Principals’ Performance Reviews Are Getting a Fresh Look

By Christina A. Samuels — August 09, 2011 8 min read

Highly effective principals and good teachers are mentioned in the same breath as essential ingredients for improving schools.

But when it comes to crafting 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 last month 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 work, building on meetings the group has held with education leaders in California. As one of the first steps, it released a literature review in July 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 current principal-evaluation processes. Renowned education journalist Ronald A. Wolk, founder and former editor of Education Week, skewers the conventional wisdom of school reform and illuminates a path forward to better schools and higher achievement through an emphasis on personalized education and evaluation of learning based on student work and performance, not standardized test scores. Several districts and states, a foundation, national groups, and policymakers in recent years have all begun to take a hand in quietly revamping 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 around the need to improve the principal-evaluation process may be growing, most continue to be based on a yearly meeting with a district administrator and may not touch on the principal’s role as 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 of Chief State School Officers released the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium Standards for School Leaders. That 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 design 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.

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 last month by the NAESP, based in Alexandria, Va., and the NASSP of Reston, Va., is aimed at giving states and districts guidelines to follow if they want to improve their evaluation systems.

Gail Connelly, NAESP’s executive director, said that the groups want to set up 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 principals’ groups’ new undertaking follows 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. The NBPTS evaluation model is built around nine “core propositions,” such as leadership, vision, and management.

The NBPTS 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.

Joan E. Auchter, the chief program officer for the Arlington, Va.-based board, 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,” she said.

States’ Efforts

Among the individual states and districts that have established their own systems, Delaware has had an evaluation system for principals since 2008 that uses multiple measures of administrator effectiveness, such as the principal’s ability to analyze school data to set 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, incorporates elements in its principal evaluations such as test-score improvement from lowest-performing students and evaluations from teachers in the school.

MaryEllen Elia, the superintendent of the Hillsborough County district, said she believes it was essential that the district revamp its evaluation systems for principals and teachers 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.

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 those examples of activity surrounding evaluations, Ms. Kearney, with WestEd, said 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 homegrown evaluation procedures for principals can stand up to scrutiny.

The WestEd leadership initiative grew out of California’s attempt to try to bring some cohesion to various initiatives. In addition to facilitating conversation among California education leaders, WestEd has also released an informational paper that outlines principal-evaluation procedures in six states.

The organization also recently released a review of 30 years of studies and other documentation on principal evaluation.

Among the paper’s 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 the AIR. “One conclusion we draw from this is that more research is necessary.”

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


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