Thursday, May 30, 2013

Shifting the Responsibility for Creating Good Schools Back to the Principals Who Run Them

A disclaimer:  The following is purely an opinion piece and I welcome any insight into what is written here that may serve to shed light on the process of teacher evaluation...

There is a great deal of ongoing discussion about what is wrong with our schools, how to fix them, how to gauge student performance, and whether to utilize student performance data when evaluating individual teachers.

I contend that we need to start looking at our schools like a corporation and applying the same expectations to them, specifically in terms of management.  A principal typically earns, in our county, $80,000 a year, sometimes tens of thousands more.  They oversee a staff of some 50 people.  Like corporate executives, they must deal with all number of issues all of which involve running a successful division within the budgetary constraints of the company, including dealing with upper management and everyday staffing.  An individual school is the same as a division in a corporation; the principal the same as a vice president.  And like a corporate division in which the vice president is ultimately accountable for his or her division, a school principal is accountable for his or her teachers.

In a nutshell, I would say that the furor over teacher accountability needs to change to a furor over principal accountability, and that, among the things a principal should be held accountable for, the quality and effectiveness of their staff should be number one.

Touching back on teacher performance, I've had many discussions with both teacher and parents on the subject, and I've come to my own conclusion that the practice of tying test scores to teacher performance is patently unfair.  The teaching profession is unique in that you can't utilize the success or failure of the student population as a gauge of teacher competence because it's such a moving target.  That is, in a class of 24 or 30 students, every one of those students has their own unique situation going on at home that plays a bigger role in their success at school than what the teacher is doing during instructional time.  But we have, as a nation, been unable to come up with any other methodology for gauging teacher performance, and we need to.

Despite all of the obstacles that a teacher faces in their profession - low pay, long hours, and twenty different bosses so to speak - the fact remains they chose teaching as a profession despite those obstacles.  It is not much for them to expect to deserve to be evaluated in some meaningful and fair way as to their competency level.

The fact is, there are many good teachers out there, but there are just as many bad ones.  I have encountered innovative, creative teachers who have utilized all sorts of cool activities and project that have engaged their students while still teaching all of the curriculum required by the Board of Education.  And I have encountered mediocre teachers who flat out don't know how to challenge students at individual levels, and who see no need to move a centimeter outside of the required curriculum to stoke any fire whatsoever that might be inside these kids.  I have heard stories of teachers who not only teach poorly, but who teach inaccurate information as well.  By evaluating teachers differently, we can weed out the poor teachers, and encourage an influx into the profession of excellent ones.

So, going back to the school as corporate division idea ... like a corporate executive, part of a principal's job is hiring qualified staff and managing that staff properly.  It is a principal's responsibility to find a good teacher, one who is uniquely qualified for the position, who can prove in an interview that they bring something excellent to the table, and who can provide examples of ways they stand apart from the other applicants in what they plan to bring to the classroom and the students.

It's my opinion that this isn't currently happening.  Too often in schools, hiring is an afterthought, done under the gun when time is short and a position needs to be filled with a warm body.  I have personally dealt with teachers who have been hired last minute in this manner, and who have been mediocre at best.  This is simply unacceptable - how can we expect excellence from our students when we are putting such little priority on the hiring process?

I realize the constraints that a principal must work with from a budgetary perspective - they have to prove the need for every teacher they hire.  There are classroom caps in place that dictate whether and when they can hire a teacher at all.  They may deal with a limited labor pool.  But that's their job.  That's part of what they get paid to do.  So they must do everything they can to make hiring a top priority.  They must do everything they can to put the best and most innovative professionals in place.  Doing so creates good schools filled with good teachers.  It creates competition.  It creates excellence.

And of course, hiring an excellent teacher does not mean the principal's job is done.  Like corporate employees, the teachers must be evaluated, not on student test scores, but on their own performance.  We must accept that the profession of teaching is unique to all others in that the end result of their performance is impossible to evaluate.  You simply cannot say that a teacher has done a good job or a poor job based on whether the majority of a class of 25 or 30 students have passed a test.  The quality of the teacher's day-to-day teaching is the only real thing on which we can evaluate them.

For teachers, this evaluation is traditionally done through classroom observation at random times of the school year.  This is effective only if it's tweaked to yield more meaningful results.   Principals need to treat evaluations not as an afterthought, but as a priority.  Observations need to take place more often, and outside of testing times.  They need to take place not at the very beginning or very end of the year, but throughout the year.  Teachers need to be evaluated not only on whether they're hitting all of the base curriculum objectives outlined by the Board, but on how they teach, how they engage their students, whether and how they're thinking outside the box in their teaching and what innovations they're using.

When a principal, like a corporate executive, makes hiring and meaningful observation and evaluation a priority, they can create and maintain a staff of excellent teachers.  This levels the playing field, creates necessary competition, encourages innovation, and creates a teaching environment in which teachers know they are the best of the best and valued for what they do.  It eliminates the misguided effort within the American education system to desperately attempt to gauge our student and teacher success through testing and its results.