changes at the top

Revamped principal evals could reshape superintendents' role

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.

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.