Putting Education Reform To The Test

How 20 Minutes With A Principal Determines 12 Months Of Teacher Pay

Sarah Gonzalez / StateImpact Florida

Miami teacher Karla Mats teaches special education science at Hialeah Middle School. She says she was observed by her principal for 20 minutes out of the school year, and she says that isn't enough time to fairly rate her performance.

When Florida teachers were evaluated last year, the stakes for most of them were pretty low.

No more. Soon, teacher evaluations will be tied to teacher pay.

Starting this year, half of a teacher’s evaluation is based on a classroom observation by the school principal. (The other half is based on a formula that predicts how students should score on the FCAT.)

But some principals observe teachers for just minutes out of the school year.

Hialeah Middle School teacher Karla Mats says she was observed once, for 20 minutes.

That’s the minimum set by the Miami-Dade school district.

Beginning teachers get an extra 20 minutes of principal observations for a grand total of 40 minutes out of the school year.

The Florida Department of Education doesn’t mandate how much time principals need to spend observing teachers. It’s up to each district.

Statewide, the range falls between 15 minutes and one hour.

School administrators defend the amount of time principals spend on evaluating teachers. But Mats says it’s not enough.

“I thought for sure this year they were going to come in all the time. And I only got one 20-minute observation,” she said. “That establishes the point that they don’t have enough time.”

Highly Effective

Mats was voted teacher of the year in 2011 by her colleagues at Hialeah Middle, where she teaches special education science.

This year, she was expecting the highest possible rating from her administrators.

“I do strive to get better every year and I do work hard at my practice so I thought, you know, I got it in the bag, I have nothing to worry about his year.”

State statute requires Florida principals give teachers one of four ratings: highly effective, effective, needs improvement, and unsatisfactory.

Mats received a rating of effective.

She says it feels like getting a B when you were shooting for an A.

“I really was expecting to have a much better result than I did,” she said. “I know that I have growth, I want to be a better teacher. But that doesn’t mean I’m not an A teacher.”


50 percent of teacher evaluations come from principal observations. The other half is based on a formula called the Value Added Model. It predicts how students should score on the state's standardized exam, and rates teachers based on how well their students measure up to that prediction.

Christine Master says being rated effective is something to feel good about. Master is administrative director of professional development in Miami-Dade. She helped implement the new teacher evaluation model.

“The word ‘effective’ means you are doing a very good job, you are doing what you should be doing,” Master said.

“Highly Effective is reserved. It means you are really doing your very best every single day consistently.”

She says 20 minutes is sufficient to rate a teacher.

“Because a teacher wouldn’t be doing the same thing for longer than 20 minutes,” Master said.

But Mats says 20 minutes isn’t enough time for principals to know whether any teacher is doing anything every single day.

She says it wouldn’t take much more time for principals to evaluate teachers for at least an entire class period.

At an average school with 80 teachers, that would mean the principal spends about 10 school days out of the entire school year formally observing teachers in their classrooms.

Mats appealed her rating to her principal, Lourdes Diaz, but her rating stayed the same.

“She told me that there were no teachers that were ‘highly effective’ and I thought that was such a slap in the face for all faculty because there are some dedicated teachers,” Mats said.

“There are some people that I really look up to and admire. They’re so seasoned and they do it so well. So that right there was a big red flag.”

Why 20 minutes?

The Miami-Dade school district said it would be inappropriate for her principal to comment on Mats’ rating. So we asked Laura Suprenard, a principal in Orlando, how many teachers got the top rating at her school, Shingle Creek Elementary.

“I thought for sure this year they were going to come in all the time. And I only got one 20 minute observation.”

-Karla Mats, Hialeah Middle School teacher

The answer? One.

Suprenard says that does not mean there is only one highly effective teacher at her school, though.

“Absolutely not,” Suprenard said. “There are many highly effective teachers but I do believe that we can all do a better job all the time.”

Suprenard says it is difficult for teachers to earn the highest rating in the first year of the new system.

In Orlando, the district minimum is three principal observations totaling 50 minutes:

  • One 30-minute formal observation
  • Two 10-minute informal observations

Beginning teachers get an extra 20 minutes.

As a principal, Suprenard says she spends more time walking in and out of classrooms than the minimum requirement.

“The whole purpose of my job is to be the instructional leader and be in my classrooms,” she said. “There are still many times you’re in the classroom but it’s not a formal or informal observation.”

More Paperwork

In the past, teacher evaluations focused mostly on teacher behaviors.

Now, the focus is more on student behaviors and student outcomes.

For example, principals used to look for behaviors like:

  1. Is the teacher asking one question at a time, or several questions at once?
  2. Is the teacher giving students enough time to answer that question?

Now, principals look more at whether students understand the questions teachers are asking them, and if they can communicate how those questions relate to their learning goals.

District officials say the new evaluation model requires a lot more reflection from school principals and much more paperwork.

Teacher Karla Mats says she understands that principals are busy with paperwork and managing the building.

“The reality is, I don’t think they have the time to go in there to watch the teachers, there is a lot of paperwork involved in the system,” she said.

But her job is on the line. She says principals need to speak up if they don’t have enough time.

“And maybe when people actually start talking about it, then there will be a good system in place, that will be adequate and fair to teachers.”


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