The Principal’s Dilemma

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 the due 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!



  1. This is how courage is systematically wiped out of our education system. The best principals, legally, are the ones that comply without questions. The best principals for kids, though, ask lots of questions. Policies like this, when passed by state legislatures, thus affect more than just teachers, they systematically dis-courage the system.

  2. It is such a shame as to what our legislators are doing to our children in the name of trying to help them. The unintended outcomes are only going to destroy all the good work done by educators since Socrates, St. Benedict or Dewey. Still we must follow the money as it controls their (politicians) thoughts and promotes ill founded ideas.

  3. April 4, 2012


    Your conclusions regarding the school principal’s feeble role in articulating openly the flaws of value-added growth measures of student performance are warranted. And until there is a constructive conversation with all stakeholders regarding the nature, validity, and reliability of reasonable and relevant growth measures, I just do not see how these value-added student performance policies will effectively assess what they are so-called designed to assess.
    Along with the problem of principal’s lacking objectivity, the key problem that I have with emerging growth measures is that they can only be directly applied to a select group of teachers in a given building — only those teachers whose students will take state tests! Currently, this removes the co-curricular instructional staff (art, music, home-economic teachers) in many states. And least of wh the human resource staff (guidance counselors, school-psychologists, social workers, etc). How will these members of the faculty be evaluated. It appears to me that the teacher evaluation system must avoid duplicitous approaches of rating — such as a rating system for teachers administering state tests in contrast to a rating system for teachers that administer school-based assessments.
    I will state one thing about the assessment program in the Commonwealth of Kentucky — notwithstanding the fact that we are experiencing our third iteration of assessment since the Kentucky Education Reform Act was passed in 1990 — , and that is when school policy makers and practitioners are directly involved in the formation of policy, especially assessment policy, then this policy has more validity and relevance. [I applaud Jay Heubert of TC-Columbia University for this insight.] I sincerely hope that a dialogue between practitioner-policy maker-and-legislator continues in this state as well as others, such as New York; otherwise, this state will possibly engage in a stage of assessment experimentation that will encounter an ensuing iteration of policy ‘retooling’.
    Now as an aside Bruce, I am curious about your views on the recent influence and publications of James Stronge of the College of William and Mary in the formation of growth measures in state teacher and principal assessment programs?

    Tyrone Bynoe

  4. That is an interesting perspective on mutual consent policies. Your point, of a district wanting to place a high performing teacher in a school with a weak principal, makes some sense. On the other hand, I’m under the impression that more often that teachers that are being reshuffled due to seniority and cuts or other reasons are being moved to new schools without much thought by anyone.

    All I’m really interested in is that *someone* is giving it thought, that assignments are not via algorithm nor are problem staff members imposed on others. In general, I’m inclined for that person to be the principal because that’s the person who has to deal with the teacher every day and worry about if the teacher is meshing well with the rest of the staff. (It’s possible to be a very good/useful teacher and not a good fit for a particular school.) To my mind, if the district can’t convince a marginal principal to accept a high performing teacher hand-picked for the school, maybe a better action is instead to replace the principal.

    1. I guess my perspective on this would be that either principals or district central office are probably equally likely to make either good or bad decisions. Therefore, declaring in statute that one has final say over the other, in direct opposition to the assumed control structure makes little or no sense. Mutual consent policies come about during the push for site based budgeting control, where it was assumed that site based planning/budgeting were really only legit where principals had control over staffing decisions. A primary reason for the policy was to provide the opportunity for principals to leverage their decision making in order to improve the distribution of quality teaching across diverse schools within large urban district settings. Unfortunately, the one longitudinal study of this policy change found that in the short term, teachers actually became more unevenly distributed (as teachers with 5 to 15 years experience had new opportunities to make moves out of high need schools, whereas previously, even more senior teachers had them locked in). In the longer run, the system reached an equilibrium little or no different from before the policy change.

      There also exists that pesky problem of the uneven distribution of principal quality which I have written about in my own work. If principal quality is unevenly distributed by student needs across schools, then decentralizing control to principals may do more harm than good. Redistributing principal quality must be a starting point.

      So… yes… I do acknowledge that there exist those circumstances where less than ideal algorithms are driving centralized personnel placement. Even then, legislated mutual consent is not a legit solution.

  5. Great post! The conflict between teachers’ due process rights and newly mandated evaluation protocol is, and will continue to be cause for concern among school leaders.
    I’m novice when it comes to school law, so forgive me if this is a silly question. Will the aforementioned issue affect states that lack a statutory tenure clause? For instance, Indiana recently wiped out their tenure laws, and many states never had them to begin with. Will this contradiction be an issue for school leaders in “tenure-less” states? Or another way of getting at the question, how strong will teachers’ due process rights be in states that lack formal tenure clauses?

    1. An excellent question, but one perhaps more suited to my true legal scholar colleagues. I suspect it will depend on just how far the changes went – if, for example, the new statutory language explicitly defines teacher contracts as year to year, essentially eliminating any property interest to a subsequent year of contract. If that’s the case, then due process isn’t needed for non-renewal anyway. So, they can non-renew you on the basis of bad data, no data, or no basis at all.

      If on the other hand, the changes lie somewhere between, then the courts will have to figure out exactly what they mean.

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