In an era of high-stakes testing, more-rigorous federal and state accountability programs, and intense interest among taxpayers and government leaders in school-level performance, the demand for accountability for principals has never been greater. However, narrowing a principal’s performance evaluation to student test scores—or any single criterion, especially those for which a principal does not have direct control—is absurd. Yet that very scenario has been repeated time and again during the past 10 years of adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. As principal evaluation is likely to be included in proposals to reauthorize the ESEA, the federal government should encourage states to develop effective principal-evaluation systems based on multiple and meaningful measures of the competencies needed to improve student learning. Those systems should include professional-development plans that acknowledge the unique characteristics of each school and its community.
Recent changes to existing federal programs, such as School Improvement Grants, and the development of new initiatives, such as Race to the Top, emphasize the roles and responsibilities of principals. To meet program requirements, more than 30 states have changed statutes to require principal evaluation based in “significant part” on student test scores, and we have seen states and local districts hastily devise evaluation plans for principals and school leaders. As a result, many of these plans lack clear performance standards and research-based practices that accurately identify the true characteristics of a high-performing principal.
As the national leaders representing the country’s 99,500 principals, we know there are far better ways to set fair, comprehensive principal-evaluation systems that will lead to school improvement.
A joint committee of active principals from the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, along with leading researchers in the field of principal leadership and professional development, met for a year to assess current research and to develop a new paradigm for evaluation systems. The result of their efforts is “Rethinking Principal Evaluation,” a framework for policymakers and those developing principal evaluations at the state and district levels that we feel is fair, flexible, and—most important—formative.
The framework identifies six key domains of principal leadership that should be incorporated into principal-evaluation systems: professional growth and learning; student growth and achievement; school planning and progress; school culture; stakeholder support and engagement; and professional qualities and practices.
None of these provisions relieves the principal of accountability for school success. In fact, they increase accountability. These six performance domains more precisely define the behaviors that lead to school success, and they make no apology for just how complex the job has become. But they focus on factors that research indicates are directly within the principal’s control. Building principal capacity in each of these domains—not reliance on a single policy lever—holds the key to genuine school improvement.
The NAESP and the NASSP, which the two of us lead, share a long-held belief that any policies related to principal evaluation should be based on valid, fair, and reliable measurements, and used as a collaborative school improvement tool and not for punishment. Evaluation is not something that should be done to principals, and effective evaluation-system designs will be accurate and useful when principals are active contributors to the process. Furthermore, effective principal evaluation needs to be seen as part of a comprehensive system of support, including high-quality professional development, induction support for early-career principals, and recognition of advanced performance.
Principals recognize that their relationships with supervisors, schools, and communities impact leadership.
Thus, they define effective processes to evaluate principal practice as those that accommodate local contexts, reflect a principal’s years of experience, and are job-specific. These processes provide supervisors with sufficient flexibility to accommodate necessary differentiation based on principals’ work and grade-level responsibilities.
The federal government should encourage states to develop effective principal-evaluation systems based on multiple and meaningful measures."
Principals have long been part of processes to develop standards for their profession, and our associations have played an important part with landmark frameworks and standards embodied in our Breaking Ranks and Leading Learning Communities programs, which are aligned with the work of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium and other benchmarks. Aligning effective evaluation systems with these widely accepted standards will ensure that results are relevant to the improvement of principals’ current work.
Overall, principals seek fair evaluations that are transparent, systematically applied to all principals in a state or district, and place a high priority on outcomes principals control rather than those they have limited or no ability to affect. All of this can increase the usefulness of evaluations—for those being evaluated as well as those doing the evaluating. Meaningful evaluation results can inform principals’ learning and progress, regardless of summative ratings of practice, and have the ability to treat performance assessment as a positive process that builds principals’ capacity, not as a pretext for discipline. Perhaps most important, an effective formative and summative process can help principals and evaluators create a holistic description of effective professional practice.
We have an unprecedented chance to get principal evaluation right, and we’re confident that the framework within the “Rethinking Principal Evaluation” report will begin to move us in the right direction.
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2012 edition of Education Week as Rethinking Principal Evaluation