Education Opinion

Lessons Learned From Evaluating Administrators

By Adam Urbanski — February 26, 1986 6 min read

It’s neither surprising nor totally inappropriate that fixing America’s teachers has surfaced as the principal focus of the debate on educational reform. After all, teachers are central to the educational process, and better teachers mean better education. It is true that we need to attract brighter candidates into teaching. It is true that a nationwide competency test is needed to screen out illiterates. It is true that incompetent and dysfunctional practitioners must be weeded out if they cannot be helped. Holding teachers to higher standards is a goal especially supported by teachers themselves.

However, not all problems in education can be fixed by fixing the teachers. We should also focus on other improvements that would help teachers function more effectively. For example, shouldn’t administrators be accountable to teachers? In addition to the bureaucratic accountability administrators have now, shouldn’t there also be professional accountability? After all, even the best teachers can be rendered less effective if they do not receive the support of their administrators. Administrative incompetence is perhaps the most sorely neglected component in the reform debate. We must therefore be willing to re-examine and improve the traditional relationship between teachers and administrators.

Last May, teachers in our Rochester, N.Y., district decided that an annual evaluation of their principals and other supervisors was an idea whose time had come. The purpose of such an evaluation was two-fold: to identify incipient problems caused by maladministration before they festered and caused greater damage to the instructional program; and to introduce the concept of mutual accountability among professional educators. After ill, we argued, teachers don’t work for administrators, they work with them; administrators’ jobs are not more important, just different. And so the 2,500 members of the Rochester Teachers Association were asked to evaluate their administrators on 21 factors, such as:

• Providing instructional leadership;

• Exercising authority in a fair and consistent manner;

• Encouraging faculty initiative and creativity;

• Genuinely supporting teachers in fostering pupil achievement;

• Welcoming constructive criticism and benefiting from it.

The idea was greeted enthusiastically by teachers, but not by administrators. ''We may all be equal in the eyes of the Lord,” said one administrator, ''but we are not equal in the workplace.” Others speculated that teachers would be unable to handle such an exercise responsibly and would merely use the survey as a tool of vindictiveness. Still other administrators threatened that if teachers dared to begin evaluating them, the administrators would push for student evaluations of teachers. Now, regardless of whether such evaluations by students are a good idea, that retort serves to illustrate the fact that some administrators perceive the relationship between themselves and teachers to be analogous to that between teachers and students. That’s precisely part of the problem. Teachers aren’t children; it’s just that they are treated as such by some administrators.

Fears and skepticism are not uncommon whenever we are confronted with something new or different. That’s particularly true in situations that upset the status quo or the traditional modus operandi. Such fears are usually allayed after the proposed activity completes its first cycle and the anticipated damage does not materialize. Only then can we expect attention to be focused on the positive aspects of the activity in question.

Such was our experience in initiating teacher surveys to evaluate administrators. Nearly 1,800 valid responses evaluating 172 principals and other supervisors revealed that administrators earned an overall grade of B-. The cumulative districtwide results were made public, but the individual results remained confidential and were made available, upon request, only to each administrator and the R.T.A. faculty representative in his or her school. The integrity of the exercise was further protected by validating only those survey returns that represented more than 70 percent of all potential responses.

What have we learned from this exercise? First, the good news: Administrators received their highest grades for “adhering to negotiated contracts” (only 5 percent were rated “poor”) and for “utilizing available financial resources to improve instruction” (7 percent were “poor”). An overwhelming 82 percent of all administrators were rated “very good” or “satisfactory” in the key category of “treating faculty/staff with dignity and as professionals.” The bad news is that the lowest grades were for some extremely important aspects of administrators’ roles: “welcoming constructive criticism,” “fostering high staff morale,” and “providing instructional leadership.”

Resenting criticism--even constructive criticism--is a common human frailty. But the ability to welcome constructive criticism and to benefit from it often distinguishes leaders from mere managers. It can render administrators more effective and, at the same time, help foster higher morale in the workplace.

The low grades for administrators as instructional leaders is not even news; it is merely confirmation of what we knew for quite some time. Long ago, “principal teachers” were instructional leaders. They were the best educated and most qualified pedagogues in our schools. But that is no longer true, and it’s time to end the myth. At best, principals are former teachers and not necessarily pedagogical superiors. They evaluate teachers about whose expertise they may know absolutely nothing. They readily admit that they have neither the time nor the resources to act as instructional leaders. Many couldn’t even if they had plenty of both.

If one were to design a system and a workday that would virtually guarantee isolation from one’s colleagues and be devoid of intrinsic professional rewards, one could hardly find a better model than that experienced by the typical teacher. It seems that the farther from the classroom one manages to escape, the more power one has to dictate to those left behind. That’s neither good for the practitioner nor for the student, because realism is often proportionate to one’s proximity to the problems.

Principals do play an important role and should continue to do so. They set the tone and oversee the logistics. Like hospital administrators, they should manage the schools and ensure the best possible environment for teaching and learning. But, as Albert Shanker points out, hospital administrators don’t tell surgeons to cut a little to the left or a little to the right. School principals should not make analogous pedagogical decisions for teachers. Instead, they should seek to foster the kind of milieu that would contribute to colleagueship. Their role would then be altered, but not diminished.

For instructional leadership, teachers should turn to their most accomplished and successful colleagues. Outstanding teachers, identified by fellow teachers and not by administrators, should supervise student teachers and “interns” entering the profession. These outstanding teachers, and not administrators, should intervene to help those teachers who experience difficulties or lack competency. Instructional councils--composed of teachers and not set up by management-- should provide instructional leadership in each school.

Our Rochester survey results reminded us that we are not getting such leadership from those who used to provide it. But within the ranks of classroom teachers there are enough true experts on instruction to fill the void. No one can help us like us. Empowering teachers with the authority to control their own profession may be the most important reform of all. Without this reform, it’ll be business as usual.

A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 1986 edition of Education Week