The Principal’s Dilemma

April 4, 2012

This is a bit of tangential post for this blog, but it’s a topic a few of us have been tweeting about and discussing for the past day or so.

In a series of recent blog posts and in a forthcoming article I have discussed the potential problems with using bad, versus entirely inappropriate measures for determining teacher effectiveness.  I have pointed out, for example, that using value-added measures to estimate teacher effectiveness and then determine whether a teacher should be denied tenure, or have their tenure removed might raise due process concerns which arise from the imprecision and potential outright inaccuracy of teacher effectiveness estimates derived from such methods.

I have also explained that in some states like New Jersey, which have adopted Student Growth Percentile measures as an evaluation tool, that where those measures are used as a basis for dismissing teachers, teachers (or their attorney’s) might simply rely on the language of the authors of those methods to point out that they are not designed to, nor were they intended to attribute responsibility for the measured student growth to the teacher. Where attribution of responsibility is off the table the dismissing a teacher on an assumption of ineffectiveness based on these measures is entirely inappropriate, and a potential violation of the teacher’s due process rights.

But, the problem is that state legislatures are increasingly mandating that these measures absolutely be used when making high stakes personnel decisions. That, for example, such measures count for a significant percentage of the final decision (see notes here) to tenure or remove tenure from a teacher, and in some case (Like NY) that these measures be the absolute determinant (that a teacher cannot be rated as good if they have bad value added ratings).  Some state statutes and regulations provide more flexibility, but essentially require that principals and/or district officials develop their own systems and measures which generally conform to value-added or SGP methods or include them as measures within the evaluation process.

Enter the principal’s dilemma. I would argue that state policymakers in many regards have quickly passed along from one state to another, ill-conceived copy-and-paste legislation with little substantive input from the constituents who actually have to implement this stuff. And, as is clear by the groundswell of opposition in states like New York by principals in particular, many charged with the on-the-ground implementation of these policies are, shall we say, a bit concerned. But what to do?

A principal might be concerned, for example, that if she actually follows through with implementation of these ill-conceived fast-tracked policies, and uses the recommended or required measures or follows the preferred methods for developing her own measures, that she might end up being backed into violating thedue process rights of teachers.  That is, the principal might, in effect, be required to dismiss a teacher based on measures that the principal understands full well are neither reliable nor valid for determining that teacher’s effectiveness.

So, can the principal simply refuse to implement state policy? My guess is that even if the district board of education agreed in principle with the principal, that the state would threaten some action against the local school district – applying sufficient pressure (perhaps financially) – such that the local board of education would take action against the principal. And, because the principal would be failing to fulfill her official duties as defined in state statutes and regulations, the principal would have no legal leg to stand on – though might at least have a clear conscience to carry with her in search of a more reasonable state that has avoided such foolish, restrictive policies.

The principal might instead halfheartedly comply with the letter of the state statutes, but still vocally oppose the statutes and regulations in blogs, on twitter and in local op-ed columns.  This is where we might think that the principal would be on safer ground. Unfortunately, recent legal precedents suggest that even in this case, the principal might be at a loss for a winning legal defense if the local school board is pressured into action against her. To the extent that the principal’s public airing of concerns with the newly adopted policies relate to her own official duties as a principal, the principal may not even be able to make first amendment argument in her own defense, regarding her concerns with the current direction of public policy regarding teacher evaluation. Even though the principal might actually be a pretty good source of opinion on the matter. In Garcetti, the “Supreme Court held that speech by a public official is only protected if it is engaged in as a private citizen, not if it is expressed as part of the official’s public duties.”

An awkward situation indeed. It would seem that the only choice of the principal to not jeopardize her own career is to suck-it-up, be quiet and do what she’s knows is wrong, violating the due process rights of one teacher after another by being the hand that implements the ill-conceived policies drawn up by those with little or no comprehension of what they’ve actually done.

Is this really how we want our schools to be run?

Note: Reformy policy is particularly schizophrenic regarding deference to principals and respect for their decision making capacity.  Consider that two key elements of the reformy teacher effectiveness policy template are a) highly restrictive guidelines/matrices/rating systems for teacher evaluation and b) mutual consent hiring and placement policies.  Mutual consent policies coupled with anti-seniority preference policies (part of the same package) require that when a teacher is to be hired into or placed in a specific school within a district, district officials must have the consent of the school principal in order to make such a placement.  These policies presume that principals make only good personnel decisions but district officials are far more likely to make bad ones. These policies also ignore that districts retain latitude to place principals, and further, that there might actually be a case where the district office wishes to place a top notch teacher in a school that currently has weak leadership – but where that weak leader might be inclined to deny the high quality teacher. It’s just a silly policy with no basis in practicality or in research. But at its core, the mutual consent policy asserts that the principal is all-knowing and the best person to make personnel decisions. However, these mutual consent policies are often included in the very same packages which then require the principal to a) rate teacher effectiveness in accordance with a prescriptive rubric and b) tenure and or de-tenure teachers in accordance with that rubric on highly restrictive timelines (3 good years to tenure, 2 bad and you’re out). Put really simply… it’s one or the other. Either princpals’ expertise should be respected or not.  Simultaneously advocating both perspectives seems little more than an effort to confuse and undermine the efficient operation of public school systems!

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Bruce D. Baker

Bruce D. Baker is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, where he teaches courses in school finance policy and district business management. His recent research focuses on state aid allocation policies and practices, with particular...