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.

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.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.