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What Makes an Effective School Principal? Reality-Based Principal Assessments

By Sputnik Contributor — January 10, 2013 3 min read

Note: This is a guest post by Steven M. Ross, Professor in the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University. The post originally appeared on the Bush Center Blog.

Evaluating the effectiveness of school principals is in everyone’s best interests--students, teachers, parents, and arguably principals most of all. But what are fair and valid measures of success? Unfortunately, past practices in defining and evaluating principals raise concerns about consistency and fairness. A few months ago, the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals released a report, “Rethinking Principal Evaluation: A New Paradigm Informed by Research and Practice,” which I co-authored with Mathew Clifford. We hope that this report stimulates thinking at the federal, state, and district levels about using principal evaluations to support two essential functions: (a) judging principals’ effectiveness and (b) helping principals to increase their effectiveness. Below are some of the main points we raised:


  • For schools to be effective in raising student achievement, it is imperative that prospective principals with strong leadership potential be identified, recruited, trained, and supported. This goal needs to be a key focus of every district and state.
  • Principals must be held accountable for ensuring high student achievement. Yet expectations for success need to be tempered by realities. First, principals affect student learning only indirectly through the school environments they create, educational programs they bring in, and the teachers they recruit and develop. Second, improving conditions for instruction and developing faculty take time. Therefore, evaluations of progress and feedback for improvement are needed regularly and frequently. Schools and school districts also differ considerably in the types of students and communities they serve. Principals who are placed in more challenging contexts may need more time and resources to raise achievement to the high levels desired. Evaluation criteria that that put too many eggs in one assessment basket, expect positive change to happen immediately, and ignore contextual variables seem likely to misclassify many principals, boosting some who are ineffective and downgrading others who are doing good things that simply need more time to work.

To increase the validity, utility, and fairness of evaluations, multiple indicators should be used.


  • Student Growth and Achievement: The degree to which the principal succeeds in fostering school-wide gains and high performance in student achievement, behavior, and personal growth and development.
  • Professional Growth and Learning: The degree to which the principal has followed through on professional development or learning plans to improve personal skills and practices.
  • School Planning and Progress: The principal’s success at managing the school planning process to achieve school improvement goals and increase student learning.
  • School Culture: The principal’s development of a positive school culture that promotes safety, collaboration, high expectations for teachers and students, and connectedness with the community.
  • Professional Qualities and Instructional Leadership: The principal’s leadership knowledge, skills, and competencies.
  • Stakeholder Support and Engagement: The principal’s ability to build strong support and involvement by teachers, parents, and the community.

None of these domains is difficult or expensive to include in a district or state evaluation. Of course, the risks of basing judgments of principals and feedback to them on insufficient or invalid information would likely be far greater.

Sputnik is moving! Follow Robert Slavin to the Huffington Post, where he’ll continue to write about evidence-based reform in education. See you there! And don’t forget to follow Dr. Slavin on Facebook and Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Sputnik are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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