School reformers have shown an unlovely fascination with wielding top-down mandates in the hope of making school system bureaucracies behave. This inevitably means taking sensible ideas and turning them into paper-strewn compliance exercises.
A case in point is the 19 days that Nevada’s school principals now report spending each year on pointless clerical work demanded by the state’s new teacher-evaluation system. But more on that in a moment.
While the paper-chase mindset was famously in evidence with the No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration’s ineffectual $8 billion federal School Improvement Grant program, perhaps nowhere has it been clearer than it is with overdue efforts to more effectively evaluate teachers. In 2009, The New Teacher Project (TNTP) published “The Widget Effect,” which found that fewer than 1 percent of teachers were receiving unsatisfactory ratings, even in systems where student outcomes were abysmal. TNTP’s report became a call to action. As Drew University professor Patrick McGuinn put it in 2015, “Teacher quality has become the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s education agenda” and of “contemporary school reform.”
Dozens of states adopted new teacher-evaluation systems that relied upon student achievement and observations of teachers by principals. The new systems cost millions of dollars, involved fierce political fights, and involved tens of thousands of hours in observations and feedback.
The results were dismal. In 2016, Brown University’s Matt Kraft examined these systems in 24 states and found that, in the vast majority of those states, fewer than 1 percent of teachers were still identified as ineffective. What went wrong? Everything. As Kraft and a colleague observed, even years after policies were changed, principals remained unsure what poor teaching looked like, didn’t want to upset their staffs, and didn’t think giving a negative evaluation was worth the hassle.
So, another expensive, ineffective education reform. What’s new? Well, one underappreciated problem with reforms like this is the paperwork. Which brings us back to those 19 days of pointless clerical tasks.
In 2011, Nevada’s legislature enacted the Nevada Educator Performance Framework (NEPF). The new system featured 34 (!) areas of evaluation for each teacher, and later expanded to requiring multiple classroom observations of each teacher as well as post-observation debriefs. The result illustrates how sensible ideas can play out when turned into clumsy mandates.
Principals and teachers readily acknowledge the value of serious, regular classroom observations. Sarah Popek, a Nevada elementary-school principal, says, “We’re [now] focused on outputs and what happens for kids, not just having principals read lesson plans. Also good is that we now require post-observation conferences between principals and teachers. We meet with all teachers now — good or bad — directly after the lesson, when we can really make an impact.”
So far, so good. However, lawmakers feared that some administrators would not play their role wisely or well, and so created a mound of paperwork to ensure that school officials would do their job. Principals across the state are required to fill out a summative 16-plus-page evaluation for each teacher. The evaluations are upwards of 20 pages for ineffective teachers, with three “pieces of evidence” required for dozens of indicators.
The result? In a recent unpublished analysis, administrators in the Clark County school district — the fifth-largest school system in the nation — report spending an average of more than three hours writing a summative evaluation for each teacher in the building. Keep in mind that this is above and beyond the time administrators spend recording evidence during observations. As Popek — who works in Clark County — puts it, “If you have already gone through the standards and observations, the final document is meaningless and the teachers are already aware of all the pieces of evidence . . . so why are we spending three hours writing it up?”
Tallying the hours of paperwork and the number of teachers they supervise, principals estimate that they’re now spending 150 hours each — or 19 work days a year — filling out paperwork that primarily rehashes what they have already observed in classrooms, recorded on paper, and discussed with teachers. Bringing to mind the worst excesses of the mortgage industry, one administrator sighed, “I added up all my work and I had 567 pages of evaluations on 31 teachers I evaluated. . . . We have to initial every single page, and have teachers do the same.”
The struggle to improve balky education bureaucracies can lead school reformers to favor blunt mandates.
The struggle to improve balky education bureaucracies can lead school reformers to favor blunt mandates. Too often, seemingly sensible efforts wind up as caricatures, breeding cynicism, creating new layers of bureaucracy, and sucking up time and energy better devoted to students. Rather than promoting flexibility and accountability, reformers wind up championing paperwork and procedure.
Teachers absolutely need to be evaluated more rigorously, and those results should be used to recognize excellence and address ineptitude. The way to get there, however, is not by imposing paper burdens but by giving school leaders more leeway to manage their teams and holding them accountable for the results. That’s a useful lesson for reformers to keep in mind as a new school year commences.