You can’t principal-proof a school: Why top down evaluation systems are doomed to fail

As everyone in the
education world already knows, the New York Times won a lawsuit that forced the New York City
Department of Education to publish the teacher-level value-added data it has
been collecting as part of its accountability system. The result? The public
unveiling of the work product of an expensive system that is confusing,
unreliable—and apparently—error-riddled.

Before we go further down
this path, now is probably as good a time as any for education reformers to
pause and ask themselves if 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.

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

No matter how
well developed a tool is, it needs to be reality checked.

But these critics are correct on a larger point: no matter how
well developed a tool is, it needs to be reality checked. Of course, the one
thing critics—teacher unions chief 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 Khalenberg 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 drive
student achievement, we simply must create a system where teachers are free to
teach and leaders are expected 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. For
principals, that means holding them accountable for school-level student
achievement, and giving them the power to make evaluation and related staffing

It’s up to the principals to use those results—or
not—to make school-level staffing decisions.

Test score results, while
imperfect, are useful data points that help paint a comprehensive picture of
teacher effectiveness. 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 their 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 their
responsibility for evaluating their own teachers. And we’re allowing them to
escape responsibility for the role they play in driving 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 drive classroom-level achievement; we need to stop
trying to principal-proof our schools.

Kathleen Porter-Magee
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute