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Principals under scrutiny for high teacher ratings

(This is one of six stories on the release of teacher evaluation data. For links to all the stories go here.)

The school officials charged with evaluating educators — principals — are under scrutiny after they gave out very few low scores last year.

Across the state, less than one half of 1 percent of educators were rated ineffective last year under a new evaluation system designed to tell teachers apart, while 97 percent received effective or highly effective ratings.

Most districts counted principal observations as a majority of teachers’ ratings. Now, state education leaders and others are questioning whether principals were just easy graders — or whether they might not have been trained adequately on the new evaluation expectations.

“A tool is only as good as an evaluator using the tool,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Brad Oliver. “What has been done to make sure building principals are well trained to make sure the tool is being used the way it’s designed to be used?”

The state and school districts provided training, but the new systems are complex and represented a big departure from what most schools did in the past. Some principals went from observing and reviewing some teachers less than once a year to visiting their classroom five times or more.

Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said principals are doing exactly what was asked of them — and improving teacher quality in the process.

“When we talk to principals across the state, once they got better accustomed to what the evaluation process would look like in their individual districts, they are having much richer conversations with teachers as a part of this process,” he said. “I really do think we are using it effectively.”

Indianapolis Public School Board member Caitlin Hannon, a former teacher who now tries to get teachers involved in education policy as executive director of TeachPlus, said there are questions about how well both evaluators and teachers were trained.

“In talking to teachers, their issue isn’t with the tool,” she said. “It’s more of an issue of trusting implementation. It generally comes down to the principal as to whether people are pleased with it or not.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said her own experience being evaluated gives an example of how different interpretations of teacher expectations can create confusion and mistrust.

Meredith worked as a kindergarten teacher in Shelbyville last year before taking over as union president and was eager to see how her teaching was evaluated. She wanted very much to be rated highly effective.

But she instead she was rated a 3, or just effective. When she scrutinized her scores, she realized one factor had knocked her down a notch — she was rated a 3 instead of a 4 for “leadership.”

The district’s system rewards teachers for demonstrating leadership in the profession at any level — in the classroom, the building, the district or on the state or national level. Meredith, who last year was vice president of the statewide teachers union, wondered how she could not have possibly earned less than a top rating as a leader in the profession?

Meredith said she has written grants and done other service to her school and the district as well. But it was up to administrators to decide what constituted “leadership.”

“If it would have impacted my compensation,” she said, “I would have thrown a fit.”

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