Even as I’ve argued for more stringent teacher evaluations, I’ve grown increasingly alarmed by the highly rigid, paperwork-laden systems that some state legislatures and state education offices seem eager to impose.
Today’s New York Times includes a very persuasive op-ed by Harlem charter school principal Deborah Kenny, who argues that formal teacher rating systems will “ruin teaching.” She cites an example of a teacher she fired – a teacher whose students earned high scores on state exams, but who derided kids and discouraged fellow teachers. Evaluation systems based on mathematical formulas would have tied her hands.
Ms. Kenny makes a strong case for making principals accountable – and then giving them real power.
Principals need to create a culture of trust, teamwork and candid feedback that is essential to running an excellent school. Leadership is about hiring great people and empowering them, and requires a delicate balance of evaluation and encouragement. At Harlem Village Academies we give teachers an enormous amount of freedom and respect. As one of our seventh-grade reading teachers told me: “It’s exhilarating to be trusted. It makes me feel like I can be the kind of teacher I had always dreamed about becoming: funny, interesting, effective and energetic.
All this makes a lot of sense to me, but as this principal goes on to note, principals only have this kind of opportunity when they also have the kind of power that our current tenure system can’t provide.
For more than a decade I’ve been a strong proponent of teacher accountability. I’ve advocated for ending tenure and other rules that get in the way of holding educators responsible for the achievement of their students. Indeed, the teachers in my schools — Harlem Village Academies — all work with employment-at-will contracts because we believe accountability is an underlying prerequisite to running an effective school. The problem is that, unlike charters, most schools are prohibited by law from holding teachers accountable at all.
Utah has taken steps toward making principals more accountable for school performance (indeed, the legislature made a deliberate decision to focus incentives on principals rather than teachers.) Do principals also have the power to make changes? Will they seize this power? I’d be curious to hear any reports from the front.