Principals overburdened for no good reason

Let’s start with a statistic: 75% of principals in the U.S. feel their jobs have become too complex.

Brent Staples wrote about principals’ “near impossible” work lives in a recent New York Times commentary piece on the rollout of Chicago’s teacher evaluation system. He reflects on a new analysis that reveals Chicago principals lack the training and time needed to be effective evaluators.

But that’s not all—Staples notes that principals “desperately need better training in how to help teachers improve,” a deficit that defeats the purpose of the evaluation system.

Not a new problem or an isolated incident

The Chicago study’s findings are keeping with a recent GAO report that indicates many of the RTTT evaluation systems struggle with the same issues—even those that have offered more extensive training to principals. Researchers have long indicated that correlations between principals’ ratings of teachers and students’ achievement gains are “relatively weak” (between .10 and .23).

As Linda Darling-Hammond writes in this month’s issue of Educational Leadership, “One of the historical failings of teacher evaluation systems in the United States has been the reliance on the school principal alone as the person expected to observe teachers, mentor beginners, coach those who need help, document concerns and support processes for those who struggle, and make the final call on whether to recommend dismissal based on the assembled record.”

Evaluation systems overtax principals and lessen the likelihood that teachers will trust those who are supposed to support them.

But what’s the alternative?

It is right in front of us, so obvious that we might as well be blind: We should tap the expertise of accomplished teachers.

Who better to evaluate teaching (and mentor teachers to improve their practice) than expert practitioners who know pedagogy and content? Who better to earn teachers’ trust?

Darling-Hammond points to a wealth of evidence of the positive impact of peer assistance and review (PAR) programs, led by teachers. Such programs are more likely to improve the retention of novice teachers while improving the performance of (or removing) ineffective veterans.

Teacher-led schools like the Math and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA) in Denver reveal the power of peer review. As CTQ teacher-in-residence and MSLA co-founder Lori Nazareno notes in Educational Leadership, peer review offers opportunities for teachers to hold one another accountable for improving their practice.  Mutual accountability happens every day at MSLA.

Contrast this with the evaluation systems at play in many states (and districts like Chicago)—which do not promote mutual accountability among teachers but instead emphasize the principal-teacher dichotomy.

America need not burden principals with work they don’t have the time or training to do well.

Growing numbers of teachers (nearly one in four) say that they would be extremely or very interested in hybrid roles that combined teaching and leading.

Top-down evaluation systems seem to be headed nowhere fast. If RTTT policy shifted to leverage teacher leadership, researchers and journalists would have a different story to tell: one that chronicles our nation’s wise investments in those who teach and, most importantly, those who learn.

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