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In evaluating principals, we must focus on results achieved

Michael AyersMichael Ayers

I believe that we see broad agreement that high-quality feedback forms an essential element of a learning environment. Historically, however, our schools have offered a feedback-rich environment for the kids but a feedback-poor environment for the adults.  Minnesota has indeed taken a step forward in mandating the periodic evaluation of school principals. 

We need to draw a clear distinction between feedback for the purpose of future professional development and appraisal for the purpose of measuring past performance.  (I choose “appraisal” here analogous to what an expert offers in looking at the value of a work of art – an appraisal.)  They feature different levels of granularity and can employ input from different sources.

Feedback for development focuses on the competencies required to perform effectively.  Performance appraisal focuses on the results achieved employing those competencies.

An individual’s proficiency with regard to a competency manifests itself in behavior – what one does, not just what one knows. Since different people surrounding any given staff member will see different sides of the individual and see that staffer in different situations, 360-degree-feedback forms a critical basis for this variety of feedback. Thus the boss might see one side of the person in one set of circumstances. Those who report directly to the individual often see another side of the person. A well-done 360-feedback plan includes all these and more. This feedback serves development purposes, drawing  attention to effective (or ineffective) behavior. 

Shortcoming of proposal

After legislation was passed in 2011, a Working Group was charged with coming up with a model for principal evaluations and making recommendations to the Legislature. The group’s proposal, however, fails to sufficiently emphasize the second critical facet of feedback. It does not include enough attention to the results achieved.

Performance appraisal ultimately drives the decision to retain / reassign / promote staff members. The boss has sole ownership of this responsibility – the superintendent in the case of the school principal. Not only does common sense tell us this, so does the statute.  The teachers, the parents, the community at large – the stakeholders surely have an interest and might have a legitimate voice in the feedback for professional development.  But they have no entitlement to a voice in a principal’s performance appraisal. They (a) do not share the superintendent’s overarching view of the principal’s contribution and (b) do not have accountability to the Board for the principal’s performance.

Performance appraisal depends on the results achieved in a holistic way – overall performance in terms of the ends. Thus, the competencies become the means to the ends. Confusing means and ends confuses activities with results. 

The requirement for clear goals

The group’s Performance Measure and Indicator Rubric contains 58 pages. 58 pages! This smacks of “standardized testing for principals.” It’s not the right direction for the leaders of our schools. Meanwhile, the description of the Goal Setting Conference takes two paragraphs. And those goals get only a passing mention in the Rubric.

We do need great clarity about the ends we hold the principals accountable for – the performance of the entire school. Creating a 58-page prescriptive formula for evaluating all principals strives for a one-size-fits-all solution. 

Each school faces its own challenges and will have its own goals. The superintendent must hold the principal accountable for achieving them – that’s the job, after all. The superintendent and the principal must exercise professional judgment in establishing these goals. They must negotiate to establish those goals at the outset then review/update them throughout the year. And the achievement of those goals ought to serve as the fundamental basis for the performance appraisal.

The basics of performance appraisal

Here’s the bottom line: The same broad dimensions of performance appraisal apply across the gamut of organizations. We want to appraise the results in terms of the quality and quantity of the services delivered in consideration of the resources consumed (time, money, whatever). We want to determine whether the individual required extraordinary supervision to accomplish those results. We want to determine whether the individual continued to develop professionally her/his own skills and whether she/he invested in the professional development of those who report to her/him. We want to determine whether the services produced by the organization satisfied those who received them and/or paid for them. We want to determine whether the services produced showed consistency with the intent of the overall larger organization. That’s pretty much it. 

This sort of thinking ought to form the basis of the appraisal of principal performance. It also ought to inform the appraisal of teacher performance. And by the way, of superintendent performance, too.

Michael Ayers has worked with and for large organizations and small ones, for-profit and nonprofit, and consulted with schools and school districts; he holds an M.A. in organizational leadership from the St. Catherine University in St. Paul, and has taught in the Administrative Licensure Program at a local university for more than a decade.

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