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Evaluating teachers may burden principals

State nears new requirements

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / June 27, 2011

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As state education leaders prepare to vote tomorrow on a sweeping overhaul of the way administrators and teachers are evaluated, local school officials say one key area remains a concern: finding time for overburdened principals to actually do the evaluations.

Over the past decade, principals have been dealing with a growing pile of paperwork generated by new government mandates such as the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the state’s bullying prevention law.

Many principals also have been devoting more time to disciplining students, resolving parental issues, or overseeing standardized testing, duties once carried out by assistant principals or other administrators before they lost their jobs in recent years due to budget cuts.

The growing workload has squeezed out time in some schools for conducting job reviews, a task that is expected to grow more time-consuming under proposed regulations, which would make analyzing MCAS scores and other student achievement data a central component of each evaluation.

“What is being proposed is a high-quality process, but we are concerned about our time and ability to do it,’’ said Dave Thomson, principal of Raynham Middle School and president of the Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators’ Association. “There are not enough hands out there.’’

Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said he is empathetic to the plight of principals, but that overseeing instructional programs and evaluating teachers and other school administrators is a fundamental aspect of their jobs.

“Right now, too few teachers and administrators receive valuable feedback that allows them to adjust instruction in a way that benefits students,’’ Chester said.

Many school district officials and education advocates expect that the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will approve Chester’s recommendations tomorrow to overhaul the state’s 16-year-old rules on educator evaluations, which have resulted in wide inconsistencies across the state in executing the reviews. The board rarely rejects a commissioner’s recommendation.

While some districts do an outstanding job of evaluating teachers and administrators, others neglect the task or rush through the process, providing little insight on educators’ strengths and weaknesses or ways to improve. The lack of consistent and thoughtful evaluations can also create difficulties in trying to fire ineffective teachers.

The proposed regulations would require schools to conduct job reviews annually, instead of every two years, and to develop improvement plans for educators whose performance is lagging. Progress in meeting the goals of the plans would have to be checked periodically.

The proposals also call for classroom observations; the inclusion of multiple measurements of student achievement, such as MCAS scores; and eventually feedback from surveys of students and possibly parents. The state will be spending two years to develop the latter data points.

“The time involved is a huge problem and a huge complication, and we are fooling ourselves if we don’t recognize that upfront, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be making changes to the regulations,’’ said Paul Dakin, superintendent in Revere.

Time and money to do the evaluations registered as the number one concern among nearly 700 teachers and administrators who were polled during the two-month public comment period on the proposed regulations. Providing adequate training for evaluators ranked second, followed by use of MCAS scores.

In most cases, it is the principal or an assistant principal who reviews the performance of dozens of teachers at a school. Large school districts sometimes have the resources to hire a team of evaluators to assist with the task.

Educators estimate that on average, a principal or assistant principal is responsible for evaluating about 35 teachers and other staff members, and that a performance review can take about two to three hours. By contrast, they say, in the business community, managers typically evaluate 10 or fewer employees.

Given the state’s tight finances, school administrators say seeking a funding increase to restore administrative positions or to hire some districtwide evaluators to assist principals would be a tough sell. Instead, they hope any new guidelines would provide some leeway in reviewing teachers who are excelling.

Districts will have about two years to implement the changes. Boston and Springfield, however, will be testing out the new regulations this fall in their underperforming schools.

Boston has had a poor track record of evaluations. A report last year by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan research and policy group in Washington, D.C., revealed that half of the city’s teachers had not been evaluated in at least two years and about 25 percent of schools did no evaluations at all.

Michael Goar, Boston’s deputy superintendent, said the district is opening an Office of Teacher and Principal Effectiveness, which will be overseen by a new assistant superintendent, to help principals with evaluations and teacher training. “We also are making major investments in technology so people can do evaluations online,’’ he said. “That should save time.’’

Richard Stutman, president of the city’s teachers union, still questions whether principals will have time to do the evaluations, given that many schools operate without assistant principals. He also voiced opposition to using test scores in evaluating teachers.

“Parents have to understand two things: There will be less teaching and more testing, and their children will be less happy,’’ Stutman said.

The city’s teachers belong to the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, which opposes the use of MCAS scores in teacher evaluations. The state’s largest teacher organization, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, supports using MCAS data, although some of its affiliates disagree.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit advocacy group critical of standardized testing, issued a report this month indicating that if the proposal is approved, Massachusetts would be relying too heavily on testing data. In an interview last week, Monty Neill, executive director, urged the board to reject the recommendations and questioned whether principals would have enough time and training to do the evaluations.

“In the end, it won’t be a workable system and it will collapse,’’ he said.

But state Representative Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat who cochairs the Joint Education Committee, said Chester’s plan “represents a good attempt to put in place a teacher and administrator evaluation process that will hopefully result in improved student performance.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.