Last summer, more than a dozen Baltimore principals were demoted or forced into retirement as part of the first effort in years to eliminate weak leadership at low-performing schools.
This year, poorly performing principals might escape the same fate -- at least temporarily -- because of a change the school board made last month to its evaluation schedule.
School officials insist their decision to postpone this year's principal evaluations until January 2000 will not spare deserving schoolhouse leaders from dismissal. Their constant supervision of principals could result in demotions or reassignments at any time, they say.
But historically, evaluations have been the system's only real trigger for principal removals outside of extraordinary circumstances. Since last year's evaluations, only two principals have had serious action taken against them: One was forced to retire after she implied to a little boy that his penis should be cut off; the other was suspended after a suspicious fire in his office.
The potential reprieve this year for bad principals has inspired skepticism among some school observers and angered some city school reform architects.
"At a minimum, I'd think you would evaluate principals in the reconstitution-eligible schools" on the state's watch list, said Laura Wheeldryer, education director at the private, nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth. "I think it's hard to say you should wait another six months for that."
State Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Democrat representing Baltimore, expressed concern about what the decision to postpone the evaluations implies.
"We hired this board to make tough decisions and to put first things first, to prioritize the work that needed to be done in this system," said Hoffman, who wrote the legislation that brought about city school reform. "I understand the reason behind this, but there are principals who you'd hate to see get another six months without an evaluation."
Hoffman said she has seen firsthand in Baltimore how a principal can make or break a school.
"When you go in and there's trash everywhere and children in the hallways and not much learning in the classroom, I think it's a reflection on the principal," Hoffman said. "Why would you leave a bad principal in place any longer than you had to?"
Increase in information
Betty Morgan, the system's chief academic officer, said the change in the evaluation schedule will give administrators more information for judging principals' performance.
Because evaluations take place in June, statewide academic test scores and some attendance data -- which don't become available until fall -- can't really be considered. Scores are never the sole determinant in a good or bad evaluation, Morgan said, but they are an important factor.
School officials decided that rather than evaluating principals next month and again in January to switch to the new schedule, they would simply do one in January covering 18 months.
"The basic idea is that we are making the appropriate decisions, that we have all the information we need when we judge performance," Morgan said. "This doesn't mean, though, that if somebody doesn't meet our standards we won't act."
Last June, 40 principals were placed on improvement plans, a form of probation that is the first step toward removal. Then-interim chief executive Robert E. Schiller said that unlike in previous years, he would ensure that principals who were not meeting standards would be removed.
Ultimately, about 15 of the 40 principals were demoted or forced into retirement, according to school officials. Several others are expected to quit or retire this year.
`Know what they need to do'
Morgan said it's too early to determine how many principals might face similar action this year, if any.
"I'd expect that principals [placed] on improvement plans know what they need to do," she said. "If they haven't done it, our administrators have no pangs about doing what they need to do."
Morgan said part of the system's approach is to make weak principals stronger -- not simply to punish them. Administrators are working more closely with principals on a daily basis, and are more attuned to their strengths and weaknesses.
"They need training and support, and we've been providing more of that," Morgan said. "I believe we have an educated group, and I see a lot of dedication out there. I'd like to say that there are people out there who are doing better."
Sheila Kolman, president of the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association of Baltimore, said more training and support are what nearly all principals need.
"It shouldn't just be a thing every summer that a bunch of principals get demoted," Kolman said. "It should be unusual for that to happen. We work hard, and we need the people around us to work hard to help us get better."
Kolman said several of the principals demoted last June were punished unfairly: Despite December statewide academic test scores that showed their schools were improving, several were removed.
"A lot of times, it's arbitrary and capricious when they take action against principals," Kolman said. She said the new January evaluation date would help avoid similar problems.
"We need help, not punishment," Kolman said.
Pub Date: 5/01/99