is yours.


Stecher, Brian M., Holtzman, Deborah J., Garet, Michael S., Laura S., et al. (June 21, 2018) “Impacts of the Intensive Partnerships Initiative.” RAND Corporation.

Bleiberg, J., Brunner, E., Harbatkin, E., Kraft, M. A., and Springer, M. (2021). The effect of teacher evaluation on achievement and attainment: Evidence from statewide reforms. Providence, RI: Annenberg Institute at Brown University.

Goldhammer, R., Anderson, R. H., & Krajewski, R. J. (1993). Clinical supervision: Special methods for the supervision of teachers (3rd ed.). Fort Worth, Tx.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publ.

Danielson, Charlotte. (2000) Teacher Evaluation to Enhance Professional Practice. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Stronge, James; Tucker, Pamela. Handbook on Teacher Evaluation with CD-ROM (2003). Taylor and Francis. 

Wise, A. E. (1984). Teacher Evaluation: A Study of Effective Practices. Publications Sales.

Matt, O. (2014). Classroom observation: A guide to the effective observation of teaching and learning.Routledge.

Rosenberg, Marshall B. (2015) Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, 3rd Edition: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships (Nonviolent Communication Guides) Puddledancer Press.

Bryk, Anthony. (2002) Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement (The American Sociological Association's Rose Series in Sociology). Russell Sage Foundation. 

Hattie, John A. C. (2008). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge. 


Craig Randall spent 10 years working at international schools and is the author of multi-time, multi-country Amazon Best Seller, Trust-Based Observations.

X: Craig Randall (@TrustbasedCraig)
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