September 8, 1996 in Nation/World

Teacher Challenge Principals Too Reluctant To Criticize Lack Of Rigorous Evaluations Leaves Teachers Without Guidance

Carla K. Johnson Julie Titone And Marny Lombard Staff writer
 

Many principals avoid the first, crucial step of firing bad teachers: giving low marks on evaluations.

In the past two school years, less than 2 percent of the teaching staff in Spokane-area public schools received marks such as “unsatisfactory” or “needs improvement” on evaluations. Most North Idaho schools were unable to provide exact numbers on teachers receiving bad marks.

The number should be close to 10 percent to 15 percent, said Clemson University Professor Don Fuhr, who surveyed hundreds of principals and teachers for a book on mediocre teachers.

Most underperforming teachers can improve if they are identified and helped, said Fuhr, author of “No Margin for Error: Saving Our Schools from Borderline Teachers.”

But they aren’t, Fuhr said. Principals don’t deal with bad teachers well because they don’t have training, support from superintendents, or courage to face flak from staff and the union.

“No matter how much we spend on education reform, nothing is going to have an impact unless we do something about the teaching force,” Fuhr said.

Some teachers see the words “needs improvement” as a declaration of war.

“Evaluation is almost a four-letter word among teachers,” said Sally Christy, a Seattle educator, who works with teachers needing help. “Evaluation is what supervisory staff do to non-supervisory staff.”

On the flip side, with so many principals automatically giving good evaluations, some teachers find them meaningless.

Evaluations were the major issue when St. Maries teacher Marilyn Gilbert fought to keep her job this year.

“In 20 years in the school district, I don’t think I’ve had more than three or four ‘needs improvements,”’ said the 55-year-old teacher. Then, Principal Mike Holloway called last December and told her she was on probation. He said her problems included teaching ability and maintaining discipline.

“All of the sudden I was Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde,” Gilbert said.

She complained to the school board that Holloway based the evaluation on a few minutes here and there, instead of one full hour as district policy required.

“What if you have a bad moment? He comes in in the middle of a lesson, and has no idea what you are doing.”

After making her case to the board of trustees, Gilbert was offered a one-year contract, but is on probation until December.

Many teachers believe principals aren’t equipped to evaluate them adequately.

Linda Darling-Hammond, education professor at Columbia University in New York, related a story told to her by a French teacher.

When the principal walked into the room, the teacher told her students, in French, to raise their right hands if they knew the answer, their left hands if they didn’t. The principal knew no French. The teacher called on only students raising right hands. Her class ran smoothly. She got great evaluations.

“Eventually principals give up because it’s so hard to find the time and resources” to do a thorough evaluation that will stand up to legal challenges, Darling-Hammond said.

Hit-and-miss evaluations are only part of the profession’s poor quality control, she said. The problem begins with colleges churning out graduates with little classroom experience. Those graduates are hired, earn tenure and then never get a serious evaluation.

To improve teaching, she advocates more intense preparation, exams to screen out marginal candidates and mentoring for veterans with problems.

“You might think your kid is guaranteed the right to a qualified teacher,” Darling-Hammond said. “But particularly if a child is in a low-wealth school district, they’re very likely to have a poorly prepared teacher.”

No change in the law will help until principals, superintendents and school boards conduct serious evaluations, warned Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Education Commission for the States, which advises legislators.

Christie, a former teacher, sees a tendency among school administrators to downplay their responsibility.

“A lot of principals go around with a horror story in their wallets,” she said. “When they’re challenged on (why bad teachers are tolerated), they pull out that horror story about how it cost some district somewhere $970,000 to fire a teacher.”

By forcing teachers to face up to problems with in-depth evaluations, more people can come out winners.

East Valley High Principal Jeff Miller took that approach in a previous school district with three teachers. All three left teaching and contacted Miller later.

One changed careers and doubled his salary. Another no longer awoke every morning with a sense of dread. The third, Miller said, went back to college and changed careers.

“Every one of them came back to me within a year and told me their life was so much happier.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Firing teachers

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ABOUT THIS SERIES Today Why schools don’t fire more bad apples: Cost and complexity of firing bad teachers cause some public school districts to avoid it. Page A1 Few teachers ever get poor evaluations. Page A1 Rewards for good teaching often are mere tokens. Page A11 Seniority keeps one talented teacher from a permanent job. Page A11

Monday What unions are doing to improve teaching: Some unions shift from a no-holds-barred defense of bad teachers. A brief history of teachers’ unions.

Tuesday Looking for solutions: Seattle uses mentors to help problem teachers. Parents often are first to notice bad teaching. What makes a teacher great? Reform could screen out bad teachers early.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Carla K. Johnson Staff writer Julie Titone and Marny Lombard contributed to this report.

This sidebar appeared with the story: ABOUT THIS SERIES Today Why schools don’t fire more bad apples: Cost and complexity of firing bad teachers cause some public school districts to avoid it. Page A1 Few teachers ever get poor evaluations. Page A1 Rewards for good teaching often are mere tokens. Page A11 Seniority keeps one talented teacher from a permanent job. Page A11

Monday What unions are doing to improve teaching: Some unions shift from a no-holds-barred defense of bad teachers. A brief history of teachers’ unions.

Tuesday Looking for solutions: Seattle uses mentors to help problem teachers. Parents often are first to notice bad teaching. What makes a teacher great? Reform could screen out bad teachers early.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Carla K. Johnson Staff writer Julie Titone and Marny Lombard contributed to this report.


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