Monday, August 17, 2009

District flunked test on evaluating school principals

Disappointed by the silent treatment Fayette County has given the issue of principal evaluations, while they rest on the board attorney's public proclaimation that the district was doing exactly what they should be doing, I whipped together a little piece that ran in the Herald-Leader today. It won't be new to KSN&C readers. ...just reworked, and said a little louder.


By Richard Day in the Herald-Leader:

At issue: Herald-Leader editorial, July 31: “The rest of the story; Petrilli case leaves troubling questions.”

A surprising revelation from Peggy Petrilli’s unsuccessful racial discrimination suit against Fayette County Superintendent Stu Silberman was that principals rarely — if ever — get marked down on their evaluations.

A Herald-Leader editorial was correct to say, “the district must do a better job of evaluating employees. ... employees who aren’t accurately graded can’t really be expected to improve.”

Given his considerable talents, it must have been difficult for the editorial board to pen comments critical of Silberman, although they softened it as much as they could. Their assessment that problems existed with “the district” deflected responsibility. And writing that “employees” weren’t being marked down takes the focus off principals, the real issue.

Silberman testified that he was aware of numerous problems at Booker T. Washington Academy, but incredibly, the Herald-Leader claims he “had no inkling of the irregularities that would later be discovered.”

Silberman told the jury that the district immediately reported allegations that Petrilli was cheating on state tests to the Kentucky Department of Education. In fact, before her resignation, the board attorney advised Silberman to suspend Petrilli, but he refused.

No inkling? C’mon.

Silberman testified, “It was an ongoing litany of problems and we supported Peggy in every single one of them... please understand there was a problem every other day.”

The jury heard that she demoted fourth graders on the first day of testing, monkeyed with test booklets, muffed hiring practices, created tremendous staff turnover, went back on agreements, ignored students’ individual education plans, jeopardized Reading First funding for 11 schools and made unilateral program
changes that damaged relationships.

The district showed, to great effect, that parents had reason to complain on grounds that had nothing to do with race, thus crippling Petrilli’s claim of a discriminatory conspiracy.

But you wouldn’t know any of it from looking at Petrilli’s stellar evaluations.

Silberman says they “supported Peggy.” But what the district really did was enable Petrilli by not using the evaluation system as it was intended: to motivate her to improve in areas where she was weak.

In a May 2008 editorial the Herald-Leader regretted its prior belief in “miracle-working” principals and noted “how eager everyone was to be gulled, to believe that all it takes is the right principal for kids who have almost no advantages to suddenly knock the lid off standardized tests.”

Has the paper really sworn off the idea of a savior, or just switched to superintendents? Having helped build the pedestal from which Petrilli fell, would they erect a new one for Silberman?

We should support our leaders when they are right and depart from them when they are wrong. But if leadership is not challenged through the evaluation system or in the public forum, the motivation to do better disappears.

State regulations already outline an evaluation system that will work, but only if the district uses it as designed.

Richard Day of Lexington is a former principal of Cassidy Elementary School.


Anonymous said...

Well written article. Why was Stu Silberman not giving accurate evaluations to principals? Why is Mr. Day the only one who seems to notice the falsification of records at Central Office?

Anonymous said...

"We should support our leaders when they are right and depart from them when they are wrong."

Mr. Silberman was clearly wrong not to give Petrelli and honest evaluation that showed her deficiencies.

As a Central Office employee, I no longer feel comfortable supporting "Stu."

Anonymous said...

Anyone that knows what it takes to be a good manager, knows that an evaluation should never be a surprise. With that spoken, giving an evaluation that is contradicting to actual performance, in this case should have won Ms. Petrilli her lawsuit in and of itself!

Richard Day said...


It was a bit long and they trimmed a couple of points but it was a pretty fair edit.

I think of the problem as doing a lousy job of evaluating staff rather than falsification of records or anything illegal.

To be clear, it was certainly Silberman's responsibility and he must have been aware on some level that his directors weren't marking anyone down. But the evaluations were completed by the directors.

At one point Lisa Stone told the jury she didn't believe she had ever marked any principal down for anything. I was so startled I had to ask Jim Warren (H-L) if I got the quote right.

I believe most principals want to do a good job and want accurate feedback on how they're doing.

We are in state where personal relationships (loyalty) makes the political engine move. So most folks avoid criticizing friends. I can certainly understand why. It's uncomfortable. But in my opinion, that's about adults. I agree with Stu that our focus must remain on what's best for kids. But that means that, if we are willing to tell the truth, the adults are going to bump into each other from time to time. The only reason to evaluate staff is because it produces a better result for kids. If we're not going to use the system properly, the organization is better off having principals self-evaluate.

The quote (as I indicated to H-L) was a paraphrase from Lincoln.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful quote, Richard, but I'm befuddled by the mixed responses you give to Stu.

If you really believe, as I do not, that Stu has the best intentions of kids in mind, why criticize him at all. Why criticize the stellar grades he gives principals, even those who are screwing up as Petrelli did? Is this not an extension of his educational philosophy: all can succeed? All can be successful!

Should we simply not allow Stu to his work unmolested, unquestioned, and be the spiritual successor to M.A. Cassidy, a pillar of the community so beloved that when he died his funeral brought a very public outporing of grief?

Richard Day said...

Befuddled? Yeah...I get that a lot. I think it's because I try to strip personalities and biases out of my analysis and just see where the facts lead me.

But you have asked the central question: Why criticize him at all?

In my mind, I hope I'm making things better. I hope that my words will make sense, resonate with the public, and that they will motiviate Silberman, and/or the board, to fix what's broken. If the result is that FCPS directors begin evaluating principals again, then I will consider my efforts to have been successful - and I will hope this helps kids somewhere down the line.

I have this crazy notion the individual citizens can make a difference.

As for what Stu really believes, I have to take a man at his word. He has certainly shown personal integrity in other areas.

But I am also aware of claims that what really matters to Stu is Stu. I think a lot of strong leaders are vulnerable on this point. I am presently researching the positive and negative impact of ego on leadership and will probably have something on that at some point in the future. (Best new book on that topic: Egonomics by Marcum & Smith)

What I found most interesting about Stu's philosophy, as expressed in the trial, was his subordination of all other concerns to what he saw as Petrilli's special gift. He was apparently willing to forgive everything else if it turned the schools numbers around. This was a real "ends justify the means" kind of thinking. Lot's of folks say they will do "whatever it takes" to raise students achievement numbers. This would seem to be a pristine example of that philosophy in action.

I can't teach my students to "be Stu" - or anyone else for that matter. But we can analyze the actions of our leaders and try to learn whatever lessons present themselves. I want my students to enhance their natural gifts - and with a lot of hard work - to become that best teachers and leaders they can be.

This approach invariably leads me to conclude that people are a mix of strengths and weaknesses...good acts...and some not so good. With me, Stu gets credit for the good stuff he does but he gets gigged for the mistakes. Nobody's perfect.

Most folks just want me to jump to the bottom line and endorse or oppose someone...I tend to go the other way. Had I been elected to the Board I surely would have taken a different approach, but I didn't get the job and chose instead to write commentary on the most important issues facing education today. Now I say out loud what I would have said in private.

As for Stu's legacy, I believe that remains to be determined. Historians will have to wait a couple of decades to better understand the long-term impact of his programs, in the context of this new wave of school reform, before drawing their conclusions. But I'd have to guess his chances of being seen in the top three are pretty good.

Cassidy was a different man in a different age. I visited his grave site at the Lexington Cemetary. Very touching.

Anonymous said...

...He was apparently willing to forgive everything else if it turned the schools numbers around...

Of course he was. Stu has told the story, on many occasions, about how his superintendent appointed him principal in one of the lowest performing schools in the State (Chattanooga TN, I believe). It was a school much like BTWA is today. He brags, in his humble way of course, about how he turned that school around in one year to make it one of the top, if not the top, performing school in the state. He attributes it all to the principal's leadership.

He formed BTWA by combining two existing schools for the sole purpose of being able to appoint the principal and repeat his miracle. He wanted to take the worst performing school in the state, The Academy, and in a year or two, make it one of the top performing schools. He hand-picked Peggy to do it. He knew, and made known to people close to him, that if the council selected the principal, the changes needed in that school for the improvement he wanted to see (namely, improved CATS scores) would not happen. That was the whole point of combining two schools, into one create a new school, dissolve the councils, and the superintendent gets to appoint the Principal.

There were people very close to Stu at the time who were not in favor of this, who didn't think it could be done, but he assured them that he had done it before and it could be done with the right "leadership"...leadership that he hand-selected. I don't begrudge him his little "experiment", but I lost a lot of respect for him for the way he threw Peggy under the bus once the heat got turned up on him.

I'm sure Peggy made mistakes and may have "bent" a few rules, but she was doing what she was placed there to do. She was rewarded by being made a scape-goat.

Anonymous said...

Excellent response, and I believe every word you say, too, Mr. Day.

I watch the news about Mr. Silberman and really have to wonder about this man. Being an educator who would never trumpet my own accomplishments, I am horrified at this man who, until recently, has loved the microphone and taken credit for what the teachers have done.

A parent said to me the other day, "My daughter loved school more when it wasn't about testing." I bit my tongue, because I knew I could not address the testing mania Stu has inaugurated.

Your op-ed piece was well-written and to the point. It has gotten a lot of people to talk at our school, and it got a lot of people to think. Sad to say, Mr. Silberman will be advised not to address the issues you raised.

Our leaders are there to follow rules, and I'm disappointed Mr. Silberman did not. In any case, where is the lawsuit going filed by the guidance counselor at Jesse Clark?

Anonymous said...

I'm sickened by those incredible stories of Stu Silberman and how he turned around the school in Chattanooga.

Does the man have no modesty? Why is his instrument the loudest in the percussion section?

Anonymous said...

Maybe Stu should go personally to some of the weaker performing schools in Fayette County and wave his magic wand.....And, poof, the schools will turn around like they did in Chattanooga.

He really is my hero!

Liz said...

I know I am two years behind on reading this entry, but I am quite impressed with your comments on evaluation, Dr. Day. You are an excellent writer, and what you say about evaluations can certainly apply to Universities as well as public schools. I have worked in a University setting for two years now, and I can certainly see where leaders (Deans, Chairs, etc.) should be evaluated honestly and forthrightly, not only for a Department's sake, but for the students' sake as well.

Richard Day said...

Thanks Liz.

I am still relatively new to higher Ed but it does seem to be a different world "up" here. P-12 schools are about the kids. Higher Ed seems to be about the professors. It's an adjustment.