Paging Principal Skinner: Evaluating School Leaders

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There's been a lot of talk lately in the media — and a lot of bloodshed in the policy arena — about how to evaluate teachers. Suddenly, after years of inattention, everyone is scrambling to figure out the best way to hold teachers accountable for student outcomes. Yet when teachers' unions complain about an imbalance between teacher and principal accountability, they have a point: principals play a critical role in student learning, but they are evaluated almost as an afterthought. Unfortunately, the attempts to assess their effectiveness are no better than for teachers, and in some ways worse. The end result is an educational-leadership system that baffles people in the private as well as the public sector. By contrast, the U.S. Army "is very clearly up or out," says James Wilcox, a former Army officer and Black Hawk helicopter pilot who is now CEO of Aspire Public Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools in California. But in public schools, he says, "it's up and stay."

School leaders have a multiplier effect — they can put in place conditions that help or hamstring effective teaching. "The expertise of a principal determines how random or consistent teaching quality will be," says Pam Moran, superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia. One reason for this, research shows, is that effective principals can attract and retain good teachers, while poor leadership has the opposite effect.

Principal-evaluation methods vary widely — from observations to more formal assessments involving input from teachers — but are frequently not meaningful in terms of consequences. In fact, although less attention is focused on principals' unions than on teachers' unions, in many places labor agreements make it as difficult to fire low-performing principals as it is to remove teachers. Several years ago, when the Toledo teachers' union proposed turning several low-performing schools over to teams of teachers to run, the idea ran smack into intense opposition from the union representing the principals who would have been displaced.

And if that's not disheartening enough, consider the report released last month by New Leaders for New Schools, a national nonprofit that trains principals to work in challenging schools, which concluded that "most principal evaluation systems tend to focus too much on the wrong things, lack clear performance standards, and lack rigor in both their design and attention to implementation."

This is an almost comically comprehensive indictment, but not a surprising one. To make matters worse, principals frequently have little say over what goes on in their schools. Seniority rules limit how much input principals have about who teaches in their schools because veteran teachers can force their way in. In a strange twist, some supporters of increased autonomy for principals worry that today's emphasis on teacher evaluation could further disempower principals. Why? Because some districts are turning to third parties to conduct their teacher evaluations.

Budget rules and various regulations curtail principals' flexibility even more. Paul Hill, who studies school finance and autonomy and leads the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, where I am a senior fellow, found that principals in schools with multimillion-dollar budgets often controlled as little as $60,000, earmarked for items such as supplies and field trips.

It's true that many good principals have figured out how to bend or break the rules. They skirt or subvert personnel rules and learn how to circumvent budget rules or raise additional funds and look the other way while teachers do things that are technically against policy but in the best interest of students. Hill argues, however, that these kinds of deft, evasive maneuvers make it all the more difficult to assess their productivity — in terms of dollars spent compared to gains in student performance — relative to others. One way to resolve this, of course, is to create conditions so that principals can genuinely lead in the first place.

The report from New Leaders offers four principles to help do exactly that. These recommendations may strike outside observers as stunningly pedestrian, but they are critical if we want to improve the way our schools are run:

1. Base principal evaluations largely on student outcomes
2. Ensure that the central office staff, i.e., the district employees who support and oversee schools, are likewise held accountable for principal effectiveness
3. Create demanding performance expectations and real accountability and allow for professional growth and improvement
4. Ensure that the evaluation system itself can be modified and improved over time

Not surprisingly, there are many obstacles in place right now that would make it difficult to implement such a system. But the New Leaders report offers ideas about how federal and state policymakers can make changes to better support principals and hold them accountable. Already, there is proof that this can be done. Tom Payzant, who led the Boston Public Schools for 11 years and now teaches about urban school reform at Harvard, told me that he used to personally get involved in evaluations at a handful of schools each year to help model the level of attention he expected to have focused on principal evaluations. Under Payzant, Boston developed a clear set of measurable outcomes, including student performance, to assess principals. He was quick to note, however, that although at the time it was unique for an urban superintendent to be so hands-on — and that Boston's principal evaluations were "certainly more intentional than in many places" — these efforts were probably still not sufficient to the challenge.

Still, despite all the rhetoric these days about school leadership, accountability and improving outcomes, Payzant would be an outlier today. That shows how much the evaluation question, for teachers and principals, is one of political will as much as it is one of design.

Disclosure: The author's nonprofit advises New Leaders for New Schools, but not in the area of school leadership or in a way that is related to the report discussed above.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday.