Teacher Evaluation: Don’t Bind Principals’ Hands

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.

One comment

  1. Carolyn Sharette

    Interesting this is today’s post, as just this morning we (our administrative team) had the opportunity to exercise leadership and let a teacher go. Having the ability to develop a dynamic and excellent staff is one of the best things about being a charter school, and I have told many people (when they ask what is the difference between a charter school and a traditional public school) that the major difference is that we can create a wonderful working atmosphere for our staff members, energizing them and “clearing the way” for them to be the amazing teachers they always dreamed of. Part of creating that environment includes having the ability to let people go when they detract from that atmosphere or in other ways fail to meet the standard.

    Evaluations are very tricky things. The goals of an evaluation, in my opinion, are to give the employee feedback that MOTIVATES them and ENCOURAGES them to improve the things that could be improved, AND to communicate the great things they are doing. If a teacher is not doing well, we wouldn’t wait for an evaluation to tell them. So the only purpose for a year end summative evaluation in our organization is to affirm our esteem for a teacher, ensure they know we appreciate their skills and talents (by noticing them and acknowledging them) and to give the teacher good, reliable information on where improvements can be made (we use student achievement data for this among other indicators).

    Unfortunately, last year a bill was passed that requires new evaluations for teachers and charter schools are required to participate. I echo the sentiments of Deborah Kenney. This will not help increase accountability, but will negatively impact our relationship with our teachers.

Leave a comment

DeseretNews.com encourages a civil dialogue among its readers. We welcome your thoughtful comments.