Education Opinion

The Missing Piece in Teacher Evaluation Laws: Empowering Principals

By Sara Mead — August 23, 2012 3 min read
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Yesterday, I wrote about Bellwether’s new report on teacher evaluation legislation recently passed in 21 states. One big takeaway from this analysis: States are a lot more willing to pass teacher evaluation laws than they are to empower principals (and districts) to manage their staffs effectively.

Consider: 21 states passed laws requiring teacher evaluations based in part on student achievement. From the media coverage, you’d think that linking teacher evaluation to student achievement is the really controversial thing here--but it’s the one thing all of these states have done.

States also took action to link these evaluations to key personnel decisions: 12 states’ laws link tenure to teacher effectiveness, 16 explicitly give districts the ability to dismiss teachers rated ineffective, and 14 include some provisions requiring or incenting performance-based compensation.

But if we’re serious about improving teacher quality and effectiveness, there’s got to be a third piece here. We have to give school districts--and in particular, principals--the ability to effectively manage their teaching staffs, by making decisions about hiring, assignment, and so forth. Right now, a host of provisions in state laws, district policies, and teacher contracts--such as seniority-based transfers, excessing, and “bumping” policies--limit principals’ ability to make decisions about who teaches in their schools or even the positions to which teachers are assigned. Taken together, these provisions also prevent districts from developing sound human capital strategies based on the interests of students, rather than adults.

By and large, recently passed state teacher evaluation laws don’t do much about these policies or contractual provisions. For example, only 6 of these laws give principals the authority to decide who teaches in their school, by forbidding placement without the principal’s consent. Only 13 states took action to end “last in, first out” teacher layoffs, which require districts to make reductions in force without heed to performance. While these layoff provisions have gotten a lot of attention, a bigger issue is “excessing"--what happens when teacher positions are eliminated at an individual school, due to population shifts, program change, or other factors. Typically, more senior teachers who are excessed have priority for other positions in the district--even if that means bumping a more junior teacher already in the position. These policies can undermine school stability, prevent principals from deciding who teaches in their schools, and ultimately drive oft-bumped junior teachers from the profession. Only one state, Colorado, takes action to change this, by creating a process for excessed teachers to find new positions through mutual consent hiring, and allowing for the eventual discharge from employment of those who fail to do so. A few states limit the scope of collective bargaining agreements to exclude these issues as subjects of collective bargaining--but that doesn’t necessarily mean districts will change long-standing policies around assignment and excessing.

This is a problem. New evaluation systems have been sold as a way to drive improvement in teacher performance--but evaluations can’t do everything that’s been promised. Driving real improvement in teaching and student learning requires a degree of human judgement and effective management that must be done by people acting in principal and district-level leadership roles--who currently are too often precluding from using this judgement to effectively manage staffing. Moreover, the theory of action behind new evaluation systems remains largely untested in public education, and their are many implementation and design principals. That’s not an argument against new evaluation systems--the status quo they replace was clearly deeply flawed. But, in contrast, it’s abundantly clear why assigning teachers to schools without a principal’s say or agreement undermines the principal’s ability to create a coherent culture in the school and drive improvements in teaching and learning. And it’s worth asking why many states are addressing the former while ignoring the latter.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.