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Voices: Reform and walk-on-water principals

Kristin Klopfenstein, executive director of UNC’s Education Innovation Institute, raises questions about the burden the state’s educator evaluation law will place on already busy principals.

Experts agree that behind any successful school there is generally an effective principal. The same can be said about Colorado’s new teacher evaluations. The new system will fall flat without insightful, skilled, highly-trained principals to ensure that evaluations are fair and teachers get the honest, constructive feedback they need to improve and grow.

For this, the state is declaring that principals must be instructional leaders who set clear goals for their schools, foster collaboration among their teachers, set high expectations for their students, encourage parents to participate and seek support from their communities – while also tending to the multitude of routine duties and brush fires that crop up each day. Considering the seriously demanding new evaluative tasks they’re about to take on, it’s tempting to add “walk on water” to the job description.

OK, I’m kidding. Sort of. I recently got to watch a well-designed Colorado Department of Education training session for principals and their designees to learn the ropes of conducting classroom observations for the new evaluation system. It was clear that some participants were concerned about the heavy time demands and one quipped about expectations to walk on water. A session leader agreed that “We all know principals who walk on water” and moved the conversation along.

I was sorry that discussion thread got buried. Not because I disagree with the comment; we all do know walk-on-water educators, and they’re great. But what we don’t know is what tradeoffs this level of effort requires in terms of long-term professional stamina and sacrifices from personal lives. I wrote a post last year arguing that we can’t build national reforms around expectations that all teachers be so spectacularly committed that they never sit down. Such selfless dedication isn’t scalable on a national level. But expecting teachers to be solidly competent is, and it’s realistic about the range of talents the country’s 3 million teachers bring to the profession.

The same is true of principals. Stretching them too thin would threaten a resource crucial to school improvement. Excellent principals don’t just happen. They are carefully selected, cultivated and nurtured by districts, ideally over several years. The best principals manage their jobs by setting priorities and knowing when to delegate, behaviors that assume superiors have confidence in their judgment.

One theme in news stories about states already using new evaluation systems much like Colorado’s is that principals are taking the rare step of speaking out about frustrations including that the evaluations are laden with regulations that principals feel reduce them to process-driven grinds. Colorado should heed such red flags. It’s no exaggeration to say that the new system’s success will rest on the ability of principals to evaluate their teachers honestly, even if that means hurting feelings or creating more work for the school by identifying problems that must be addressed. Principals must be able to communicate their findings candidly and constructively, if teachers are to trust them and feel supported.

The new evaluation system involves two big changes for principals: more complex requirements for evaluating teachers and new, more extensive criteria on which principals themselves will be evaluated. Created by Senate Bill 10-191, the Educator Effectiveness Act, the evaluations are a cornerstone of Colorado’s multi-year reform agenda. Realization of 191’s ambitious goals requires deep changes in school cultures and full implementation will cause a sea change in the daily work and priorities of all educators.

For both principals and teachers, 50 percent of professional ratings will be based on student achievement growth, measured at least in part with test scores. The other half will be based largely on much more frequent and detailed observations of their work, mostly in classrooms for teachers and in the broader school community for principals. A wrinkle tucked inside those requirements is that one part of principals’ ratings will depend on how well they carry out the new rules for evaluating teachers, including the requirement that every teacher be evaluated every year, on all standards required by the state – five broad standards and 27 sub-standards in addition to multiple measures of student achievement growth.

Principals also must provide documentation to support each rating. Completing such lengthy evaluations – the current version of the form runs about 20 pages – cannot be a rush job, and I don’t question the value of thorough evaluations designed to improve instruction. However, if you do the math you see that principals and teachers will be devoting a lot of time each year to the evaluation process, and I believe we should weigh whether that’s the most productive use of their time.

A panel of six experts brought to Colorado in 2011 by CDE and the Legacy Foundation to offer advice on implementing 191 suggested that “perhaps Colorado was simultaneously expanding principal responsibilities both inside and outside the school while expecting them to play a larger role in teacher evaluations. The panelists agreed that the standards do represent what principals are currently responsible for, and thought that perhaps this could lead to powerful discussions within districts about the expectations districts hold of principals and how they can best be supported by the district,” according to a report on the group’s recommendations. One solution they suggested was to allow more experienced teachers to focus on specific professional goals instead of being evaluated annually on all standards and sub-standards and to consider prioritizing standards into “must-haves” vs. “nice-to-haves.” Such changes would help both teachers and principals.

The panel also noted that accurate evaluation requires several classroom visits and recommended that districts also train assistant principals and master teachers to help conduct the observations. Colorado’s plan does allow principals to share evaluation responsibilities, though at some point, responsibility for conducting “hard conversations” about areas needing improvement – a core piece of 191’s improvement agenda – must fall to the principal. She is the school’s instructional leader and is being evaluated herself as such. Put yourself in this role for a minute and think how hard it would be to provide candid feedback to teachers you work with every day and whom you possibly hired. As the experts panel noted: “As a matter of simple human psychology, it can be very difficult for evaluators to give objective ratings that require them to give difficult feedback to teachers, and it can also be very difficult for evaluators to let go of preconceived opinions about individual teachers.” Evaluators can learn to change these tendencies but it takes intensive, targeted training – another demand on the time of principals and the key lieutenants they designate to help with evaluations.

So what can Colorado do to avoid the kind of backlash from frustrated principals that other states have experienced? For starters, we need to be fully aware of the varied combination of skills required to run a school today. Along with the fundamentals of instruction, school leaders must also be experts in state and federal law, communication, assessment, grant management, data analysis, educating adults, organizational management, marketing, public relations, fund raising, and … you get the point.

Principals are constantly pulled in 100 different directions, running from fire to fire within their buildings while responding simultaneously to demands from the district office and from parents with a growing array of alternative schooling options. Now add to this already demanding environment the requirement that principals complete detailed evaluations on every teacher, every year, on every quality standard as 191 demands. Do we really want to move into this high-stakes reform expecting a key set of players to walk on water?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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