After Washington remodeled its teacher-evaluation system, districts hired many more assistant principals — a position that hadn’t existed at most elementary schools.

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When Washington remodeled its teacher-evaluation system roughly six years ago, it may have also triggered an unintended hiring spree.

The number of assistant principals in Washington surged by 29 percent in just five school years, according to a recent University of Washington analysis of school leadership in this state, one of the first of its kind. The biggest jump was in elementary schools, where the head count for assistant principals shot up 126 percent during that time period, from 162 to 366 people.

What these numbers (and experts) tell us:

The data, analyzed by UW faculty members Ana Elfers and Margaret Plecki, show the uptick in assistant principals starting around 2012 — just as schools started to adopt the new evaluation system, known as the Teacher/Principal Evaluation program, or TPEP.

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Why would the new program create such a personnel shake-up?

The short answer is that it created a significant amount of additional work for principals, and many schools — when they could afford it — hired extra help in the form of assistant principals, said Sue Anderson, director of educator effectiveness for the state’s education department.

“We can’t say for sure that the evaluation system is responsible for the growth in the number of assistant principals,” she said. “[But] that’s our hunch. “

Under TPEP, the system for evaluating teachers (and principals) became more rigorous. Principals (or superintendents, when principals are being evaluated) have to collect evidence that their faculty members are performing satisfactorily based on eight different criteria set by the state (called the “State 8”). That work that requires more than just classroom observations, according to Anderson. To evaluate how teachers are communicating with families, for example, principals pore over email exchanges or sit in on parent-teacher conferences.

Assistant principals assigned to elementary schools — either in part-time or full-time positions — made up most of the growth, maybe because few grade schools had assistant principals before TPEP. Elfers and Plecki suspect large, high-poverty elementary schools already had been wanting more administrative support, and the switch to the TPEP system gave them another reason to add it.

What these numbers don’t tell us:

The move to TPEP may have resulted in other new jobs, too, which were examined in another report by the same authors. Some districts, like Tumwater, created a dean of students or other roles to offload some of the new work a principal might have, said Anderson. Assistant principals were just part of the shake-up.

Also noteworthy is that the data above includes only a head count of assistant principals, and some might be working in part-time positions in more than one school or role. More detailed numbers are listed in an appendix to the report.

Why this data matters:

TPEP works best when there’s time for it, the experts say.

“If a district is going to get as much leverage as possible around teacher growth out of the [evaluation] system, they have to ensure that school leaders have adequate time to be in classrooms and working with teachers to support their learning,” said Anderson.

A survey on the implementation of TPEP, released in 2017 and also authored by Plecki and Elfers, includes some evidence that TPEP’s impact on leadership might be a positive thing for teachers. A majority of teachers surveyed (72 percent) agreed that school leaders have created an environment that supports risk-taking and professional growth. More than half said the evaluations helped them improve their teaching skills with students from diverse backgrounds.

But while they agree the extra staff is a step in the right direction, both researchers are concerned about districts that can’t afford to add more employees.

 

“There’s been plenty of research that says school leadership matters. It matters for teacher retention, and it matters for teacher learning,” said Plecki. “… We’re concerned about the extent to which school districts that need assistant principals can actually hire them.”