Feature

Demystifying Performance Documentation

How to Get Rid of the Excuses and Tell It Like It Is by Richard A. Schwartz


Have you ever spoken these words? Or, alternatively, "My hands are tied by the union contract."

If you have ever uttered such nonsense or agreed with someone else who has, then you are part of the problem in public education today. By repeating or actually believing in these traditional and lame excuses, you are allowing a poorly performing teacher to provide a less-than-adequate education in some cases to an entire generation of students from which more will be expected than ever before.

Too often we elevate form over substance in public education today. In my experience as a school attorney working with thousands of school administrators over the years, I have found that, for the most part, they can be expert at filling out the required forms and processing the paperwork necessary to a teacher evaluation process. But does that solve the problems relating to a sub-par teacher? Far more often than not, the answer is "no."

Most teacher evaluation processes have not been designed to deal with the minority of teachers who have serious performance problems. Rather, they are designed to foster and promote continued growth among the vast majority of teachers already performing at an acceptable level. With the restrictions and requirements relating to classroom observations, improvement plans, and year-end evaluations, we tend to lose sight of the place where the evaluation process is most likely to have a significant impact on students. We need to focus more of our efforts on our poorest teachers.

Basic Understanding

The whole process of performance documentation has become more complicated and clouded with myths than it needs to be. So let's start by demystifying the entire process and getting back to basics with some fundamental beliefs.

* No. 1: At some level, a relationship must exist between student performance and the instructional competence of classroom teachers. If you agree, then move on to the next basic belief.

* No. 2: We should be able to improve student achievement by improving or removing teachers whose instructional skills are less than adequate. If that is the case, then the third basic belief logically follows.

* No. 3: The performance evaluation or appraisal system should be used as a tool to help improve instruction. If it is not, then we are negatively impacting student achievement.

Can we allow an expected or acceptable level of poor teachers in our classrooms? Fifteen percent? Ten percent? Five percent? Your answer may vary, as long as one of them is not teaching your own child. But if the teacher instructing your child is doing poorly, the existence of even one such inadequate teacher is clearly unacceptable. If it would be unacceptable for your own child, then whose child would you place with that teacher?

Ask yourself what you think is the percentage of poorly performing teachers in your own school district. Even if that percentage is as low as five percent, what impact do these poorly performing teachers have on your school system?

A Credibility Gap

If you have a school system with 300 teachers, a mere five percent of whom are performing at a less than adequate level, then you have 15 teachers delivering inadequate instruction. Assuming those 15 teachers represent a mix of elementary, middle, and high school teachers, each may teach anywhere from 25 to 125 students per day. Assuming a relatively conservative estimate of 50 students per day being taught by these 15 teachers, we can safely predict that approximately 750 of the students being taught daily in this school system are receiving inadequate instruction from a poorly performing teacher. The fact that we allow this problem to persist is an indictment of school administrators and, in some cases, represents an abandonment of professional, moral, and ethical responsibilities. Beyond that, it represents perhaps the greatest public relations problem we face in the schools today.

By tolerating or offering excuses for poor teaching in our classrooms, we add to the credibility problems facing public schools. Just as bad, we damage the credibility and reputation of the teaching profession in general by allowing poor teachers to taint the reputations of all teachers and make their challenging jobs more difficult.

I often conduct training programs for administrators in which I invite them to play a game. I ask them to close their eyes and concentrate on their school, or the school with which they are most familiar. Then I ask them to raise their hands just as soon as they get a picture in their mind of a person they believe to be the worst teacher in that school. It is a rare audience that takes more than five seconds before everyone raises a hand. Try it yourself sometime.

What does this exercise tell us? Well, for one thing, it tells us that principals and superintendents already know who the weak teachers are. And they are not alone. If you were to conduct the same exercise at a faculty meeting, chances are overwhelming the faculty members would identify the same teacher(s) as their principal. If you really want to have some fun, try conducting this exercise at a PTA meeting. (Don't forget your armor!)

It's no big secret who the poor teachers are in our classrooms. Our administrators know, their fellow faculty members know, as do parents and students. In fact, the entire community knows. More than likely, they know who the poor teachers are, in part, because they have been there long enough to have solidly established their reputations. And, if everybody knows the weak teachers, what else do they know about your school and the manner in which it is run?

Well, for one thing, they know that these poor teachers are still there, year after year. Why is that? Because far too often administrators fail to tell the truth about these teachers in the evaluation or documentation process, continuing to allow them to teach at the same inadequate level. The truth is that these teachers remain in the classroom only because administrators allow them to remain.

Lame Responses

How do administrators tend to respond when these teachers come under fire from parents? Administrators tend to defend incompetent teachers with responses such as these:

  • "Give your child a little more time to get used to Mr. X's style." (Translation: In another month or two, we will be so far into the school year that you will be less likely to come back to complain.)
  • "Mrs. Y can be a very good teacher for certain students." (Translation: I need to remember to stack her classroom with kids whose parents are the least likely to complain.)
  • "I am sure everything will work out by the end of the school year." (Translation: Just stick it out until the end of the year and your child will move on to the next grade level.)
  • "There is nothing I can do about it, she's got tenure." (Translation: I am not going to invest the time and energy it might take to properly document this teacher's performance.)
  • "I can't do anything because of the union contract." (Translation: Even if I can do anything, I am not about to mess with the union.)

When school administrators defend these employees, parents and others see you as defending obvious incompetents. They wonder whether you really know what is going on in your own school or district. That is, they wonder whether you really are clueless or whether you are simply putting on your best administrator face and lying to them. As they ponder this dicey choice, parents are not gaining confidence in the public schools or their administrators. It stands to reason in their minds, if you are not telling the truth about something as basic as the teacher to whom they have entrusted their child, then you must be willing to wiggle about on almost anything.

 

As public and legislated mandates for school improvement and accountability grow, we can no longer indulge poorly performing teachers while expecting to improve student achievement. Ultimately, student achievement will be the only measure of success that matters within our public schools, and (returning to Basic Belief No. 1) student achievement is affected by teacher performance. With the greatest part of school budgets being devoted to teacher salaries, we no longer can afford to allow poorly performing teachers to drain dollars and adversely impact our bottom line: student learning.

A Clear Goal

For these reasons, it is imperative that we address this issue head on. We must be willing to tell the truth when documenting performance. The evaluation process is the most critical tool we have for either improving performance or for removing inadequate teachers from our classrooms. But we also must recognize that once we have identified a poorly performing teacher it will take more than filling out the standard forms to bring about improvement.

If school administrators already have a good idea of who the poorest teachers are, why then aren't they already using the documentation process to do something about it? Of course, some are, but it is easier to ignore or pay scant attention to the problem.

Improving poor teacher performance should be a top priority. It should be clearly stated and emphasized to everyone as a school system goal. Your public expects it and may even demand it. Your school board should establish standards of excellence, through policy, as the expectation for teachers in your system. At the same time, your teachers' associations or unions can hardly afford to be seen as opposing high standards. They may even be willing supporters.

Once standards have been established, performance can be measured against those standards. But this measurement must be done with far more credibility and honesty than most administrators currently apply. Documentation will be effective only if it is honest, straightforward and complete. Anything otherwise is just more paper.

One Approach

Several school systems have begun to approach these problems in a systemic way modeled on a concept developed in the Guilford County, N.C., schools, called Project H.E.L.P.: Helping Evaluators Lift Performance. The H.E.L.P. approach calls for the following:

  1. Establish procedures and train administrators for documenting performance in providing written plans of improvement;
  2. Identify staff who can give and who need help;
  3. Develop and implement action plans for those teachers most in need of help, specifically defining problems and prescribing strategies to demonstrate improvement; and
  4. Assist principals in removing employees who cannot or will not meet performance expectations.

Training and re-training of administrators is vital to this entire effort, ensuring a consistent process and approach among all evaluators. Second, the training should be conducted by individuals who have a thorough and practical knowledge of school law. By focusing the training on a thorough legal understanding of what tenure is (and what it is not), and what due process may be required under state law, board policy, or union contract, we can get past some of the fear of the unknown.

 

Third, state and local requirements for teacher performance, along with a thorough outline of the duties of teachers and the powers and duties of principals, must be understood clearly by administrators who will be charged with carrying out this process. Finally, administrators need detailed instruction on how to effectively document poor performance. Effective documentation, not just more of it, is what we are after.

Administrators undergoing such training should be told the truth: this is a difficult job to which they must remain committed over time. The training should provide them with the tools needed to get the job done. But in many cases, administrators will need to change their thinking, habits, and priorities to meet this challenge. Administrators need to be told very clearly that this requires more than merely processing the required paperwork for teacher evaluations. From now on, especially with our poorest teachers, we need to produce substance and results.

That means one of two things: (1) improve a teacher's performance to an acceptable level or (2) remove those who cannot or will not improve to that level. In either case, effective documentation is the key to a fair and legally sound solution.

Honesty Counts

As principals and other administrators increasingly find themselves being held accountable for various measures of achievement in their schools, they must recognize the potential adverse impact of each poorly performing teacher. They must be made aware that teacher performance is a key variable and that it must become a high priority. The performance of principals and other administrators should be measured in part on their own honesty in the evaluation process and the effectiveness of their own evaluation skills.

Finally, to charge administrators with these responsibilities and to provide them with the skills, training, and support needed to honestly describe and document poor performance is not enough. Building-level administrators must be fully supported and carefully guided throughout this process by strong superintendents and central-office staffs, if they are to be successful. They cannot be left to wonder whether they are out on that limb by themselves, or they will quickly fall back on old excuses and bad habits.

Eliminating excuses and providing administrators with the tools and support they need to tell it like it is are two key steps toward a more effective documentation process, providing a legally sound basis to improve or remove a poorly performing teacher. That, in turn, will increase the possibilities for better student performance.

Richard Schwartz is managing partner, Schwartz & Shaw, Attorneys At Law, Raleigh, N.C.