It is rare to see a high-ranking leader of a major association speak hard truths to power. For her courage and candor, Joann Bartoletti joins the honor roll as a champion of public education.

In the March 2013 issue of NASSP’s “News Leader,” Bartoletti, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, blasted the new teacher evaluation systems that were foisted on the nation’s schools by Race to the Top and its highly prescriptive waivers.

She notes that these dubious, non-evidence-based evaluation systems are coming into use at the very time that the Common Core is being implemented. Common Core–untested, never validated, whose consequences are unknown, arriving with not enough time or money for implementation or adequate technology for the computer-based testing–is widely expected to cause test scores to fall. It would be hard, she writes, to “come up with a better plan to discredit and dismantle public education.”

What motives should one attribute to policymakers who wreak havoc on their’s nations public schools and who blithely ignore all warning signs? Bartoletti won’t speculate.

Malice or stupidity? You decide.

She writes:

• A perfect storm is brewing, and it will wreak havoc on the collaborative cultures that principals have worked so hard to build. New teacher evaluation systems have begun making their way into schools, and over the next three years, more than half of states will change the way they assess teachers’ effectiveness. The revised systems come as the result of Race to the Top and NCLB waivers. To be eligible for either, states had to commit to developing new teacher evaluation systems that use student test scores to determine a “significant proportion” of a teacher’s effectiveness. In a January survey of NASSP and NAESP members, nearly half of respondents indicated that 30% or more of their teacher evaluations are now tied to student achievement.

There is no research supporting the use of that kind of percentage, and even if the research recommended it, states don’t have data systems sophisticated enough to do value-added measurement (VAM) well. Still, the test-score proportion on evaluations will increase at a time when we predict that test scores will decrease.

These evaluation systems will be put in place just as the Common Core State Standards assessments roll out in 2014. This volatile combination could encourage many teachers and principals to leave the profession or at least plan their exit strategies. I don’t want to attribute a malicious intent to anyone, but if policymakers were going to come up with a plan to discredit and dismantle public education, it’s hard to think of a more effective one.

Identity Crisis?

One of the most troubling issues, as Jim Popham describes in this month’s Principal Leadership, is that the overhauled evaluations are being designed to serve dual purposes.

Principals want to believe that the evaluations are formative and are inclined to give constructive feedback to teachers to help them improve their instructional practice. Lawmakers, on the other hand, see the evaluations as being summative—a way to identify weaknesses and fire ineffective teachers. Principals are caught in the middle: they want to offer frank feedback but are all too aware that any criticism is a black mark that can be used to deny a teacher’s con- tract renewal or tenure. In this case, killing two birds with one stone—when those birds have about as much in common as a penguin and a pigeon—is extraordinarily ineffective.

And so, principals tread lightly. Although the days when 99% of tenured teachers earned “satisfactory” ratings are long gone, emerging data shows that even with the new evaluations in place, the majority of teachers are still being deemed “effective.” Education Week noted in a February 5 article that at least 9 out of 10 teachers in Michigan, Tennessee, and Georgia received positive reviews under the new measurements.

With little difference in outcomes, it’s hard to justify the extensive training and time com- mitment that the new systems demand. In some districts in Rhode Island, a popular off-the-shelf model requires principals to view 60 hours of video training and pass a test before administer- ing the evaluation tool. If they fail, they’ll have to wait three months to take it again. Other states are developing their own systems that dramatically increase the hours spent assessing teachers.

Tennessee principal and NASSP board member Troy Kilzer devotes nearly six hours to a single teacher’s evaluation, not counting the time spent observing that teacher in the class- room. This figure is similar to the respondents’ answers in the NASSP survey. Almost all (92%)
said they spend anywhere from 6 to 31 or more hours evaluating each teacher.

These evaluations are simply trying to accomplish too much. What’s even worse, principals must apply them across the board—66% of the survey respondents are required to use one instrument for all teachers and staff, includ- ing those in non-tested subjects. School nurses, athletic directors, and school psychologists are expected to be assessed with the same tools. Since when can a nurse’s capacity for empathy be measured by a student’s ability to factor polynomials?

High Anxiety

Although only some states have fully imple- mented the new models, exhausted teachers are showing signs of wear. The “teach-to-the- test” frenzy is compounded by the fact that their evaluations will rely on scores over which teachers have limited control. NASSP’s Breaking Ranks tells about the importance of a positive culture, yet the atmosphere that the new evalua- tion systems create is anything but positive.

Shawn DeRose, an assistant principal in Virginia, said that since the implementation of his state’s new evaluation system this past fall, many teachers in his school have indicated that they feel additional stress. It’s no wonder. Fifth-grade teacher Sarah Wysocki was fired at the end of her second year with the DC Public Schools because her students didn’t reach their expected growth rate in reading and math under the city’s new value-added model. Never mind that she received positive ratings in her observations and was encouraged to share her engaging teaching methods with other district educators. This is hardly an isolated event.

The anxiety levels raise an even more acute challenge for principals in urban, high-poverty schools. No teacher wants to teach in a school with a traditionally low-performing population. Add test scores as a part of their evaluation, and it now becomes impossible to recruit teachers for high-needs schools. But regard- less of a teacher’s placement, the onus is still on principals to ensure that evaluations are fair and meaningful—and that they improve teachers’ capacity to enhance student learning.

NASSP is regularly delivering this message to Congress and the
Department of Education. In meetings with Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Deb Delisle, I’ve shared NASSP’s recommendations and have reinforced that teacher evaluations should serve their intended purpose: to help teachers improve their instructional practice. NASSP is making it glaringly clear to policymakers that if they want to push out inef- fective teachers, there are other ways to go about it. Throwing the entire profession into a tailspin is not only ineffective and mis- guided, but it’s a poor way to play the long game as well.