09/18/2012 03:22 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

If Principals Can Do It, Why Can't We?

The toxic debate over educator evaluation increasingly pits labor against management so it was encouraging to see LAUSD and the Administrators Association of LA strike a deal this week for evaluating public school principals. Not only will principals finally receive more meaningful feedback on their performance but the union also agreed that student growth data -- the major sticking point in the ongoing fight over teacher evaluations -- could be one factor on which principals are rated.

The question for us is clear: If we can do this for our principals, why can't we do this for our teachers?

Amid the rancor of the current debate, we have forgotten the very purpose of evaluation, which is in itself a starting point. While some have regularly portrayed evaluation as a tool for firing bad teachers, evaluation is actually a starting point for keeping more teachers in our classrooms and making them better.

What springs forth from a better evaluation system is the real work. A new report, Greatness by Design, from the California Department of Education's Task Force on Educator Excellence shows good teachers are made, not born. As it stands now, teachers are often left to improve on their own without meaningful feedback or support. Evaluation systems are merely a means to a greater end.

Without agreeing on a better teacher evaluation system, we can't get started on the real work of elevating teaching and learning in our schools. We can't improve teacher preparation programs, design smarter professional development and teacher leadership ladders unless we know where our teachers have strengths and also areas for growth. Nor can we make intelligent personnel decisions without having more information than a few checkboxes and a place on the seniority ladder. To echo the findings of a report from The New Teacher Project entitled "The Irreplaceables," without illuminating the hidden gems who teach, districts can't encourage and reward teachers for entering our most challenging classrooms.

Creating this system is a complex task, but several proposals from teachers, parents and community organizations offer solutions for moving forward. I recently worked with a policy team of a dozen teachers who are leaders in their schools and unions and who spent months researching and devising one of these proposals. They debated, deliberated, surveyed their colleagues and devised a rational middle approach that incorporates ideas from the district's pilot evaluation system and UTLA's proposed plan while also addressing some of the sticking points. The team proposed using the district's Academic Growth over Time (AGT) model based on state standardized tests while developing a bank of local assessments for measuring student achievement in order to take into account the unique circumstances in individual schools. In addition, the teachers also wanted input from administrators, peers and students, who are arguably most familiar with teacher instruction. Most important, teachers wanted the evaluation system to be the foundation for more meaningful professional development and collaboration.

There is a lesson our district and union can learn from teachers engaging in the thorns of policy making. When these teachers put on their "policy caps," they didn't discover a magic bullet. They realized that no system-wide policy is perfect in its inception, but they didn't let the pursuit of perfection be the enemy of the good. As one teacher noted, "we must constantly evaluate our approach to evaluation to make sure we're meeting the needs of our students." Our district should pursue an ideal evaluation and support system, but that pursuit should not mean endless debate without action. The future of our students, and indeed our communities in Los Angeles, hinges on our ability to move forward together.

This November, California, which lags nationally in per pupil funding, will be asking voters, many of whom are cash-strapped in this economy, to help our schools move forward with much-needed revenue by passing either Prop 38 or Prop 30. Voters will certainly want something in return. Following the lead of our principals, the next step should be launching a better teacher evaluation and support system for retaining our irreplaceable teachers, helping those who struggle and putting student achievement first.