School & District Management

Principals’ Job Reviews Getting a Fresh Look

By Christina A. Samuels — July 14, 2011 10 min read
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Highly effective principals are mentioned in the same breath with good teachers as an essential ingredient for improving schools.

But when it comes to developing tools that can determine whether school leaders possess the qualities that promote academic growth, safe schools, and teacher satisfaction, that effort has been overshadowed by the intense debate over how best to measure the performance of teachers. While policymakers engage in pointed discussions about how—and whether—to incorporate sophisticated measures of student achievement into teacher performance reviews, the conversation around evaluating principals has been less vociferous.

The balance, however, is slowly starting to shift.

Two groups representing elementary and secondary principals announced a joint plan on Thursday to help states and districts create principal-evaluation tools that will provide trustworthy feedback and opportunities for professional development. WestEd, the San Francisco-based education research group, also wants to be a national resource for such efforts, building on meetings the group has held with education leaders in California. As one of the first steps, it released a literature review this month of research in the field of principal evaluation.

The announcements by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and WestEd adds to the backdrop of growing efforts across the country to improve districts’ current principal-evaluation processes.

Several districts and states, a foundation, various national groups and policymakers in recent years have all begun to take a hand in quietly revamping principal-evaluation processes to develop principals who can support high-achieving schools.

“We are clearly at a very different place [with principal evaluations] than we are with teacher evaluations,” said Edward Pauly, the director of research and evaluation for the Wallace Foundation, which has promoted educational leadership since 2000, His remark acknowledged that policymakers are primarily focused on revamping teacher evaluation at the moment. But, he added “there’s also widespread appreciation of how important principals are.” (The Wallace Foundation also provides funding to Education Week to support coverage of leadership.)

Codifying Leadership

While attention may be growing around the need to improve the principal-evaluation process, most principal evaluations continue to be based on a yearly meeting with a district-level administrator, and may not touch on the principal’s role as an instructional leader.

Experts have long recognized the need for a more systematic, instruction-focused evaluation system that will spur principals to do better in all aspects of their job. In 1996, the Washington-based Council for Chief State School Officers released a series of standards for principal leadership, called the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium Standards for School Leaders. This work was one of the first attempts to codify the characteristics of good school leaders.

Revised in 2008, the six standards offer a broad look at all the areas where principals should demonstrate proficiency, such as “facilitating the development, articulation, implementation, and stewardship of a vision of learning that is shared and supported by all stakeholders” and “promot[ing] the success of every student by acting with integrity, fairness, and in an ethical manner.”

Translating those standards into a method of measuring principal effectiveness has been a challenge, researchers say. The instrument has to not only measure principals’ strengths, but also accurately diagnose weak areas and create a road map for improvement.

“It really is about understanding what standards are supposed to do. It’s that kind of leadership training and conversation that we haven’t had enough of,” said Karen Kearney, the project director of the Leadership Initiative, WestEd’s project.

On Capitol Hill

The federal government also has attempted to steer the issue. In March 2010, the Obama administration’s blueprint for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act proposed that states define what it means to be an “effective” or a “highly effective” principal. Under the blueprint, states would be required to use student academic growth as an important measure of effectiveness, and they would have to ensure that effective school leaders are spread equitably among schools.

Congress has been slow to move on ESEA reauthorization. But, recognizing that the issue is growing in importance, the project unveiled this week by the NAESP, based in Alexandria, Va., and the NASSP, of Reston, Va., is aimed at giving states and districts a road map to follow if they want to improve their evaluation systems.

Gail Connelly, the executive director of the NAESP, said that the groups want to create a process that incorporates student performance into student evaluations, but also allows support for professional development and principal mentoring.

“We’re responding to a real eagerness on the part of our principals that they be held accountable on all the things that matter,” Ms. Connelly said. That includes student test scores, but not that measure alone, she said, echoing the parallel discussion going on over teacher evaluation.

The NASSP also wants to avoid a narrow focus on just test scores to prove a principal’s effectiveness, said Richard A. Flanary, the director of the organization’s department of professional development services. “There are some things that are harder to measure, like culture and climate and the attitudinal aspect of what goes on in a school,” he said. “Principals understand they’re responsible for everything.”

The principals’ groups’ new effort follows on an initiative begun two years ago by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to pilot a certification process for principals, modeled after the organization’s 20-year-old certification process for teachers. Though the certification process is intended for principals who are already performing at an accomplished level, the organization is allowing the program to be used with newer principals in the 36,000-student Jefferson County, Ala., district as a tool to promote leadership development. The NBPTS evaluation model is built around nine “core propositions,” such as leadership, vision, and management.

Joan E. Auchter, the chief program officer for the Arlington, Va.-based National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, said that the Alabama principals have embraced the process, even if certification is not their ultimate goal. “They said the core propositions and standards have finally given them the road map that defines what they should be doing,” Ms. Auchter said.

States’ Efforts

Among the individual states and districts that have created their own systems, Delaware has had a teacher and principal-evaluation system since 2008 that uses multiple measures of administrator effectiveness, such as the principal’s ability to analyze school data to create goals, and his or her effectiveness in providing ongoing coaching to teachers.

Called the Delaware Performance Appraisal System II, or DPAS II, the review tool is now being modified to incorporate student growth as a factor for determining leader effectiveness. By the 2011-12 school year, educators will not be rated effective in Delaware unless they have demonstrated they can produce student growth.

Florida’s Hillsborough County district, which includes Tampa, includes elements in its principal evaluations such as test-score improvement from the lowest-performing students and evaluations from teachers in the school.

MaryEllen Elia, the superintendent of the Hillsborough County district, said that she felt it was essential that the district revamp its principal and teacher evaluation systems in tandem. “I don’t think you can be as successful with teachers if they don’t believe it’s a culture shift,” she said.

John Miliziano, the executive director of the Hillsborough Association of School Administrators, said principals in the county are interested in using the new instrument as a way to create a career ladder for principals.

Currently, the main way for principals in the county to progress in their careers and increase their pay is to leave a school and get a job in the central office. With a new evaluation instrument and a career ladder, the district can create different levels of proficiency within the principal ranks, such as “beginning principal” and “master principal,” he said.

As part of its evaluation system, Hillsborough County uses the Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education, or VAL-ED, which was developed with funding from the Wallace Foundation. The instrument is designed to solicit feedback from a principal’s supervisor, as well as the teachers in the school.

Teachers’ Feedback

Principals should have little to fear from being evaluated by teachers, said Andrew C. Porter, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, and one of the developers of the VAL-ED.

“Teachers are not any more hard on the principals than the principals are on themselves,” Mr. Porter said. “It doesn’t look like, on average, that teachers are at all hanging their principals out to dry.”

Even with these examples of activity surrounding evaluations, Ms. Kearney, with WestEd, said that the focus on principal evaluation seems more informal and less directed than the conversation surrounding teacher evaluations. She suggests that districts and states are so busy trying to implement procedures that they don’t have time to talk about them, or there’s less confidence that the home-grown evaluation procedures for principals can stand up to scrutiny.

The WestEd leadership initiative grew out of California’s efforts to try to bring some cohesion to various efforts. In addition to facilitating conversation among California education leaders, WestEd has also released an informational paper that outlines principal-evaluation procedures in six states as part of its new quest to serve as a resource for districts and states looking to upgrade their job-review process for principals.

The organization also recently released a review of 30 years worth of studies and other documentation on principal evaluation. Ms. Kearney said WestEd took on that work when its researchers started looking for similar reviews, but could not find what they were looking for.

After interviewing researchers, searching online sources, and digging up reports produced by education foundations and other think tanks, the literature review turned up 68 peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed papers published between 1980 and 2010. Twenty-eight of those were research studies, which represent an “extremely thin research base,” the literature review noted. Among the paper’s other findings: Most district-developed principal-evaluation systems lack validity and reliability, and alignment between district evaluation systems and professional standards is mixed.

The NAESP, in collaboration with the Washington-based American Institutes for Research and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has found similar information in its own review of the research around principal evaluations. Studies show that principals generally see evaluations as perfunctory, inconsistently administered, and out of alignment with national standards.

“While there’s a lot of promise, there’s very little evidence” on what an effective principal evaluation looks like, said Matthew Clifford, a senior research scientist at AIR. “One conclusion we draw from this is that more research is necessary.”

Robert L. Monson, principal of 250-student Parkston Elementary School in Parkston, S.D., and the president of the NAESP, said that the goal of the two organizations is to shift away from the “industrial management” model that characterizes many principal evaluation programs now, where supervisors just check off a list of goals for principals without necessarily tying them back to student achievement.

“We’re not going to build the tool, we’re going to build what should be there,” Mr. Monson said. “It’s a great experience to be helping to design the plane while we’re flying it.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2011 edition of Education Week as Principals’ Job Reviews Getting a Fresh Look


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