PSAT for 12-6-11: School principals, unite!

Last night we watched a charming movie, “Amreeka,” about a Palestinian mom and her son who emigrate to Illinois the same week the US invaded Iraq. Not surprisingly, they encounter some challenges. Somewhat surprisingly, one of the film’s heroes is the mild-mannered principal of the local high school.

School principals are popularly portrayed as creeps, crooks, or idiots (anyone besides me remember Osgood Conklyn in Our Miss Brooks? OK, how about Glee’s Principal Figgins?).

My own experience of principals in the Chicago system has been similarly mixed. As a Local School Council (LSC) member, one of my first successful fights was getting rid of a do-nothing principal. The LSC’s choice appeared to be a dynamo at first but she quickly turned paranoid and never became effective. Over the years, we have found the same pattern with promising new principals. Our theory is that they are getting incredibly bad advice from somewhere at the central office. It got so bad that the CPS Law Department started to run workshops a few years ago on how new principals can avoid becoming one-term wonders.

Fortunately, I’ve also encountered a lot of terrific and often courageous principals, from Chicago Principals’ and Administrators’ Assoc. president Clarice Berry to some original and long-time PURE members.

Principals in Chicago are under enormous pressure. They must work well with parents and LSC members while also operating under the heavy thumb of the central office. Retaliation is second nature in this corrupt City Hall-dominated system. Speaking out usually seems too dangerous, at least until your school goes on the closure list. Even then some principals will take a pass, hoping to be offered a quiet place to land.

But things have gotten so bad – at least in New York State – that more than 750 school principals have signed onto a public letter expressing their opposition to a new state law requiring the use of student test scores in teacher and principal evaluation.

The same kind of law that was recently passed here in Illinois.

For Public Schools Action Tuesday today, why not share this article with your school principal and ask him/her about starting a similar petition here in Illinois? Or, if you are a principal, why not start it yourself, or simply sign on to the NY principals’ letter?

I just sent this letter to CPAA President Berry:

Dear Clarice:

I am writing to urge you and the CPAA to follow the lead of principals in New York State and take a united public stand against the new Illinois state-mandated principal and teacher performance rules developed under the new Performance Evaluation Reform Act.

In a recently posted letter and petition, the New York State principals make the following points, among others, which also apply to the Illinois law:

  • Educational research and researchers strongly caution against teacher evaluation approaches like New York Stateʼs APPR legislation, and the proposed PERA assessments.
  • Value-added models (VAM) of teacher effectiveness, which are being heavily promoted by the Obama administration, do not produce stable ratings of teachers. Researchers have found that how a teacher is rated changes from class to class, from year to year, and even from test to test.
  • There is no evidence that evaluation systems that incorporate student test scores produce gains in student achievement. Student test scores have not been found to be a strong predictor of the quality of teaching as measured by other instruments or approaches.
  • Like the Illinois state test, the New York State standardized tests are designed to evaluate student learning, not teacher effectiveness, nor student learning growth. Using them to measure the latter is akin to using a meter stick to weigh a person: you might be able to develop a formula that links height and weight, but there will be plenty of error in your calculations.
  • The new law is likely to increase narrowing of the curriculum as teachers focus more on test preparation and skill and drill teaching.
  • Scarce tax dollars are being redirected from schools to testing companies, trainers and outside vendors.

Most importantly, according to a nine-year study by the National Research Council, the past decadeʼs emphasis on testing has yielded little learning progress, especially considering the cost to our taxpayers.

The New York letter also includes solid recommendations for alternative evaluation methods.

I hope you will consider spearheading a similar protest here in Illinois. PURE will proudly support your efforts.

Best wishes,

Julie Woestehoff

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About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.