Last week I traveled to Albany as a Cattaraugus County alternate to the NYSCOSS Commissioner’s Advisory Council. What does that mean? On Friday a small group of 20-25 school superintendents from across the State had the opportunity to talk with State Education Officials including Commissioner David Steiner, Deputy Commissioner John King, Ken Slentz, Chuck Szuberla, and David Abrams. For three hours we asked questions and heard answers from the top SED leaders. And I definitely had the sense that they were listening to us as well. It was an extremely rewarding two days for me. In my mind good information is paramount to making the best decisions for the district so every minute was worthwhile.
If you haven’t been paying attention to all of the changes headed our way in regard to teacher and principal evaluation through the APPR process, and you’re a NYS educator, then I suggest you start now. During these two days, we talked about everything from the accountability pieces to state and locally selected assessments to scoring bands to training and capacity.
I’ve written on this blog previously about my own opinions on the general quality of our evaluation system in public education. I’m cautiously optimistic that we will end with a much better system upon the full implementation of the regulations. Principals often write “love letters” to their teachers in the knowledge that the one pre-scheduled visit to the classroom can’t possibly do much to influence what’s happening in the room and because they’ve had little to no training in how to give meaningful feedback. What will come between now and our new SED proposed evaluation system will require a huge cultural shift. Educators are neither accustomed to being evaluated in a meaningful feedback system nor are the principals adequately trained in how to have those conversations. Don’t get me wrong, I believe we have extremely hard working and dedicated administrators in every district in which I’ve worked, but this is not a piece of the work we’ve historically done well enough.
The success of this new evaluation system hinges on the depth of training for principals and the ongoing support as they learn to communicate both expectations and feedback about good instruction to our teachers. Teachers who have been left to figure it out on their own and have seldom been critiqued or offered much feedback in the past may find it difficult to take any kind of constructive feedback. And why wouldn’t they? It’s a huge change in many places and it feels very personal.
When you consider that some principals may never have been good teachers and may have no idea how to really talk about solid instruction with credibility and solid ideas about strategies and content, we’ve got quite a row to hoe. Couple all of that with the fact that the expectations and criteria for being an effective principal may be changing dramatically in some districts–to mid or end career administrators–and the work before us is immense. Most principals are effective building managers, taking care of the 1000+ details that managing a building requires, with little time left for our most fundamental reason for existing—quality instruction. This is through no fault of the principal, I’ve done that job and can tell you first hand that on most days it’s emotionally draining and exhausting, especially if the principal is responsible for all of the discipline. It was certainly my intention on every day to be the instructional leader but on many days it was veritably impossible.
This is the most vital change we can make toward long term school improvement. As Commissioner Steiner said on Friday and on which I wholeheartedly agree, “The two most important points in all of this are what you teach and how effectively you teach it.”
We can figure out the rest together but it’s truly going to take ongoing training, relationship building, trust and hard work, resources and expertise building. I absolutely believe the only way to make it work is to set clear expectations based on solid research, communicate effectively and learn together. It’s the right thing to do.