Principals might pay the price for teacher evaluations

As the 2012-13 school year winds down, educators across the state are saying goodbye to students and an old and simple system of teacher evaluation. Thousands of teachers and principals will come back to school next fall with a stronger and more detailed method.

The goal will be to improve teaching and learning in every classroom in Washington. While this promises better instruction, it comes at the price of putting extra pressure on principals. In an effort to remove bad teachers, teacher evaluation reform might instead remove good principals.

The Legislature has replaced the old satisfactory-or-unsatisfactory evaluation with a multi-tier model accompanied by a long list of specific criteria that teachers must meet.

The new law allows each school district to choose among three state-approved evaluation models; unions are allowed to bargain with districts about the way student performance would be used.

In March, I conducted a qualitative study on the topic of the new teacher evaluations as part of my doctoral dissertation at Washington State University. A total of six school districts participated by providing a willing teacher and principal to talk to me about the new teacher evaluations.

One finding was that the change will ultimately improve teaching at the expense of principals.

In the continued tradition of top-down management, the principal will still be the primary evaluator of teachers. The new method is more complex and cumbersome. Principals are already overwhelmed by many responsibilities; they now will have to do more pre-conferences, observations and post-conferences with teachers, plus score teachers according to that long list of criteria.

Currently, the principals don’t have time to adequately do this. One of the teachers interviewed acknowledged this.

“The principals don’t have time,” he said. “Their bosses come over and watch, and ask where your principal was today. Well, he was supposed to be in Mr. Thompson’s third period and Mr. Collier’s fourth period but there was a fight in the commons, and some parents called to sue about playing time on the basketball team, and the cheerleaders don’t like their coach, and the (staff) toilet is plugged up, and some kids flushed Styrofoam popcorn down the toilet in the end bathroom, and the copier doesn’t work, and there is an all-day meeting at the district office about safety issues.”

A principal calculated the extra hours required per staff member under a principal’s supervision and came up with an extra six weeks of time to properly carry out the evaluations.

“Unrealistic,” another principal said.

Something will have to give. Instead of “building the airplane while it is in the air,” lawmakers will need to address the time and support needed to adequately implement teacher evaluation reform.

Along with the new evaluation models, educators are concerned that the state will continue to hand down new mandates that further complicate education. Principals and teachers are asking lawmakers and the general public to slow down educational reform. Let’s get it right. As for teacher evaluations, the message is clear: Common sense needs to come into play. Be realistic about a principal’s time.

Time will tell us whether the new teacher evaluations will improve education in Washington. Let’s hope that in an effort to more thoroughly evaluate our teachers, we don’t overwhelm our principals.

Matthew Coulter is a history teacher at Tumwater High School. In May he graduated with a doctorate in education from Washington State University.