April 4, 2013 by

Rushing Toward the Wrong School Achievement Policy

April 2013 ELMag coverThis guest blog post is part of a series from Educational Leadership authors. The following post comes from Rick DuFour and Mike Mattos, whose article, “How Do Principals Really Improve Schools?” appears in the April 2013 issue, “The Principalship.”

In this month’s issue of Educational Leadership, we question why U.S. states and districts have rushed to embrace more frequent and intensive teacher observation and evaluation by principals as a key strategy for improving schools. There’s scant evidence that past efforts in this area have resulted in improved instruction or higher levels of student achievement. Teachers themselves consistently and overwhelmingly report that the evaluation process in their schools has little or no effect on their classroom practice. Yet the pressure to devote more time and energy to supervising and evaluating educators into better performance continues to grow, and the ramifications of these evaluations for individual teachers have never been higher.

The renewed emphasis on frequent observation and evaluation is certain to improve our schools if the following conditions exist:

  1. Teachers know how to improve student learning through improved instructional practice but have not been sufficiently motivated to apply those practices. The threat of the principal dropping in more regularly will provide that motivation.
  2. Principals have the time and pedagogical expertise to improve the instructional practices of all the teachers in their building.
  3. Effective instructional practices can be reduced to an observable checklist.

We contend that none of these conditions exist; that checklists, ranking, and ratings will not improve a school; and that the rush to double down on a failed strategy for improving schools is unlikely to yield positive results.

We argue that instead of this focus on the individual inspection of teaching, principals must engage the staff in the collective analysis of evidence of student learning. Rather than attempting to improve the school one teacher at a time through a supervision process designed to result in rankings and ratings, principals should help build the capacity of faculty to function as members of a professional learning community.

Engaging an entire staff in a collective and collaborative effort to improve student achievement is far more likely to improve professional practice, make teaching more rewarding, and help more students learn at higher levels. As we note in our article, it should be self-evident that “an algebra teacher has a better chance to become more effective when he or she works with other algebra teachers on a weekly basis to improve student learning than by being observed by a former social studies teacher four times a year.”

Our article goes into detail about how principals can help create the conditions that ensure that collaborative teams of teachers focus on the right work–work that is consistently found to have a positive effect on student achievement.

As former principals ourselves, we realize that principals cannot disregard state or district policies that demand they observe and rate teachers. But although principals may be stuck with ill-advised policies, they don’t have to be stuck with the mind-set behind the policy.

The team process provides teachers with an opportunity to learn from one another, but sometimes a teacher who is consistently getting outstanding results is unable to articulate the specific strategies that he or she is using that are proving so effective. Classroom observations could help identify those strategies. When a team engages in action research to implement a new strategy for addressing a persistent problem in student learning, observations could provide members with valuable feedback and coaching.

There are some good models to help principals make the time they devote to classroom observations more focused and helpful to the teacher being observed, and principals should develop their ability to use such models. They should not, however, put all their school improvement eggs in the teacher observation, evaluation, and rating basket.

Rick DuFour Rick DuFour is an author and consultant on implementing the PLC process. He is coauthor, with Michael Fullan, of Cultures Built to Last: Making PLCs Systemic (Solution Tree, 2013) and, with Robert Marzano, of Leaders of Learning: How District, Schools, and Classroom Leaders Improve Student Achievement (Solution Tree, 2011).
 Mike Mattos Mike Mattos is an education consultant and is coauthor, with Austin Buffum and Chris Weber, of Simplifying Response to Intervention (Solution Tree, 2011).