The Sorely Overlooked School Leader

Blog Post
Oct. 19, 2015
A recent debate erupted between two noted education experts—Andy Smarick, Partner at Bellwether and Dan Weisberg, CEO of TNTP—over teacher evaluation and development. Smarick challenged TNTP’s recent report finding that professional development doesn’t work based on the methodology it used—current teacher evaluation systems. These systems, he argued, have not yet fully defined great teaching, and he suggested exploring other potential measures such as “grit.” In a public response, Weisberg conceded that evaluation systems aren’t perfect in capturing what makes for effective teaching. Still, he argued, districts can and should assess the impact of professional development (PD) on teacher practice, in part, by analyzing data from evaluation systems.

Both are right, to a degree. Current evaluation systems likely do not capture the breadth and depth of teachers’ impact on student outcomes. And a clear focus on assessing PD’s impact is imperative for improving teaching and learning: despite spending billions of dollars annually, most states and districts have never tried to evaluate the impact of their PD and improve their offerings. But their back-and-forth leaves out a sorely overlooked aspect of the debate: the school leader.

It’s worth remembering that new evaluation systems are still relatively young—most states are only a year or two into full implementation. Before we experiment with new and tenuous teacher quality measures and risk demoralizing teachers with more evaluation change, we should focus on school leaders’ role in making current teacher evaluation and development systems better.

Much of the teacher evaluation and improvement enterprise rests in the hands of school leaders.

Because let’s face it: Much of the teacher evaluation and improvement enterprise rests in the hands of school leaders. Their classroom observations typically represent the largest measure in these new systems, and hold the most potential for helping to improve teacher practice. The scoring rubrics provide leaders with a tool to assess discrete teaching skills, which can give way to more actionable specific teacher feedback.

Still, as Weisberg notes, most teachers continue to be rated as average or above under new observation systems, masking the real nuance that these new rubrics can provide. That’s partly due to ingrained “Lake Wobegon” school cultures where school leaders can face disincentives to providing teachers with accurate (and sometimes difficult) feedback such as the desire to maintain high staff morale.

But that’s also partly because school leaders need better support on how to provide teachers with accurate and meaningful feedback that drives their professional growth as well as more time and oversight in doing so.

States and districts can and should do more to support school leaders on how to interpret and rate teacher practice accurately using new observation rubrics and provide meaningful feedback to teachers, including strategies for having tough conversations. And school leaders should also receive support on how to connect their feedback to high-quality professional learning opportunities. The most effective professional development, and the kind teachers want, tends to be job-embedded and classroom-relevant. And that’s precisely the kind of PD that school leaders can help foster and monitor in their buildings but they need some support to do so. Through the Instructional Partnership Initiative, Tennessee provides guidance to school leaders on how to pair teachers based on their classroom observation results and then suggest collaborative learning activities such as peer observation. More states and districts should follow Tennessee’s lead.

Of course, even if school leaders receive more support in developing these skills, they need the time to effectively employ them. Despite school leaders’ changing role from building manager to instructional leader, they’re still largely required to serve in both capacities. If we expect school leaders to first and foremost support instruction, then they need to be freed from enough operational duties to both formally and informally observe teachers in classrooms and tap others in their building to observe and coach teachers, too. In fact, TNTP’s report found that teachers improved the most in a charter management network with such clearly defined roles in place. Some traditional district schools, like those right here in DC, are already experimenting with this model. More districts should do the same.

And yet, even if given the support, time, and clear role to conduct more frequent observations, school leaders often lack the content and instructional expertise to provide teachers across all grades and subjects with useful feedback. Incorporating other observers’ eyes in the evaluation process, whether trained effective teacher leaders or external evaluators, could further increase the accuracy of observation data while also providing teachers with more content-specific and frequent feedback to help move their practice forward. Unfortunately, only a few states require multiple evaluators, and in those states that allow them, districts haven’t yet taken full advantage of the flexibility.

Lastly, coupled with the above, we need to improve the systems under which school leaders themselves are to be evaluated. If we expect school leaders to observe and support teachers with a high degree of fidelity, then we should make that expectation clear: they should be held accountable for the quality of the feedback they provide to teachers along with the quality of follow-up supports they suggest. And states and districts should monitor their feedback and ratings to hold them to the task.

In order to make evaluation systems work in the service of teacher development, we need a new narrative around evaluation that goes beyond one-shot ratings for personnel decisions towards ongoing feedback for continuous teacher growth. Such a shift will take time and deliberate efforts but can begin with improving the classroom observation data we have right now. Instead of focusing on getting teacher evaluation and support perfect, let’s get school leader evaluation and support good. Let’s shift the conversation from “do we have the right teacher evaluation measures?” and “can we assess impact of teacher PD using them?” to “how can we improve the most promising factor for measuring and advancing teacher growth we are aware of right now?”—classroom observations by school leaders."