by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
In a recent article in the Washington Post, Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Schools, outlined his recommendations for improving public education. Mr. Klein begins with the assertion that the path to success goes through teachers and their evaluations.
“Any reform worth its name must start by recognizing that teachers are our most important educational asset. That’s why we need to treat teaching as a profession, by supporting excellence, striving for constant improvement and ridding the system of poor performers.”
He also addresses the continuing issue of last hired, first fired.
“Consider the fight over teacher layoffs. In many states, you must lay teachers off solely based on reverse seniority – last in, first out. That’s nuts. Do you know anyone who would say ‘I want the most senior surgeon’ rather than ‘I want the best surgeon’? Sure, experience matters. That’s why, in baseball, the rookie of the year is almost never the most valuable player. But the rookie of the year is better than a whole lot of 10-year veterans, and every baseball team takes this into account when deciding its roster.”
A point of concern
Mr. Klein finishes his discussion with some thoughts about teacher evaluations. He feels that tenure allows poor teachers to retain their positions and that it is critical that methods be found to remove underperforming educators through a prescribed process.
“Other, more traditional methods of evaluation could also be applied, such as adopting a set of criteria that can be evaluated by principals and/or master teachers.”
I have bolded the word “principals” because they are my primary concern with Mr. Klein’s recommendations. If this group is to be instrumental in the hiring, firing and promotions of the teachers in a building, it is crucial that they are clearly qualified to make such decisions.
Better evaluations are needed at every level
The constant focus of the vast majority of educational reformers is on teacher evaluations. Since I have committed tens of thousands of words to that subject, I obviously agree. But it is naïve to believe that there are not factors other than teacher performance that can affect student success. The principal, the educational leader of the staff, is arguably the most important overall influence in the academic environment of the school. But few are privy to the process used to determine the effectiveness of a school’s principal. While every new initiative for teacher assessment includes more effective input, support, transparency and easily quantifiable outcomes, for the vast majority of school staff members the evaluation of the job being performed by their principal remains a mystery.
A vague, haphazard process
My most recent experience with the evaluation of a principal illustrates my concerns and those of other teachers. Before the end of the first semester in the principal’s initial year, a panel of six teachers was convened by an assistant superintendent. We were never informed how this particular group was selected. It was certainly not a true cross-section of the staff. The emphasis was on individuals who had been at the school for extended periods and who had leadership positions. A series of extremely generic questions concerning the new school leader was asked. Our responses were all virtually the same. As I looked around I felt as though I was watching a group of “bobble” heads (including myself) as we repeatedly nodded in agreement and said that the school was continuing to move in a positive direction. The panel had no way of knowing that in the first few months as principal, she was maintaining policies similar to her highly successful predecessor. However, if a follow up meeting had been conducted six months later, the answers would have been significantly different. Unfortunately, such a gathering never occurred.
Wrong time, wrong place
The second portion of the principal’s evaluation process was a multiple-choice questionnaire that was given to the teachers at an emergency, afternoon faculty meeting. Again there were no preliminary discussions or explanations. The nearly 100 queries were vague, inappropriate and/or redundant but no teacher sought clarification. Anyone who has ever tried to initiate a serious, significant discussion in such a setting understands the peril in expecting a great deal of candor or assistance. Reinforcing the perceived disinterest by the district was the lack of any follow up. The results of the responses were never given to the faculty. At that point, at least from the perspective of the teachers, the evaluation of their principal had been completed.
Improving evaluations for everyone
Great schools need both outstanding teachers and equally talented administrators. If reformatted evaluations are the answer for teachers, might this same strategy be utilized for administrators as well? Here are some suggestions from the teacher’s point of view.
Make the process transparent. Mutual respect between the administrative and teaching staffs is critical. The faculty should be aware of what standards and expectations are being applied to administrators. The process should be clearly explained by the people who will be conducting it. Volumes have been written about teacher evaluations; far too little has been revealed about the procedures in place for assessing the individuals who will be doing those appraisals.
Solicit individual teacher input on a continuing basis. Group discussions can be undermined by peer pressure or overly persuasive individuals. Instead of convening a panel every few years, the people responsible for evaluating principals should b
e in regular contact with multiple staff members throughout the tenure of the school leader. These conversations should be conducted with a significant and diverse portion of the staff. It must be clearly indicated to those participating in these one-on-one conversations that they are confidential in order to ensure that honest opinions are being given. I recently had a teacher confide to me that he had been less than truthful when asked about a principal’s performance and felt guilty when hearing workroom complaints a few weeks later. Evaluations are only as good as the data they acquire. Similar meetings should be held with parents, students, and auxiliary staff members.
And please stop the multiple-choice faculty meeting questionnaires!
Principals should also be judged on student progress. Student performance is included in every new proposal for teachers. In some cases it is even being published in major newspapers. Yet there seems to be little attention at least in public to such results in the evaluation of principals. To the contrary, when the math students at my school were making impressive gains on standardized tests there were multiple district investigations focusing on possible abuses. When the scores dropped precipitously no similar analysis was forthcoming.
There is little doubt that teacher evaluations are a key component to the improvement of our educational system. Successful methods of analyzing the effectiveness of a classroom instructor will improve the best and weed out the weakest. But if principals are to play a pivotal role in those assessments they must face the same level of scrutiny. These instructional leaders must be the best a school district can provide.