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Under education reform, school principals swamped by teacher evaluations

School principals, including some who back more rigorous review of teachers, are balking at education reforms required by Race to the Top. New teacher evaluations are all-consuming, they say.  

By Staff writer / January 26, 2012

A fourth-grader at Alton Elementary in Memphis, Tenn., gives a thumbs up. Tennessee is implementing a new teacher evaluation system this year.

Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal/AP

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Sharon McNary believes in having tough teacher evaluations.

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But these days, the Memphis principal finds herself rushing to cram in what amounts to 20 times the number of observations previously required for veteran teachers – including those she knows are excellent – sometimes to the detriment of her other duties.

“I don’t think there’s a principal that would say they don’t agree we don’t need a more rigorous evaluation system,” says Ms. McNary, who is president of the Tennessee Principals Association as well as principal at Richland Elementary. “But now it seems that we’ve gone to [the opposite] extreme.”

In New York, which is also beginning to implement a new teacher evaluation system this year, many principals are even less constrained in their opinion.

“There is no evidence that any of this works,” says Carol Burris, a Long Island principal who co-authored an open letter of concern with more than 1,200 other principals in the state. “Our worry is that over time these practices are going to hurt kids and destroy the positive culture of our schools.”

The direction of education reform – and the requirements of the federal government’s Race to the Top competition in particular – means numerous states are now planning to use tough new evaluation systems based at least in part on student growth, tracked by value-added test scores.

But as the first states begin implementing these systems on a broad scale, some are encountering pushback not just from teachers – which is somewhat expected – but from principals and other administrators.

In some cases they question the practicality of the new system, and in others the entire premise on which it’s built. And even a few supporters of rigorous – and high-stakes – teacher evaluations wonder whether rushing them in might backfire.

“It’s something of a Hobson’s choice between rolling out something quickly that’s almost surely going to be flawed in major ways or going about it gradually, and maybe never getting a full implementation,” says Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center of Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. “I think there’s a very strong tension between the timetable that works politically … and the practical realities of large-scale reform.”

Tennessee and Florida, both of which are receiving federal funds through Race to the Top, are fully implementing their new evaluation systems this year, and Delaware and North Carolina have most of their models in place. Race to the Top, which awarded $4 billion to 11 states and the District of Columbia in 2010, required the reforms, though it allowed states to choose what sort of system it would use and to determine the timetable.

At the Department of Education, Brad Jupp, a senior adviser on teacher initiatives, says some sort of backlash to changes of this magnitude are inevitable – as are glitches along the way.

“It’s safe to say that when you change people’s work routines in serious ways, they stress,” says Mr. Jupp.

“You’re never going to plan something to perfection,” Jupp says. “Spending time trying to plan things elaborately and building internal support is nowhere near as important as getting things running.”

In Tennessee, the biggest complaint from many principals is simply the amount of time required from them for the new observation system. Veteran teachers, who in the past only needed to be evaluated every five years, now get four observations a year. Untenured teachers need six.

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