Judging Principals: Inside the Evaluation Debate
How should we judge the performance of Baton Rouge education reporter Charles Lussier?
That was the question posed by Vanderbilt University education professor Joseph Murphy, who suspected that by the second afternoon of EWA’s National Seminar his audience was ready for a fun exercise. Murphy talked about the difference between Lussier’s inputs (such as his education and technical skills), the work he does and his results (readership and response to his articles).
“What if we measure him on whether the paper increases circulation? Do you buy that?” Murphy asked.
“I could see them doing it,” Lussier joked to the audience at Vanderbilt University for the May seminar.
The parallel was to evaluating principals, a topic that Murphy’s colleague Ellen Goldring said gets far less attention than teacher evaluation. Goldring and Murphy, on faculty at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, developed the Val-Ed instrument for rating educational leaders in six core areas: High standards for student learning, rigorous curriculum, quality instruction, culture of learning, community connections and performance accountability.
While the importance of good principals is clear, there’s little research linking principal evaluations to student achievement and school quality, Goldring and Murphy acknowledged. But Goldring said it’s important to get past the popular image of the charismatic principal and identify skills that can be evaluated and developed.
“At the policy level, we need to think beyond the born leader,” Goldring said.
“All school reform is a wager,” added Murphy. “It’s a bet that if you can focus a principal’s time on these things, that will make a difference.”
Denise Watts, zone superintendent for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Project LIFT, brought a front-line perspective. Donors have pledged $55 million over five years to turn around nine struggling schools in the city’s impoverished west side. A good share of that money is going toward recruiting and rewarding principals and teachers.
Watts uses North Carolina’s required principal evaluation for the formal year-end rating, but she says the most valuable work comes from regular contact and school visits. She said she does formal reviews at the beginning, middle and end of the year and visits each of her schools at least two or three times a month.
Watts, who led a high-performing suburban school and an urban turnaround school before going into central administration, said she’s been on the receiving end of the less helpful kind of rating, where a team swoops in at the end of the year and leaves the principal with a long checklist of things to work on.
But Watts acknowledged the up-close approach is easier for her, with nine schools to supervise, than it is for most principal supervisors. Her counterparts in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have up to 40 schools, she said, and administrators in some urban districts have more than that.
Watts said she tries to keep her principals focused on the most urgent needs. For instance, she said, one of her schools has high teacher turnover and low ratings on the teacher survey: “That’s a top priority.”
“I am very outcome driven,” she said. “The final question is always, ‘Tell me the impact that had.’ ”
The question of how much weight to put on student test scores, a hot-button topic throughout the three-day National Seminar, came up in connection with principal ratings.
When Murphy introduced the idea of rating Lussier on newspaper circulation or web views, another reporter raised the possibility of doing something unethical to grab attention. The parallel to high-profile cheating scandals was clear.
“To hold a principal accountable for a test score of students … the question becomes one of control,” Murphy said. “Are there unintended consequences? Does it introduce distortion into the system?”
Watts says she doesn’t hesitate to hold her principals responsible for student performance on state exams. While there’s much outside of school that can distract students, “you cannot give up your influence.”
And while some principals around the nation have cheated to boost their numbers, “you have to trust that people will do the right thing until they show you otherwise,” Watts said.