Evaluating School Principals from Afar?

How does one evaluate the performance of a building principal? Who does the evaluation? What is evaluated, and what does the evaluator do when a principal’s performance is sub par? Oh, and sub par to what? Traditionally, school principals have fallen beneath the broader radar of teacher evaluations. Teachers are the most direct link to student achievement, after all, and there are many more teachers than principals populating a school. However, research has proven time and again the critically important role of building principals in student achievement. In fact, a principal’s impact on student achievement is second only to that of a teacher’s impact. Hmmmm.  Perhaps that is why Race to the Top has moved the spotlight of accountability to cover both teachers and principals. Though most principals have had some form of evaluation done by their supervisors, the variability in rigor and process is extensive. If we hope to see the fruits of our RttT efforts, principal evaluation protocols need to change.

Last week 20 superintendents participated in a full-day Race to the Top Principal Evaluation Session. Our focus was on the ISLLC Standards, New York State Education Department Approved Principal Evaluation Rubrics aligned to the ISLLC Standards, and evidence-based decision making. In one activity, we posed the statement: Superintendents should shadow principals during the complete teacher observation process (Pre-conference, observation, post-conference) to evaluate principal effectiveness. We then directed superintendents to go to the back of the room if they agreed with the statement, the front of the room if they disagreed, or in the middle if unsure. After some hesitation and looking around to see what others were doing, the group migrated to the three areas and the ensuing discussion was rich and rewarding.

When all was said and done, we reached general agreement that a superintendent who wishes to evaluate the quality of a principal’s observation process must be present to collect objective evidence (or have the entire process videotaped for the superintendent to access and review at a later time). Superintendents who engage fully in the process will better measure how well the principal understands the purpose of the lesson and the strategies used to ensure learning objectives are realized. Such superintendents will observe first hand the principal’s skills in gathering objective evidence within the classroom that is robust and tagged properly to a rubric’s elements or indicators. Lastly, superintendents who observe the post conference will best evaluate how well the principal positively promotes a two-way conversation with a teacher to discuss strengths of the lesson, areas for improvement, and actionable items to grow teacher performance.

How the principal conducts the pre-conference, gathers evidence of instruction during the observation, and follows-up with a summative session are best evaluated in person. Given the diagnostic opportunities classroom observations offer, superintendents can do some of their best work by shadowing their principals once or twice a year. Oh, and what a powerful message for all district staff members to see their CEO out and about participating in the important matters of teacher and principal evaluations.

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