Note from Dave: I first became aware of Dr. Richard DuFour when I moved to Cedar Springs and experienced professional learning communities (PLCs) for the first time. When I was approached about hosting a guest article from Dr. DuFour, I was eager to read what he had to say after a decorated career as a leader in education. Below you’ll find debunked a popular myth that many of my readers — be they teacher, coaches, or administrators — will recognize. Teachers, the thinking goes, just need to be monitored more closely and evaluated more intensively.
Dr. DuFour’s new book, called In Praise of American Educators: And How They Can Become Even Better, is out now. Dr. DuFour was also gracious enough to give 30 minutes of his time for an expert interview inside of Teaching with Articles.
It is conventional wisdom in the United States that our public schools are failing. This is the message that Americans have received, ad nauseam. Plug the phrase “failing schools” into the searchable database Nexis, and it provides 544 hits in newspapers and wire stories for the single month of January, 2012. Because our schools are clearly failing, the federal and state governments have taken steps to improve schooling in our country by holding educators more accountable.
There are a great many myths that have driven this narrative. I would like to address one of them.
Myth: Intensive supervision and evaluation of teachers will improve schools by leading to the dismissal of ineffective teachers.
Principals are being called upon to devote much more time to observing, supervising, and evaluating individual teachers into better performance. The effort to improve schools by supervising a faculty into better performance will only lead to higher levels of student learning if principals have the time and expertise to provide meaningful feedback to every individual teacher. There is no evidence that these conditions exist. The average principal oversees twenty to forty teachers compared to an eight- to ten-employee “span of control” in most other professions. A review of the research on the principalship identified twenty-one distinct responsibilities principals must address in an environment where any or all of these responsibilities can be put on the back burner by a crisis over which the principal has little control.
There is growing concern that the demands on principals have expanded beyond what can be expected of mere mortals. As Michael Fullan writes on the principalship, “New expectations have been added on to the traditional ones without any consideration of whether the new role in its entirety is feasible under the current working conditions faced by principals. The principalship is being placed in an impossible position.” Principals agree. Seventy-five percent of them report their jobs are too complex to be done well.
But even if principals could somehow carve out time for the time-intensive process of observing and evaluating teachers on a much more frequent basis, they often lack the content and pedagogical expertise to offer meaningful feedback to teachers. As a former high school principal with a major in history, I had no clue whether or not the teachers I observed in a calculus, foreign language, physics, auto mechanics, or countless other courses were presenting content at the appropriate level of rigor. In fact, they could have been presenting information that was totally incorrect and I would have had no way of knowing.
One of the most comprehensive analyses of factors that improve schooling concluded “there is a robust body of empirical work that informs us that if school improvement is the goal, school leaders would be advised to spend their time and energy in areas other than teacher evaluation.” If current efforts to supervise teachers into better performance have proven ineffective (and they have), the solution is not to double down on a bad strategy and demand more classroom observations, tighter supervision, and more punitive evaluations. The effort to improve schools through tougher supervision and evaluation is doomed to fail because it asks the wrong question. The question isn’t, “How can we demand that principals do a better job of monitoring teaching?” but rather, “How can we collectively do a better job of monitoring student learning?”
Thank you to Dr. Richard DuFour, a public school educator for thirty-four years during which both he and the school and district he led were the recipient of numerous state and national awards. He is an author and consultant and considered one of the nation’s leading authorities on implementing the professional learning community process in schools. His latest book, In Praise of American Educators: And How They Can Become Even Better is available through Solution-Tree Publishing and Amazon.com.