March 8, 2012
Attention has focused squarely on teacher evaluations in recent months. But the state’s evaluation law applies to principals, too, meaning that major changes could be on the way for the way city principals are assessed.
In some ways, principals in New York City have been preparing for the state’s evaluation system for years. Since 2008, the city has rated principals according to a tiered system based “multiple measures” that include student test scores — exactly as the state’s evaluation law requires.
The city’s current teacher evaluation system is “an old, antiquated process that has to take leaps and bounds to move forward,” said David Weiner, a top Department of Education deputy, during a discussion for about 50 principals affiliated with Teachers College’s Cahn Fellows program in January. “Our principals process is in a much better place.”
But that doesn’t mean a new system for principal evaluations is likely to come easily. The law’s requirements mean the city and principals union will have to settle on some major adjustments — adjustments that some question whether the city has the capacity to make.
The biggest adjustment will have to be to the role of the superintendent, who must formally observe principals under the state’s new evaluations framework. The city will have to restore authority and support to the offices of the city’s 38 superintendents, which have seen both of those things disappear during the Bloomberg administration.
In recent years, city superintendents have given up their support staffs and handed many of their responsibilities to network leaders that the principals select. Now, their main tasks revolve around making teacher tenure decisions, conducting “Quality Reviews” of school’s internal organizational structures, attending public hearings about schools in their districts, and putting out fires when they arise.
The delegation of tasks from superintendents to network leaders was a key element of the Bloomberg administration’s emphasis on principal empowerment. Under the doctrine, which holds that principals are most able to identify and provide what their schools need if they are not micromanaged by supervisors who do not work there, the city released principals from some mandates in exchange for greater accountability for student performance.
Now, because of the state’s evaluation requirements, “there are several things that are coming down that are impinging on principals’ autonomy,” Weiner told the principals.
Superintendents’ influence in rating principals, their main statutory requirement, even grew constrained as the city’s principal evaluation system grew so formulaic that their input became barely necessary to generate a score. The evaluation rubric currently in place, known as the Principal Performance Review, assigns principals a rating based on their school’s score on the city progress report, the results of their school’s most recent “Quality Review,” how well they met the “goals and objectives” they set out, and their compliance with city policies. In all, 85 percent of the PPR is based on academic performance, according to the city’s guidelines.
“There’s a lack of clarity about the role of what the superintendent is,” Judi Aronson, a former superintendent, told GothamSchools in 2009. “Although theoretically they evaluate principals and sign off on many documents relating to evaluation, evaluation is only by the metrics of the progress report, PPR, and quality review.”
Under the new system, a full 60 percent of principals’ evaluations must be based on “subjective” measures, those other than students’ academic performance, the same as is required in teachers’ evaluations. At least 31 percent must come from superintendents’ annual observations of principals.
“As you know, we don’t have that,” Peter McNally, a principals union vice president, told the principals at the January panel. “That’s a major hurdle.”
What the city does have is the Quality Review process, in which external assessors rate how well a school’s internal systems support student learning. Superintendents conduct some of the multi-day reviews, but they are more often conducted by leaders of the networks the schools have hired to provide support. Plus, because the city exempts new schools and high-performing schools, the reviews don’t happen every year for every school.
Further complicating matters, the city’s quality review rubric isn’t one of the state’s permitted models for principal observations. The city’s model is meant to assess the school as an organization rather than the principal as a leader. And, significantly, a full quality review takes at least two days and sometimes three to complete.
So under the new evaluation system, superintendents who have conducted only a handful of reviews each year to look at school-wide issues will have to conduct dozens of them for the purposes of rating principals — and they’ll have to do each of them twice. According to last month’s evaluation deal, superintendents will have to conduct two observations for each principal she supervises, one unannounced. District superintendents maintain portfolios of 30 to 40 schools, and the city’s six high school superintendents manage nearly 100 schools each.
“I don’t know she’s going to do that and do teacher tenure and quality reviews. It’s beyond human capability,” said the principal of a small high school. “Putting that onus on the superintendent —they’re going to have to create deputy superintendents or something to make that possible.”
It’s a view echoed by Kim Marshall, the creator of one of the rubrics the state has said superintendents can use when observing principals. Speaking on a panel about principal evaluations organized by the teacher group Educators 4 Excellence this week, Marshall said the city has a structural problem: There are too few supervisors with real authority.
The city has started testing solutions to the problems introduced by the new evaluation requirements. A pilot group of 30 schools have received shorter quality reviews this year: three hours long, instead of multiple days, and focusing on six principal-specific items instead of the full 30 items that regular reviews examine. Weiner described the pilot as being “almost like a research project” for principals, who are being asked to complete surveys and assess the quality of the abbreviated observations.
“Before we roll it out for 1,700 principals, we need to work out some of the kinks first,” Weiner said.
But principals say reducing the length of quality reviews would make them less useful in identifying areas for improvement and make it more likely that the people conducting them would miss essential elements of principals’ leadership.
“A model where a superintendent is in a school only three hours a year is not a good model,” McNally said.
“I think you need the full two days,” said the principal of a middle school in Harlem who said he has been satisfied with the support his superintendent has given him.
Exactly how long the reviews will take is subject to negotiation between the city and principals union. When the city cut off talks with the United Federation of Teachers in December, it also cut off talks with the principals union, to President Ernest Logan’s chagrin. Those negotiations are set to resume but have not yet.
The union and city will also have to agree on academic performance measures to make up 20 percent of evaluations and on the non-observation elements of the subjective measures, just as the teachers union and city are required to do for teacher evaluations.
And they are likely to discuss evaluations for assistant principals during those talks, even though the state law doesn’t apply to them, according to McNally. In fact, the law doesn’t say anything at all about assistant principals, an omission that Weiner said was “very interesting. … I couldn’t have gone anywhere without my APs.” But because city schools often have multiple assistant principals, with different people focusing on instruction and operations, applying a single set of criteria to their evaluations could be complicated.
A broader concern is that the city’s system for delivering support to principals is ill equipped to accommodate the new evaluation requirements. The state’s evaluation law is intended both to identify weak teachers and principals so that they can be removed and also to figure out where to direct assistance for those who are struggling but have potential. For teachers, the same person — the principal — is supposed to provide support and conduct observations. But for principals, the superintendent would conduct observations while the network teams provide support, if the city does not make major changes to the network structure.
City and union officials are hoping that a training session on principal evaluations that the State Education Department has scheduled for March 14 will clear up some of the open questions surrounding principal evaluations and lay the groundwork for changes that might facilitate a new system. But training sessions conducted earlier this year about teacher evaluations left many questions unanswered, McNally noted.
And no matter what is decided, he said, changes to principals’ evaluations would likely come as a surprise to many school leaders who have been more focused this year on the prospect of changing the way they rate teachers.
“Our rank-and-file has not been briefed on any of these complexities,” McNally said.