When it comes to Evaluating Teachers, Trust (and Empower) the Principal

By 05/31/2011

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The Times’ Room for Debate blog tackles teacher evaluations today, in particular the news that New York City plans to introduce a dozen new tests in order to gather data for said evaluations. Participants include Linda Darling-Hammond, Kevin Carey, Marcus Winters, and yours truly, among others. Here’s my submission; read the whole package here.

Improving teacher evaluations is one of the most important reforms encouraged by the federal “Race to the Top” initiative — and one of the central components to making our schools better. No one can defend today’s evaluation systems which, by and large, find every teacher to be above average (if not superior) even as our student achievement results lag our international competitors.

If pay and employment decisions are to be based on teacher performance, at least in part, we need evaluations that can stand up to scrutiny (and to lawsuits). Simply put, we won’t make much progress in terminating our least effective teachers (either for cause or because of budget pressures) until we have evaluation systems that are fair, trustworthy and rigorous. And it’s only common sense that one element of those evaluations should be an assessment of how much students are learning under the teacher’s charge.

However, there’s a real downside in moving to centralized, rules-based, bureaucratic evaluation models, as indicated by New York City’s decision to add a dozen new tests to collect more teacher performance data. I feel for the city; if you want evaluations to be grounded in data, then it’s not crazy to assess students in subjects for which children are not currently tested by the state. But talk about attacking a fly with a sledgehammer. There’s already a ton of testing in our schools. Isn’t there another alternative?

There is an option that neither reformers nor the unions want to consider: trust the principal. In most of American life, individuals are evaluated by their managers, who have a lot of discretion over their employment, their salaries, and any bonuses they might receive. In the best organizations, those managers collect plenty of data before making their decisions — peer reviews, outcome data, etc.— but none of this is meant to substitute for human judgment. It’s not a perfect system, and without safeguards it can be open to abuse, but if you believe in matching authority with accountability, it’s the least worst alternative.

If you trust the principal, then there’s no need for new citywide tests. Good administrators that want to evaluate their social studies teachers, for example, might spend more time in their classrooms. They might look at the quality of student work, or get feedback from peers and parents. Maybe they’d want an objective assessment of student growth in the subject over the course of the year; give them the option. But don’t make it mandatory.

And if administrators actually have the authority to link their evaluation decisions to something meaningful — firing bad teachers, bumping the salaries of their superstars — they will have reason to take the evaluation process more seriously.

Reformers who are pushing for statewide or even district-wide evaluation systems are saying out loud: we can’t trust principals to make these decisions on their own. And they are creating pressure for districts like New York’s to spend countless hours and dollars trying to gather data. If we can’t trust school leaders to identify their best and worst teachers, then the whole project of school reform is sunk. Not all the additional tests or teacher evaluations in the world can change that.

-Mike Petrilli

Comment on this article
  • Kevin Tye says:

    The big difference (currently) between the private sector and schooling is that private industry can lose customers. Schools have a captive set of customers. Thus, a private sector boss has a lot more incetive to make decisions based on the good of the company . A principal, on the other hand, knows that students are forced by law to attend his school, and thus may make decisions on a different set of incentives. I’m all for principals being given much more decision making power, as long as school choice is included in the mix. Having a principal know that unhappy parents could easily choose another school will focus his attention on having the best teachers.

  • march4teachers says:

    I can see what would happen at our school…Our principal doesn’t like enforcing rules, has literally stated at a meeting that we cannot have rules enforced for students or teachers. I have a different opinion and I would get fired. The teachers who play the “You can’t make me!” game and enjoy not having to follow board policy would have a free-for-all. It is not good for the students but it is reality. It is hard to promote respect and responsibility when the opposite is flaunted in front of students all the time.

  • umphrey says:

    While I have no interest in state-wide evaluation systems, hoping that principals can be trusted is truly desperate. The reward structures these nasty bureaucracies have built have led some truly unimpressive creatures to become school administrators–without learning and without vision and without courage.

  • Sir John Falstaff says:

    It would be much easier to trust a principal to assess my performance if the principal was worth his/her salt.

    In my experience I have had one excellent principal out of four. My wife has known one out of five. Combined, that is 2 out of 9 (22.2%). Small sample, yes, but I fear it is a reality that is all too common in schools.

    I have not heard much outcry for affective administrators from legislators and policy makers. Plenty on improving teachers, but little on improving principals.

    I am for reforming tenure. I support fair and comprehensive teacher evaluations as a part of the plan. However, my current principal has only taught P.E. during his teaching tenure. If my potential earnings are in the hands of my principal, then I have a problem placing my livelihood in the hands of a physical education teacher/coach who, frankly, has no idea what proper classroom teaching looks like.

    When school boards start placing more emphasis on hiring quality principals, then I’ll gladly climb on board Mr. Petrilli.

  • PhillipMarlowe says:

    Trust the principal?
    Back in the 1980s, there was a principal in Prince George’s County Public School, just over the SouthEast DC border, who delighted in driving new teachers out of the profession.
    He would come observe a teacher, then during the evaluation conference tell the teacher she left out a element of the lesson. This hit most teachers out of the blue as they wouldn’t think that the principal would lie.
    Just up the road, again over the DC border, another principal like to drop porno mags on the desks of his teachers and tell them, “My that looks good.”
    And 3 miles away, another principal who focused on character development, told her staff: “If the students are telling me these things, they must be true.”

    My experience and my wife’s:
    10 principals
    4 very, very good-We’d trust them to be fair
    3 OK
    3 [expletive deleted]

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