A principal walking into a noisy classroom has a choice to make. Is the noise evidence of students engaging with each other and learning social skills? Or is it the mark of an out-of-control class?

Most elementary-school principals are accustomed to making that call when observing teachers in older grades, as part of the typical coaching and evaluation process. But the markers of a successful pre-K classroom are different and not always intuitive, experts say, and an increasing number of principals will be tasked with identifying them as the city’s pre-K expansion kicks into gear.

“How do you know if you have a good person? How do you help her get better? Is it OK that teachers are on the floor?” said Sherry Cleary, director of the NYC Early Childhood Professional Development Institute. “Some principals might see that as a problem, when we see that as perfect.”

With 140 schools set to add pre-K seats in September, some for the first time, the role principals play in evaluating those teachers is coming under increased scrutiny. Cleary, whose institute is working with the Department of Education to prepare pre-K teachers this summer, said she recommended that the city also provide extra training for principals, who often have limited exposure to early childhood education.

So far, the city has provided a day-long summer training on pre-K assessment, which Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye said drew 130 administrators, including public school principals and their counterparts in community organizations. Kaye said the department plans to provide ongoing training.

Experts say the training is important to keep principals from inadvertently steering pre-K teachers in the wrong direction. Laura Bornfreund, deputy director of the New America Foundation’s early education initiative, said that if principals apply to a pre-K classroom the lens they have developed for observing older grades, they could end up recommending against the sort of self-directed, noisy play four-year-olds need.

“It’s absolutely a concern,” she said.

Some districts, such as Washington, D.C., have developed pre-K specific teacher observation rubrics to guide administrators, though the city’s pre-K evaluation guidelines, called Teaching for the 21st Century, make no specific mention of pre-K.

Pre-K students play at New Bridges Elementary.
PHOTO: Emma Sokoloff-Rubin
Pre-K students play at New Bridges Elementary.

Cheryl Olhson, who works in the early childhood division of D.C. Public Schools, said that when the district’s current teacher evaluation system was first rolled out during the 2009-10 school year, an identical rubric was used for observations in all grades.

District officials decided to revise the tool based on feedback from educators in pre-K and kindergarten, Olhson said, and it now encourages evaluators to look positively on teachers who foster learning through questions and small-group play instead of explaining concepts to a whole class at once.

In New York City, pre-K teachers are evaluated differently from teachers in older grades, but the difference is more frustrating than helpful, administrators said.

The state’s old “satisfactory/unsatisfactory” rating system still holds for pre-K instructors, though teachers in other grades have seen their evaluation system shift to one with more frequent observations and new rating options.

“It doesn’t make sense that they wouldn’t use the same system, since they’re in the school,” Jodi Friedman, the assistant principal overseeing pre-K expansion at P.S. 63-S.T.A.R. Academy in the East Village, said of pre-K teachers. “They are still part of the teachers union, they’re still paid for by the budget.”

According to union officials, the atypical evaluation system for pre-K is the result of a legal distinction that left pre-K teachers out of the changes to state teacher evaluation law, and the city’s corresponding plan, even though they are integrated into public schools.

Since the state doesn’t define teachers of four-year-olds as “classroom teachers,” changes to the evaluation system for pre-K teachers would need to be negotiated by the city and the teachers union.

As more cities and states expand pre-K offerings, questions of how best to evaluate teachers are taking on new urgency, said Bornfreund, whose research at the New America Foundation focuses in part on teacher evaluations.

“More states seem to be including pre-K teachers in the system when those teachers are working in a public school. That seems to be where things are heading,” Bornfreund said.

In the meantime, some city principals have created their own workarounds. At New Bridges Elementary in Brooklyn, Principal Kevyn Bowles said he and his pre-K teachers agreed that he would use the new system for their observations. To comply with city policy, he still rates them either satisfactory or unsatisfactory at the end of the school year.

Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School, said she also rates pre-K teachers using the old system but gives them more frequent feedback than is technically required.

“Teachers aren’t satisfactory or unsatisfactory; they’re more complicated than that. There are things they do well, things they do poorly, and things they’re working on, like any professional,” Allanbrook said.