During the pandemic, school districts must deal with uncertainty, not ignore it or take shots in the dark.
Don’t Manage Talent by Remote Control
Leaders of portfolio districts agree that schools should be more autonomous and accountable, and that teachers should be judged and rewarded on the basis of performance. Those principles can be complementary, but the actions taken in pursuit of them are sometimes in conflict. In particular, state-mandated teacher evaluation systems can undermine school autonomy.
We know that teachers are a key driver of student success, and that traditional personnel systems are often broken. But some well-intended state-level policies to improve personnel systems run the risk of actually weakening school leaders’ ability to manage teacher talent. When state law requires principals to observe every third-year teacher for 90 minutes—even if all indicators show the teacher is stellar—that takes time away from observing, coaching, and mentoring new or struggling teachers. When schools with effective ongoing cycles of assessment and feedback must adopt fine-grained state-mandated rubrics with many dimensions and sub-dimensions, they take a step backward. And in some cases, the demands of next-generation evaluation systems can crowd out the types of informal evaluation and development that effective principals already provide.
As we have learned from principals in excellent mission-driven schools (both charter and traditional), the best evaluation systems spotlight skills and attributes that help teachers succeed in a particular school. But more than that, these principals design all of their HR processes—not just evaluation—to create shared expectations and perceptions about what it means to be a great teacher not in general, but for their school and its mission. In a recent paper, we called these "purposeful HR systems.”
Rather than spending all of their time evaluating instructional practice, principals of schools with purposeful HR systems use a constellation of ways to support their missions. These principals expose job candidates to the commitments and expectations for teaching in the school, through interviews, demonstration lessons, team activities, and meetings with the school community during the hiring process. During onboarding and evaluation, principals give feedback about instruction but they also coach teachers on broader professional norms and organizational routines. And when teachers do well, these principals are more likely to reward with additional leadership opportunities than money. Knowing what we know about purposeful HR systems in schools, it’s easy to imagine that top-down evaluation systems designed in a state capitol and intended for all schools can sometimes conflict with the expectations that different principals should and often do have for their own teachers.
Today, district and state evaluation policies have done a lot of good by providing schools with frameworks for talking about instruction in new and deeper ways. But the experience of high-performing schools suggests that principals are likely best positioned to identify the teacher attitudes and skills they need to support their particular plan for improvement. States can invest in data systems that principals can use and ensure that districts are overseeing their school portfolio effectively, but they shouldn’t be overly prescriptive. Likewise, districts can help principals learn how to be proactive managers of teacher talent, and they can hold them accountable for results, but they need to continuously monitor the current wave of evaluation policies to ensure that they aren’t making it harder for principals to build and develop a coherent team of teachers.
As we move into the next round of federal grants and state policy-making on evaluation, policymakers should provide some flexibility to schools that already use purposeful and effective teacher evaluation models. Meanwhile, researchers need to continue to pay close attention to how different approaches to teacher evaluation do and don’t support effective teaching and, more broadly, school-wide improvement.
For many students returning to class in the coming weeks, it will be back to school online.
States are dumping the instructional planning burden during an unprecedented modern pandemic onto teachers’ laps (or laptops).