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Volume 29, Number 4
July/August 2013

Rethinking Principal Evaluation

A systems approach


Basing the evaluation of principals and teachers on measures of student performance and growth continues to intensify as a national movement. While evaluating principals in part based on the growth of the students in their schools makes sense, a principal evaluation system must take into account the school principal’s instructional leadership and growth and development. There is no question that aside from teacher quality, no school-based factor matters more to student success in the classroom than the school principal.

Fortunately, much is happening in our nation to make certain that every school is led by a high-caliber principal. The Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium Standards for School Leaders, last updated in 2008, is the subject of a newly released report by the Council of Chief State School Officers. Standards for Educational Leaders: An Analysis discusses the 2008 standards with a view of educational perspective, practice, and research in 2013. Also this summer both the Wallace Foundation and New Leaders released studies examining district efforts to develop more extensive “pipelines” of qualified principals and the role states should play in supporting school leadership efforts. These and other ongoing efforts demonstrate the deep interest in the need to develop and retain qualified school principals as well as the resources being invested to address this issue.

To ensure that all schools have effective leaders, however, we believe school districts should create an authentic professional development system for aspiring and resident principals. Specifically, school districts and states should give consideration to creating reciprocal evaluation systems that acknowledge professional growth and development as a key criterion for improved instructional leadership. The systems approach to principal growth and development—the principalship fully realized—we outline below is not a mere pipeline that conveys a supply; it is a long-term, authentic developmental path that prepares and shares highly effective principals as school leaders.

Need for Continuous Support
There is the faulty notion that principals are born, not made. The literature on effective schools usually depicts a dynamic, solitary principal who—by power of persuasion, a relentless work ethic, and high expectations—marshals staff into a professional learning community. The literature also speaks to the importance of distributing leadership across the school, sharing accountability for student outcomes, and forming a consensus for what constitutes effective teaching and learning. The end product: highly capable teachers who, through collaborative practices such as mentoring, co-teaching, observation and feedback, and lesson study, hone their instruction to meet student needs.

Rarely does the literature consider the idea that principals also need continuous support and development to be successful and, like teachers, that much of that support should come from their peers. Also, the literature criticizes the state of teacher and principal certification but rarely considers that certification need not be a one- or two-time event in a principal’s career and that certification ought to be tied to a principal’s competencies, performance, and achievement over time.

As states are searching for better ways to recruit, train, evaluate, and retain principals, consideration should be given to how new evaluation systems for principals would give districts (especially those with human resource infrastructures) unprecedented opportunities to rethink support and accountability for principals from a systems perspective.

The Principalship: Four Levels
Principal evaluation ought to be based on professional growth as much as it is on school and student growth. In the context of the principalship, growth should progress through four explicit yet connected stages of development. Though common in the managerial sciences in other sectors, this kind of professional growth pattern is relatively uncommon in education, where the principalship is an attained status, surpassed only by the superintendency.

A growth-oriented model of principal development might adopt a guild approach that identifies four distinct levels: apprentice, resident, master, and mentor. The principal’s evaluation—and, ideally, corresponding certification level—could be tied to these four levels, which clearly communicate increased competency, performance, and achievement. An attendant certification process would allow participants to move from apprentice to resident principal, from resident to master principal, and, for a select few, from master principal to mentor principal.

The apprentice/resident/master/mentor system includes an intensive screening, recruiting, and induction stage (the apprenticeship); a residency of a few years (in one or more schools) in which support from the district, other principals, and partners such as state educational agencies, executive development programs, and/or institutions of higher education is deep and persistent; a master level in which the principal accumulates and affixes his or her signature to a body of work evidenced by positive student outcomes; and, at the apex, mentors who, having internalized and synthesized the multifaceted work of the principal, train master principals.

At each of the four stages of a growth-oriented development model, leadership competencies, including setting goals, aligning resources with priorities, promoting collaborative learning cultures, using data, and communicating thoroughly and effectively, are the basis of the continuous learning and commitment of the practice.
The Apprenticeship
During the initial level the candidate is deeply engaged in learning the profession’s body of knowledge and its basic clinical applications. Essentially an intern, the apprentice spends most of his or her time working one-on-one with people holding differentiated roles in the district, such as classroom teachers, specialty teachers, assistant principals, principals, and central office administrators with expertise in human resource systems, budgeting and finance, operations, policy, law, and community engagement. Here learning occurs at the individual level. The candidate’s rate of knowledge assimilation is carefully observed and quantified, and the level of commitment, ethics, and personality traits are regularly tested by immersing the candidate in carefully constructed scenarios resembling on-the-job tasks, challenges, and obstacles. In most of these situations, there is no single solution or answer, and multiple potential consequences are associated with the candidate’s decisions and choices. Candidates who successfully complete this stage, and therefore warrant the continued investments of time, people, and resources needed to progress in the role, are certified as residents.

Candidates who have progressed to this stage spend all of their time in schools and are subject to close observation and support by a master principal and their peers. Though not designated principals initially, residents are assigned responsibilities in schools, including operations and budget development, facilitation of grade- or content-level teacher teams, student behavior management, and interactions with parents. Resident principals identify current successes and failures in policies, practices, structures, and people and respond accordingly by determining ways to duplicate success or remediate/remove failure. To accelerate improved student performance overall, resident principals learn ways to ensure that every student has access to the curriculum and that the neediest learners have the time, teachers, services, and other needed supports necessary to advance academically. Using the school improvement plan as a guide, they put structures in place to foster frequent collaboration; build a common understanding of high-quality, evidence-based instruction; monitor practice consistently and efficiently; and maintain a baseline of data to measure the effectiveness of their schools’ improvement efforts in all areas of instruction and operations.

Master Level
Developing principals attain this level by meeting expectations in regard to actual performances and outcomes in the practice of the principalship. In addition to having progressed to the stage where their natural and learned competencies are associable with outcomes, master principals must also understand the work of the principalship so that they can teach a facet or facets of the work to resident principals. Specifically, they can determine the efficacy and impact of each of their school’s identified improvement interventions and can forecast fiscal needs from year to year. Master principals are adept at distributing responsibility for leading aspects of the school’s improvement work, requiring a system for differentiating roles, reassigning staff, and aligning the competencies of staff with school and student needs. Master principals have the confidence and know-how to establish and maintain partnerships of real consequence with families, community members, and other external stakeholders.

Mentor Level
Mentor principals are few because their attributes make them singular; they are persons equally adept at operating and leading at the strategic and tactical levels. Mentor principals are effective problem solvers with excellent interpersonal skills that enable them to develop problem-solving skills in others. They are not only great leaders, but they are great managers who limit the amount of time spent on facility operations and maintenance management and maximize the time they spend on managing (viewing, studying, duplicating success) their schools’ instructional programs. To give true merit to adult development in schools, mentor principals hold master principals accountable for results, and school leaders, in turn, hold teachers accountable for using what is learned through professional development to substantially increase student learning. Understanding the value of career growth ladders, mentor principals have a pipeline of likely candidates who will become leaders in their schools and districts. Mentor principals have the courage to take necessary actions quickly even if the decisions about budget allocation, recruitment, hiring, retention, or discharge are unpopular among some adults. Most important, perhaps, mentor principals form strong, lasting, substantively supportive family and community partnerships focused on student learning.

Beyond Evaluation: A Practice
This kind of progressive development contrasts with what has emerged in the principal evaluation systems of several states. New York, for example, will rate principals on a five-point scale from unsatisfactory to highly effective (the middle level, to which most principals will likely gravitate, is effective). South Carolina’s system takes a similar approach: exemplary, proficient, or improvement needed. Meets/Does not meet are the only ratings to which New Mexico principals may be assigned.

The fundamental premise of a growth-oriented principal development model is that the principalship is a practice in the same way that teaching, law, and medicine are practices. A pipeline to the principalship that accounts for each principal’s developmental course as a leader and as a learner is the surest and most transparent way of holding districts and schools accountable for the students in their care.

Deanna Burney is executive director for Leading by Learning, LLC. Robert Hughes is president and chief executive officer for the National Institute of School Leadership (NISL).

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