Elizabeth Phillips has been principal of Public School 321 in Park Slope for 13 years, having started there as a teacher. Ms. Phillips has become one of the most outspoken critics among principals of how the city and the state are collecting data on student achievement and then using it to evaluate schools and teachers.
During a tour of her school, Ms. Phillips, 62, said that good teachers were the key to learning, and that her main job was to support her teachers. P.S. 321, with 1,407 children in prekindergarten through fifth grade, is a high-achieving school with an active core of parents. This interview was edited and condensed.
Q. What impact do you think public criticism from principals and parents is going to have on future tests?
A. I think itís going to have an impact because itís not a workable system. We are sworn to secrecy so we canít reveal questions to the press, or the public or even to other colleagues. But kids donít have those same limitations, and you have eighth graders blogging about it. With social media, I think youíre going to see more of this.
Honestly, in the 13 years Iíve been a principal, Iíve never seen such bad tests. Never. Not every part of them. There were parts that were fine, but enough of them that it truly is an outrage to think that a teacherís job would depend on them.
Q. How do you define a good teacher?
A. I donít know a single good principal who has trouble recognizing a good teacher. You do need a system where you can get rid of incompetent teachers, but it should also be one where you can improve teachers and also recognize quality teaching. If you have principals who have been teachers themselves who have spent time in the classroom, they know.
Iíll go into a first grade room. If I look in those book bins that those kids have on their table, I can see right away if the kids are well matched to their books by reading with three kids in the room. Thatís without looking at the teacher. But it isnít a uniform measure. Thatís in first grade.
In fifth grade itís going to be more about the quality of their talks about the books, more than whatís in their book bins.
Q. Do you think the administration has been supportive of principals and teachers?
A. No. Thereís a gotcha mentality. I donít think that it necessarily started out that way. I know thereís a problem in this city and in the country with a lot of kids not getting a high-quality education. But I think that separating the school problems from all the other social problems in the country ó you have poverty, you have homelessness, you have kids hungry ó thatís going to have an impact on them. We canít pretend it doesnít.
I also think that having an administration run by people who arenít teachers or were never teachers, is a problem.
I also think this administration believes in just shaking things up, that itís good for people to feel disequilibrium. I think that was a very deliberate policy and I did discuss this with Joel Klein.
I think the teacher bashing has a huge impact on whoís going to go into or to stay in teaching.