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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  • bradclark


    How do we make this happen?


    • Kip

      How rock star would it be to learn so much from one another? Why has it taken so long for us to embrace this idea?

  • JustinMinkel


    Barnett, you’re dead-on right.  I think of this in terms of simple math.  In my school, if only the principal is giving feedback/coaching, she has a 1:25 ratio, with too little of her time to go around.  If teachers are involved in that process, the ratio is suddenly 1:1.

    Add to this the fact that even with a wonderful principal, you gain more expertise and insights by involving teachers, and the reality that teachers are often more receptive to feedback from someone they view as an equal rather than a boss, and it makes even more sense.

    I’d love to see more hybrid roles for formal evaluation and coaching to be done by teachers, and I also think there’s tremendous potential to involve teachers in the kind of “open ecosystem” of observation/reflection/peer coaching that they seem to have in Singapore and plenty of other high-performing countries.

  • JulieHiltz

    Evaluation versus Feedback

    Where I teach in Hillsborough we have an evaluation system that is 35% principal, 25% teacher peer and 40% student data. After participating in the process for two years I can attest to the benefits of having a peer evaluate my work. As a media specialist, my peer has insight that my principal does not with regards to my library program. 

    The problem here is that my feedback is confined to the evaluation. My principal and peer are limited in the form and scope of feedback they can give me because they are concerned about biasing the evaluation process. My peer, in fact, cannot give me specific ideas because the district is concerned that I may believe this is a laundry list for how to guarantee a good evaluation. I know some of my colleagues are afraid to ask my principal for feedback because they are worried it’s a sign of weakness that will show on their evaluation later. 

    I have great working relationship with several of my peers at other schools and receive phenomenal advice from them all the time. I can see the benefit of allowing Teacherpreneurs to be more involved in the classroom and help improve the practice of those around them. This year as a Teacherpreneur I’ve taken advantage of opportunities to provide feedback to others. I hope this process can be expanded.