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January 25, 2013

Heinig Jr.: Teacher evaluations - Do they help or hurt?

Statehouse, leave decisions to schoolhouse

As an aging educator who put himself out to pasture five years ago, I still read news and editorials about our Indiana schools with great interest. On Jan. 13, the Kokomo Tribune published a lead story by Lindsey Ziliak: “Strapped for time:  Principals examining priorities to make time for teacher evaluations.” The story forced me to wrestle with an emotional conflict.

Because I was a principal for 10 years, I understand why every principal Ms. Ziliak interviewed stressed the advantages of our state’s new teacher evaluation process. I would have done the same thing. When a change is mandatory, a leader who dwells on the disadvantages accomplishes nothing! Nevertheless, most major changes have both advantages and disadvantages and the change in teacher evaluations is no exception.

Since I am no longer a principal, I am free to discuss both the advantages and disadvantages. The advantages attract more attention now, because implementation of the change is just beginning. The disadvantages will emerge later, when the change has become routine and its shortcomings slowly reveal themselves.

The classic format for teacher evaluation is pretty simple. It consists of setting goals, collecting data through observations and portfolios, assessing the data and developing an improvement plan. The improvement plan leads to a new set of goals and the quest for improvement continues, as it should!

Teacher evaluations do have inherent value. Every teacher can improve and should strive to do so. The participation of an external evaluator may help, but it’s not absolutely necessary. A well-trained teacher can do it alone. I can be the best evaluator in the world, but my recommendations are useless if the teacher doesn’t accept them. Only the teacher can implement the improvement plan. If that doesn’t happen, nothing else matters. As an external evaluator, I can contribute to the plan, but I can’t control it. Neither can the state. It merely regulates the process.

The state’s new regulations aren’t really so new. They offer more sound than substance. They focus on the peripheral characteristics of teacher evaluations: Who should evaluate and who should be evaluated? Which of a number of time-honored evaluation techniques should be used? How often should teachers be evaluated? This is the same old stuff done in the same old way. There is merely more pressure on the teacher and the principal.

Why are no research-based, creative new methods used to evaluate teachers? Could it be that no one is doing the kind of research that leads to originality and innovation? If nothing is new, we may be squandering the valuable time of teachers and principals.

Principals report a huge increase in the time needed for teacher evaluations. What other duties does this force them to neglect? I was a principal for 10 years. I usually worked about 60 hours a week at school, and I often took work home. I was not unique. Most principals I know work that many hours.

Some of them work even more. A few years ago, I applied for an assistant principal’s job at a high school in my home town. The principal telephoned to invite me to interview. When I arrived at the school, I was surprised to meet an old friend. The school secretary and I had been classmates from kindergarten through high school.

We spent a few minutes reminiscing while I waited for the principal to see me. I remarked that the principal must be very dedicated, since she had called me from home at 10 p.m. on a Sunday evening. My old friend smiled and said, “She was probably here at school. She frequently spends her Sunday evenings working in her office.”

I don’t know why that surprised me. Many principals use their weekends to do work that they can’t find time for during the week. I was one of them. Interruptions can easily consume much of the principal’s time on weekdays. That also explains why some principals work from home on days when they must attend meetings away from school. If they come to school first, they end up putting out fires (dealing with unexpected problems) and get to the meeting late or not at all!

I am certain many principals who are still working struggle with the same emotional conflict that vexes this old retired one: Should they spend their time complying with the state’s demands and risk their jobs, or spend it fulfilling needs of students, parents and teachers that may be more urgent. That’s a choice between local control and state control. It should be made at the schoolhouse door — not at the Statehouse door!  

Mark Heinig Jr. of Kokomo is a retired Indiana teacher and principal. Contact him at markjr1708@gmail.com.

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