To Develop Teacher Talent, Start with School Leaders

Blog Post
Sept. 14, 2016

In 2008, I was a novice sixth-grade English Language Arts (ELA) teacher at an under-resourced middle school in Brooklyn. Like most new teachers, I craved regular feedback and support from someone with greater teaching and content expertise than me but rarely received it. Instead, my school principal observed my teaching practice once over the course of a year using a cursory checklist. Some of the areas reviewed had nothing to do with actual teaching, such as whether bulletin boards displayed new student work. And the sole purpose of the observation was to provide me with an annual performance rating—not to provide formative feedback.

I received satisfactory marks across all areas of my evaluation (I’m not bragging—nearly all teachers across the country got such marks). But I knew that I wasn’t satisfactory on all aspects of good teaching and that my bulletin boards didn’t really matter for student learning. While I felt confident managing the class and maximizing instructional time, I knew that I could improve at engaging all learners since many of my students entered class on disparate reading levels. And I wanted feedback from someone with expertise in teaching ELA to diverse learners.

Since that time, a wave of teacher evaluation reform has swept the country. In 2009, the federal Race to the Top program incentivized many states to adopt new evaluation systems that promised teachers more “timely and constructive feedback” connected to development opportunities. Classroom observations were based on multiple evidence-based teaching practices, instead of perfunctory checklists, and often occurred more than once per year.

Still, on some fronts, not much has changed for teachers. Most teachers continue to be rated highly under these new systems and receive few, if any, targeted suggestions for how to improve. In order for new teacher evaluation systems to deliver on their promise of improved teaching, school principals need more and better support in developing teacher practice and distributing their leadership to other school staff.

A new qualitative study illustrates this need. The study’s authors, Matthew Kraft of Brown University and Allison Gilmour of Vanderbilt University, interviewed a random sample of 24 principals in one large urban district to understand their experiences with implementing a new teacher evaluation system, then in its second year. The authors sought to understand principals’ perspectives on their ability to use evaluation to promote teacher development.

On a positive note, over two-thirds of principals perceived the new teacher evaluation system as more growth-oriented than the old system. Principals said it provided a common language for effective teaching, increased teacher involvement in the evaluation process through professional and student growth goal-setting, and shifted the culture of evaluation from accountability more towards support.

However, despite these positive perceptions, principals identified a host of challenges in using evaluation to support teachers’ growth. For instance, 88 percent of principals reported a lack of time to support all teachers well. Although principals’ instructional leadership responsibilities have increased with the advent of new evaluation systems, most districts (like the one examined in the study) have failed to relieve them of any other duties. As a result, many study participants claimed they were only able to offer teachers infrequent cursory feedback.

What is more, over three-quarters of principals cited a lack of expertise as another challenge in supporting all teachers well. Elementary school principals reported a lack of grade-level expertise as a top concern while secondary school principals reported a lack of content expertise. In consequence, principals reverted to providing teachers with feedback on general teaching practices, such as checking for student understanding. This is despite research indicating that good teaching requires knowledge of not only general teaching strategies but also the content and strategies for teaching the content effectively.

Principals also cited a lack of training on how to provide teachers with meaningful feedback. While principals said they received some support on how to interpret and apply the classroom observation rubric consistently, they failed to receive support on how to provide teachers with high-quality actionable feedback and coaching. In particular, principals lacked guidance on how to facilitate honest post-observation conversations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their feedback focused on scores over substance and teachers’ strengths over their weaknesses, resulting mostly in high scores.

While Kraft and Gilmour’s study is limited to qualitative data from one school system, their findings cohere with a main finding in New America’s recent paper Beyond Ratings, which examined new state teacher evaluation systems and their connection to teacher development. Most states have focused more on supporting principals to rate teacher practice consistently and less on how to deliver constructive feedback and aligned high-quality professional learning opportunities. Not surprisingly, the quality of most teacher professional development is not strong.

The authors provide several recommendations for state and district policymakers to consider as they look to strengthen support for school leaders—many of which align with Beyond Ratings’ recommendations for states. For instance, the study’s authors recommend allowing principals to distribute observations among leadership teams in order to reduce principals’ caseloads and ensure teachers receive content- and grade-level specific feedback. They also recommend increasing support for principals through regular coaching on how to provide high-quality feedback. And they suggest developing peer observation and feedback systems that exist outside of the evaluation system. As highlighted in Beyond Ratings, Tennessee developed such a system and saw improvements in teacher practice and student learning.

While many of the authors’ recommendations can and should occur at the district level, states can also support districts in this work by developing and holding up exemplary evaluation and support systems. Additionally, states can provide some direct training to school leaders themselves, as Louisiana, Colorado, Tennessee, and other states have done successfully.

The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) presents an opportunity for states and districts to bring principal quality into the spotlight after a long time in the shadow of efforts to improve teacher quality. As part of the ESSA planning process, states must decide whether to set aside up to an additional three percent of their allotted ESSA Title II funds to support principals and other school leaders. States that choose to do so should use the new funds to support leaders to make teacher evaluation and support systems meaningful in practice and encourage districts to do the same. To develop teacher talent, policymakers should start with school leaders.