You can’t principal-proof a school: Why top down evaluation systems are doomed to fail
As everyone in the education world already knows, the New York Times won a lawsuit that forced the New York City Department of Education to publish the teacher-level value-added data it has been collecting as part of its accountability system. The result? The public unveiling of the work product of an expensive system that is confusing, unreliable—and apparently—error-riddled.
Before we go further down this path, now is probably as good a time as any for education reformers to pause and ask themselves if this kind of top down effort is really what will lead our schools to excellence?
The question is not whether student achievement data should be used as one of several measures of teacher effectiveness, but rather how those data should be used and who is ultimately in the driver’s seat.
Critics of using test data argue that it’s unfair; that standardized tests are imperfect and therefore cannot be used to determine whether students have learned what they should have, and certainly not whether teachers have taught what they were supposed to.
Such arguments are misguided for lots of reasons, chief among them that there is, in no profession, a perfect measure of effectiveness. And teachers ultimately should be held accountable for how well they are able to drive achievement in their classrooms.
No matter how well developed a tool is, it needs to be reality checked.
But these critics are correct on a larger point: no matter how well developed a tool is, it needs to be reality checked. Of course, the one thing critics—teacher unions chief among them—hate more than giving Departments of Education the power to determine who should be hired, fired, or promoted is letting principals make those decisions. As just one example, in a 2010 New York Times “Room for Debate” article, Richard Khalenberg of the Century Foundation explained Albert Shanker’s opposition to allowing principals to make firing decisions:
Who should make the decision about which teachers are fired? Not the principals, Shanker argued. They might play favorites and fire excellent teachers with whom they personally clashed. Besides, how would a principal trained in physical education or history know what makes an excellent French teacher?
But, in order to drive student achievement, we simply must create a system where teachers are free to teach and leaders are expected to lead. To that end, it’s time for education reformers to get out of the business of trying to improve the civil service rules of our broken education bureaucracies and get back into the business of empowering educators—including school leaders—to get results for kids. For principals, that means holding them accountable for school-level student achievement, and giving them the power to make evaluation and related staffing decisions.
It’s up to the principals to use those results—or not—to make school-level staffing decisions.
Test score results, while imperfect, are useful data points that help paint a comprehensive picture of teacher effectiveness. But it’s up to the principals to use those results—or not—to make school-level staffing decisions. Because, in the end, it’s the school leader who needs to determine who are the most and least effective teachers in their school, and it’s the leader who needs to work with teachers and the school community to drive student learning. By creating a system that, by labeling teachers for them, essentially tells principals which teachers should be kept and which should go, we are absolving principals of their responsibility for evaluating their own teachers. And we’re allowing them to escape responsibility for the role they play in driving school-level student achievement and growth.
The accountability formula should be pretty simple: hold principals accountable for the results of their schools. Give them the tools (including access to teacher-level achievement data), resources, and autonomy they need to make staffing decisions and to set the school culture. In other words: we need to stop trying to bypass principals in our effort to drive classroom-level achievement; we need to stop trying to principal-proof our schools.
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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Senior Director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she leads the Institute’s work on state, national, and international standards evaluation and analysis.
June 13, 2013
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