The pitched battles that once waged over more-rigorous teacher evaluations have long since quieted, but there’s a lasting legacy of those systems: They have fundamentally changed the principal’s job.
They have increased principals’ attention to instruction and what’s happening in classrooms. But at the same time, they have created monumental time-management challenges for principals that could lead to turnover and burnout.
That’s according to a new paper published online last month in the Elementary School Journal, in which researchers from North Carolina State University, the University of Michigan, and Vanderbilt University examined how multiple-measure teacher evaluations adopted as a result of the Obama administration’s Race To The Top competitive grant program—and still largely in place in many states—have redefined the principal’s role.
Based on interviews with principals in six urban districts that began using new teacher-evaluation systems, the researchers found that principals were spending more time in classrooms and had better direction on what evidence to look for when they were there.
Evidence of good teaching was standardized across those districts, and the principals said they were getting more concrete and “objective” data from the new systems that they could use to have meaningful conversations with teachers about their performance, what they needed to do to improve, and even to make decisions about retaining or firing teachers, according to the paper.
But the systems were also time-consuming, the researchers wrote.
While evaluation systems varied across states, some required principals to have pre-conference meetings with teachers, conduct multiple observations annually, script entire lessons they observed, compare what they heard and saw with an evidence-based rubric, enter data into a district database, and again meet with teachers to review the observations. Other factors included student surveys and student test scores.
Principals told researchers that some of the coding required in each evaluation was so intense that they were spending hours after work and on weekends doing so. One principal estimated she was spending three hours to complete a single teacher’s evaluation, according to the paper. Some said they felt they were less visible in their buildings as a result of the time required to complete the evaluations. And others feared the new systems were affecting their relationships with teachers who may be hesitant to approach them with a problem out of concern that doing so could count against them in the evaluation process.
Still, many principals interviewed by the researchers found the observation-based evaluation systems to be positive, said Jason Grissom, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, and one of the paper’s authors.
“They had better information than they had before, they knew their schools better, at least in the sense of knowing more about the instructional capacity of people in their building and being able to articulate specific strengths or areas of challenges for individual teachers and give feedback on that basis, and also connect them to supports,” Grissom said.
But even for the majority of principals who said the more-intensive evaluations were good for their schools, managing the time the evaluations take to complete is a major challenge. Overnight, Grissom said, job expectations changed for principals, without additional support.
“The expectations for doing all of this new work happened very quickly, and districts didn’t necessarily think what can we do to help make space for principals? What can we take off their plate?” he said. “I think that was a big frustration for a lot of principals.”
The time constraints on principals is not exactly a new concern. In a 2013 survey, the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals found that completing a single, “substantive” teacher evaluation can take 11-15 hours of a principal’s time over a school year.
The associations have called for additional and better training for principals and more time for them to have coaching sessions with teachers. They say states and districts should trust principals’ professional judgment and reduce the number of observations for teachers who demonstrate effectiveness.
Research “reminds us that schools get the best return when principals allocate their time to priorities where we know their attention has the greatest impact,” JoAnn Bartoletti, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said in a statement. “That isn’t lining the football field or shuffling compliance paperwork. The priority is helping teachers become better.”
Downsides of Evaluation
Lisa Hilberg, the principal of Wilson Elementary School in Alpena, Mich., has mixed feelings about the teacher evaluations she must do.
She wants to be trusted to use the rubric—a kind of score card of skills and attributes that teachers must demonstrate—to have conversations with teachers as needed and not be required to document everything during observation sessions.
“It gives us an excellent focus for the conversation,” she said about the rubric. “I think it’s effective that way. The downside is all of the paperwork that goes with it.”
The documentation is time-consuming and requires her to write down what she already knows, she said. And it’s forced her to use time during the school day differently.
As a principal in a rural, high-poverty district, she prioritizes face-to-face time with parents and students. As a result, she is up as late as 11 p.m. at least three nights a week answering emails and finishing paperwork related to evaluations, she said.
“There are just so many needs with the kids in the daytime that the paperwork has to get done at night,” she said.
Grissom and colleagues set out in 2012-13 to look at how principals were using the massive amounts of data they were getting from these new teacher-evaluation systems in six districts.
In the course of interviewing principals, “it became evident pretty quickly that implementing the systems was causing a fundamental shift in how they were doing the work,” he said. The researchers did not gather feedback from teachers or students, something they said would be helpful in future studies.
The findings ring true for Eric Cardwell, the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, who is on a year’s leave from his job as principal of Besser Elementary School in Alpena, Mich.
Cardwell, a veteran school leader, said the evaluation system in place before the district adopted the Charlotte Danielson teaching-evaluation tool about six years ago, was too lax.
“There was very little meaningful feedback that was provided to teachers,” he said. “It was more just completing a form.”
The new framework provides in-depth information and valuable feedback for both principal and teachers, and he appreciates the uninterrupted discussions with teachers during the self-evaluation portion.
“The bulk of the teachers I have worked with are their own worst critics, and they all want to improve,” he said. “The rubric allows that to occur.”
Time Is a ‘Boogeyman’
But the amount of time he spent on the evaluations was a strain. He estimates that he spent 270 hours on evaluation in the 2016-17 school year, reviewing everyone but the custodian in his building. And he said he was putting in six and seven hours on Sundays, in addition to working extended weekdays to complete evaluations, especially to input data.
“Time has always been any educator’s boogeyman—it’s always chasing them,” Cardwell said. “Although there have been some real positives that have come from the teacher evaluation [reforms], that boogeyman has gotten much larger.”
He worries about burnout, and suggests that states and districts allow principals to rotate evaluations for teachers who are rated effective or highly effective. That would free up principals to work with struggling or brand new teachers. Better technology platforms for data entry would also cut down on time, he said. Some districts have also added a staff person to conduct the evaluation, he said.
For John George, the principal at Dexter McCarty Middle School in the Gresham-Barlow district near Portland, Ore., evaluations have been a sea change. But because the process was so cumbersome and took such a long time, principals were not using the data as intended: to have substantive conversations with teachers about instruction and collaborate on improvement.
“The value that we hoped for as a whole wasn’t there for everybody,” he said. He likes the direction his district is moving now with a pilot program to allow teacher-led walkthroughs be part of the evaluation process.
“I like the structure of teachers going into other teachers’ classrooms to see practice because it’s a less threatening than having an administrator come in and watch you,” he said.
George also supports the idea of districts hiring teams to run a building or having one staffer dedicated to conducting evaluations. And one way he’s tried to keep good relationships with teachers is to invite them to give feedback on his job performance.
“It’s creating different channels for that communication to happen,” he said. “It’s like ‘if you got to say something, come and tell me because I can’t learn and I can’t improve unless I get feedback, too.’ ”
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A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as Teacher Evaluations Stretch Principals’ Expertise, Time