Pressuring Teachers to Leave
Honest talk about how principals use harassing supervision
After 23 years in room 101, across from the main office, Mrs. Albany returns to start a new school year to find that she has been assigned to room 411, four flights up in a building with an elevator that rarely works. Climbing stairs is difficult for Mrs. Albany, and her schedule requires that she walk up the stairs several times throughout the day.
Mr. Mitchell, who has been teaching 8th grade for 14 years, is informed that he has been assigned to teach 1st grade.
Mr. Dale, the school’s principal, sits in the back of Ms. Elliott’s room for an impromptu observation of her classroom. He comes several times a week for such informal observations.
Mr. Astor is sitting through his third mandated professional development session in a month. His principal told him he must attend and put a substitute in his class so that he could do it during school hours.
These teachers have something in common: Their principals are using harassing supervision to encourage them to leave. Rather than relying on the district’s formal dismissal procedure, the principals used alternative methods to pressure teachers they perceived to be low quality. And it worked. By the end of two years, each of these four teachers had left.
Harassing supervision is a result of a complex web of factors that includes: 1) a teacher evaluation system that doesn’t systematically identify low-performing teachers and a teacher removal process that isn’t readily understood by principals, 2) principal training programs that generally don’t build principal expertise in teacher hiring and professional development, and 3) high rates of principal turnover.
What is striking about harassing supervision is how openly principals talk about it. In a study of Chicago principals conducted in 2008-09, 37 of the 40 principals who were interviewed described engaging in harassing supervision, though no question in the interview protocol focused directly on it. Principals most often talked about these practices in discussions of the most significant roadblocks to school improvement. The management of teachers — recruitment, hiring, evaluation, professional development, and removal — was often the focus of the roadblocks conversation. In this vein, principals described their approaches to pressuring teachers to leave.
Similarly, in a study of the pilot of a new teacher evaluation system in Chicago, 39 principals were interviewed in 2008-09 (with no overlap in the principals from the study described above) (Sartain, Stoelinga, and Brown 2009). In these interviews, more than 75% of principals referenced practices that could be construed as harassing supervision. Principals generally talked about using these practices when they discussed how the new evaluation system compared to the previous approach used in Chicago Public Schools. For example, in the words of one principal, “The [new teacher evaluation system] makes evaluation focused on instruction in a real way, making it possible to identify low performance. That gives me hope that I will no longer have to use the pressures, like repeated observations of teachers, to get them to leave.”
Given the prevalence of these practices, examining them is important. Why do principals engage in these behaviors? Are they successful?
Considering Harassing Supervision
Harassing supervision practices are characterized by the goal of making teachers uncomfortable in the hope that they will leave voluntarily. Principals use a variety of harassing supervision approaches, from those that might be construed as trying to develop a teacher, such as assignment to professional development or principal observation of practice, to those that would more universally be described as harassment, such as assignment of an overweight teacher to a room that is physically difficult for her to reach.
How do principals think about such practices? Most principals perceived harassing supervision as the only viable way to remove low-performing teachers in a system where it was difficult to formally dismiss a tenured teacher. Principals explained and justified harassing supervision in three interrelated ways. First, principals stated that taking care of the students, and in some cases protecting them from harm, was a priority that outweighed the rights or feelings of adults:
I hate being this guy, this terrible person who is putting this teacher in 1st grade when he is an 8th-grade teacher. On the other hand, I hate what he is doing to kids more. To protect students and give them what they need, I have to move poor teachers like him out regardless of the personal toll on him or on me.
Second, principals believed school improvement depends primarily on removing low-performing teachers:
You have to have the right people on board to improve a school. A bad teacher can have a lot of negative influence. What is that saying? One bad apple spoils the bunch? That is true in schools. And “bad teacher” has different definitions. They can be poor at management. Or scream at the kids. Or just be really negative in meetings. Or fight with their colleagues. I don’t hesitate to use, shall we say, “creative techniques” to encourage teachers that have any or all of the above to go teach someplace else.
Finally, principals pointed to accountability systems that required their schools to improve. They rationalized using harassing supervision as necessary to protect their own jobs and their schools from being closed:
If there weren’t such high stakes, I don’t know if I would [use harassing supervision practices]. But, see, our school could easily be closed if we don’t get it together.We have low enrollment. We have low achievement over a period of time. I use whatever means necessary to get those scores up. The problem teachers need to go, or pretty soon we will all be gone.
While most principals voluntarily admitted to using harassing supervision, many also had mixed or negative feelings about it. They felt that they had no other option. How could this be?
Teacher Evaluation and Removal
A growing body of research demonstrates that teacher evaluation systems are ineffective. They fail to provide teachers with the necessary information to make timely and effective improvements in their instructional practice. Often, they rely on a single observation by a principal, who is minimally trained as an evaluator. At the same time, many evaluation tools are seen as subjective, and most tools don’t differentiate among teachers (Haefele 1993; McLaughlin 1990; Searfross and Enz 1996; Sclan 1994).
The federal government has contributed to pressures to improve teacher evaluation. For example, in order to qualify for federal Race to the Top funds, states must be able to report the percentage of teachers rated at levels of performance in each district.
Perhaps most important for the topic at hand, evaluation systems fail to identify or facilitate the removal of low-performing teachers. A recent report on Chicago Public Schools revealed that 93% of teachers were rated as Excellent or Superior on the traditional evaluation system. Teachers were rarely identified as Unsatisfactory (0.3%) or even Satisfactory (7%). The same report reviewed the policies for reducing a teacher’s rating from one evaluation to the next, for example, from a Superior at one point to an Excellent at the next. The report’s authors concluded that: “These complex procedures for merely lowering the scores of teachers. . . make it extremely difficult for principals to accurately rate teachers.” While scholars have argued that collective bargaining agreements aren’t as restrictive as principals think (Hess 2009), principals hesitate to initiate formal termination proceedings, saying documentation is too time-consuming and the risk of a grievance is too great (TNTP 2007).
As a result, teachers are rarely formally removed. Studies of school systems as diverse as Delaware, Chicago, Atlanta, and San Francisco reveal shockingly low teacher removal rates — often less than 1% of teachers in any given year (Darling-Hammond 1996; Eisner 1992; Van Sciver 1990; Wise et al. 1984; TNTP 2007).
The lack of an effective, rigorous, and fair teacher evaluation system fuels the need and incentive for principals to use harassing supervision. Very few teachers are identified as low-performing. Principals perceive that lowering a teacher’s performance rating from one evaluation to the next requires a great deal of justification and documentation. As a result, principals turn to other avenues to pressure teachers to leave. “I have three teachers I am pushing out right now,” one principal explained. “All three were rated Excellent in the last evaluation cycle, so now I have to get creative.”
Teacher Hiring and Development
Principals perceive recruiting and hiring the right teachers as a critical and difficult task. The majority of principals surveyed by the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) in 2007 identified recruiting and hiring the right teachers as somewhat of a barrier or a serious barrier to school improvement New principals, high school principals, and principals in bottom-quartile schools are even more likely to describe hiring as a barrier. Principals report they lack expertise in disciplines in which they are hiring and in how to design an appropriate interview process. They also report that they are challenged by a shortage of candidates (Stoelinga, Hart, and Schalliol 2008).
Principals express similar frustration with the lack of time and expertise to train, develop, and support their teachers. On the 2007 CCSR survey, principals said they should be spending more time developing their teachers (Stoelinga, Hart, and Schalliol 2008). “I should focus more on professional development for my teachers,” one principal explained. “There should be some relationship between what I write on an evaluation of a teacher and the professional development we are providing here, and there just isn’t,” another principal confided.
Principals often said they didn’t receive sufficient training on teacher hiring and effective professional development in their principal licensure or master’s degree programs. “Hiring. That was just missing [in my licensure program]. So, I had this opportunity to hire a bunch of new teachers when I first started, and I just didn’t know what to look for or how to do that,” one principal stated. On designing effective professional development for teachers, principals discussed a “lack of meaningful information” and “no real ideas of what it means to design a professional development plan” going into their first principal role.
Ineffective teacher hiring practices and a lack of coherent, effective professional development for teachers contributes to principals’ need and justification for pressuring teachers to leave by using harassing supervision. On the one hand, principals are focused on removing teachers they deem ineffective who, given a more thorough hiring process, wouldn’t have been hired in the first place. On the other hand, principals may be pressuring teachers to leave who may actually have the potential to improve with appropriate training and supports.
Principal turnover is a significant barrier to school improvement. Recent research has linked principal turnover to teacher turnover and suggests that the stability of the principal in a school is a prerequisite to stability in school improvement efforts (UCEA 2008). A Chicago Public Schools report on principal turnover documented a negative effect of turnover on schools, stating that it “affected the ability of school leadership, faculty and staff to stay on steady track in terms of initiating, supporting, and sustaining their restructuring efforts” (Oberman 1996).
A 1992 CCSR report on Chicago principals showed that 56% of principals reported they had been hired at their school in the last four years (Bennett et al. 1992). The authors speculated that principal turnover was unusually high because of the passage of the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act. Since then, we have learned that while 56% was high, typically about half of CPS principals report being in their first four years during every survey administration through 2007. In addition, most of these principals who were new to their school were also new principals (Stoelinga, Hart, and Schalliol 2008).
Examining this trend from 1992 to 2007, it is evident that principal turnover is a systemic issue in Chicago that has persisted, regardless of particular initiative, policy, district leadership, or organization. This period in Chicago spans two major leadership changes, a district-level reorganization, two major pieces of school reformlegislation, and countless district reform initiatives. Given this history, it wouldn’t be surprising for principal turnover to continue. The similarity of the principal turnover reported in other urban districts also suggests that principal turnover exists in a variety of district contexts.
High rates of principal turnover contribute to the prevalence of harassing supervision techniques. Given the constant churn, principals are more likely to inherit staff who were hired and evaluated by other principals. In this respect, principal turnover is related to the factors explored in the previous two sections. One interviewed principal noted it took almost 20 years before she had hired everyone in her building: “Just last year, I finally got to the point where everyone in the building is someone I hired! It takes a long, long time.” Similarly, in a high-turnover system, principals come into a school where many teachers already have an evaluation on record, making lowering ratings difficult. “My first year as principal, I thought only three of my teachers [out of 25] deserved an Excellent or Superior rating. But all of them except for one had at least an Excellent. I was trapped at that point.”
A Rational Response
Harassing supervision is hardly new. Whether described as “performance pressures,” “induced exits,” or “weeding out,” such practices have been evident for some time (Bridges 1986; McDaniel and McDaniel 1980; O’Reilly and Wettz 1980). As a researcher who has spent 15 years in schools talking with teachers and principals, I’ve been aware of harassing supervision for years. The prevalence of such practices is clear, and discussion of these techniques arises in conversations about a great many issues in education.
Harassing supervision is an imperfect response of principals to a set of imperfect circumstances. When teacher evaluation systems don’t successfully identify low-performing teachers and teacher unions fight to maintain those systems, when principals aren’t trained in hiring practices or in how to develop and implement successful professional development and supports for their teachers, in school systems where the principal position turns over repeatedly, in such circumstances, harassing supervision emerges as a rational response to an irrational system. The practice itself is evidence of larger dysfunction that must be addressed to improve our system of schooling. “We need to find some sanity, and I do mean sanity,” one principal noted. “When you have a system where you are doing crazy things like messing with teacher room assignments and praying someone will leave, that is the mark of an insane system.”
That being said, the use of harassing supervision to pressure teachers to leave is problematic in several respects. It doesn’t successfully move low-performing teachers out of the system but, rather, just moves them to the school down the street, “the dance of the lemons.” It allows a principal to push out teachers who, with the right professional development and supports, might be effective teachers. It also raises questions about the extent to which school improvement can take root when such practices undermine the trust, cooperative relationships, and strong leadership required to improve schools.
And it is still harassment. While perceived by principals as justified to protect students, improve schools, or save schools from accountability sanctions, such practices invoked feelings of sadness, frustration, and shame in most principals. “I never feel good about it, not at all. It is so underhanded, so disrespectful,” one principal explained. Harassing supervision makes it clear that reforming schools is as much about changing the nature of schools as workplaces for adults as it is about improving schools as institutions of learning for children. And perhaps the two are not unrelated.
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- Stoelinga, Sara R., with Holly Hart and David Schalliol. The Work of Chicago Public Schools’ Principals: Leading in a Complex Context with High Stakes. Chicago, Ill.: Consortium on Chicago School Research, 2008.
- The New Teacher Project (TNTP). Hiring, Assignment, and Transfer in Chicago Public Schools. New York: The New Teacher Project, 2007.
- University Council Education Administration (UCEA). The Revolving Door of the Principalship. Austin, Texas: University Council Education Administration, 2008.
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