A plea for tough critiques

Successful legal attempts to remove incompetent teachers generally share one key ingredient: Negative evaluations of a teacher's performance written by a principal or other school administrator.

These evaluations serve as critical evidence, and are particularly compelling when specific complaints about the teacher's behavior have been made consistently over a period of time. Yet the vast majority of principals are highly reluctant to write tough critiques.

Mary Jo McGrath, a California attorney who has specialized in helping school boards remove teachers, estimates that fewer than 1 percent of all teachers ever get critical evaluations. That's at least in part because principals are given so little support, says H. Clif Randolph, superintendent of schools in Williamstown, Vt. Those who dare to write honest evaluations often find that individual teachers and sometimes the teachers union itself will turn against them, he says, and then the school board - reluctant to become involved - often simply turns its back.

And yet Ms. McGrath says that after 23 years of following such cases, she's convinced that revamping the evaluation process is the key to dealing with the whole problem of "bad" teachers - both removing the worst from classrooms and strengthening the performance of those who could be helped. Ultimately, she says, the issue of poor teaching should be dealt with not from a legislative or legal perspective but as a problem in human dynamics.

"It's a mistake to treat teachers and education as if it's a unique situation," she says. "People everywhere have a tough time taking and giving criticism." Would-be reformers, she says, sometimes forget that the basic issue still comes down to "how people get along and how they work with each other."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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