You can’t principal-proof a school

As everyone in the education world already
knows, several news media organizations won a lawsuit that forced the New
York City Department of Education to release many of the teacher-level
value-added scores it has been collecting as part of its accountability system.
The result? The public unveiling of confusing, unreliable, and—apparently—error-riddled
data.

Before we go further down the teacher
evaluation path, now is a good time for education reformers to pause and ask
themselves whether 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.

Teachers ultimately should be held accountable for how well
they are able to drive achievement in their classrooms.

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.

But these critics are correct on a larger
point: no matter how well developed the tool, it needs to be reality checked.
Of course, the one thing critics—teacher unions foremost 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 Kahlenberg 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 dramatically improve student
performance, we simply must create a system where teachers are free to teach
and leaders are obligated 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.

Test score results, while imperfect, are
useful data points. 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 his/her 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 responsibility
for evaluating their own teachers. And we’re allowing them to escape
responsibility for the role they play in ensuring 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 foster
high classroom-level achievement; we need to stop trying to principal-proof our
schools.

A
version of this post originally
appeared
on the Common
Core Watch
blog.

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