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The Teacher-Principal Alliance

Tingley-021 color-1Some would characterize the push to change how teachers are evaluated as a controversy generating far more heat than light.  I know I would.

But last week the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute released a report entitled “Rethinking Teacher Evaluation in Chicago:  Lessons Learned from Classroom Observations, Principal-Teacher Conferences, and District Implementation.”  The report is clearly written, supported by both statistical and anecdotal evidence, and altogether a bright ray of sunshine.  It should be required reading for districts attempting to change or improve the way in which teachers are evaluated.

Prior to 2008, 93% of Chicago teachers were rated as either Superior or Excellent while 66% of Chicago schools failed to meet state standards.  In the face of similar disconnects in other cities, the result has been a public shaming of teachers by publishing their test scores.  Chicago schools, however, showed better sense by instead focusing on how teachers were evaluated, how they could be given helpful feedback, and how they could acquire skills to improve instruction.  Chicago’s Excellence in Teaching Pilot used Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching to provide the rubrics for sound instruction, and both teachers and principals were trained in the new methodology.

Among the most important findings are these:

•Students of teachers who rated high on the Danielson framework scored the best on tests; students of teachers who rated low scored the poorest.

•The results of classroom observations were reliable; that is,trained principals and other observers who watched the same lesson ranked the teacher the same.

•Teachers and principals who were trained and comfortable with the framework reported that the post-evaluation conferences were candid and helpful.

In other words, teacher observations went from being summative (assigning a number based on a checklist) to being formative (a live discussion of what went well and what needed improvement based on agreed upon criteria).  The Danielson framework is relatively new, of course, but the concepts are vintage Madeline Hunter. And that's a good thing.

Meetings-countThe report indicates that indeed there are identifiable and observable skills that constitute good teaching, and teachers and principals can agree upon them.  In addition, the report shows again that teachers want (and deserve) feedback, and they want to have a conversation about what they are doing in the classroom.  And by the way, that union canard about principals being biased – no evidence in the study.

The reports also suggests, however, that principals need training in what to look for and how to conduct a post-observation conference.  Just because a person is a principal doesn’t mean he or she is an expert on best practices in the classroom, nor does it mean he or she is skilled in giving feedback.  The report indicates that about half the principals in the pilot program were completely engaged in the new program.  Some were ambivalent, and others were flatly against the new system.  A major complaint was the time it takes to conference with teachers.  To those principals I say, what are you doing that’s more important?  Teaching is the heart of the school.  If your time is taken up with other things like disciplinary issues, better teaching will improve the situation.  It’s about ordering your priorities.

Over a year ago I asked in this blog why principals were not major players in the debate about teachers’ classroom performance.   Chicago seems to have (re)discovered how important the teacher-principal alliance is in improving instruction. Working together teachers and principals can change a school.




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