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Principal Evaluation: Focused on the Trees or the Forest?

Today's guest blog is written by Ray Smith and Julie Smith, former school leaders and the authors of Evaluating Instructional Leadership: Recognized Practices for Success (Corwin Press, 2015). 

Inasmuch as the research on principal leadership in general has developed into a growing body of thick scholarship, the research on principal evaluation systems remains surprisingly thin. This is concerning given the fact that nearly 60 percent of a school's total impact on student achievement is attributable to effective teacher and principal practices (Seashore-Louis, et al., 2010) and the impact of leadership alone being described by some as the single most important factor in moving schools forward (Fullan, 2010).

In brief, while highly effective leaders are essential to school reform efforts and the exercise of specific leadership practices have been shown to have a strong, measurable effect on student achievement, teaching quality, and schools our current evaluation practices treat these key players as nonessential employees. So, what did we learn from the little research that is available on principal evaluation systems?

In general, we learned that they face a number of obstacles:

  • Principal evaluation systems lack depth and focus on the right things (Goldring, Xiu, Murphy, Elliott, Carson, & Porter, 2008; Seashore-Louis, et al., 2010; Mitgang, Gill, & Cummins, 2013);
  • Principals perceive performance evaluation as having limited usefulness in the areas of feedback, professional learning, or accountability to school improvement (Portin, Feldman, & Knapp, 2006);
  • Principal evaluation systems contain vague performance expectations and/or lack clear norms or performance standards (Goldring, Xiu, Murphy, Elliott, Carson, & Porter, 2008; Reeves, 2009);
  • Principal evaluation systems have not been implemented in ways that promote accurate judgments of principal effectiveness (Clifford & Ross, 2011; Davis, Kearney, Sanders, Thomas, & Leon, 2011);
  • Principal evaluation systems are typically one-size-fits all systems that don't differentiate for different school contexts (Clifford & Ross, 2011; Davis, Kearney, Sanders, Thomas, & Leon, 2011; Mitgang, Gill, & Cummins, 2013)
  • Principal evaluation systems have not been tested for critical psychometric properties and are not based on the latest research on principal leadership practices (Clifford, Menon, Gangi, Condon, & Hornung, 2012; Davis, Kearney, Sanders, Thomas, & Leon, 2011); and,
  • Principal evaluation systems not unlike many other educational initiatives are poorly implemented (Kimball, Milanowski, & McKinney, 2009).

Faced with these seven obstacles, a major challenge facing district leaders is to adopt and implement a principal leadership evaluation system that corrects for these existing complications so they can be used effectively as a benchmark for personnel functions, as a means to leverage within school leaders' day-to-day performance those leadership practices that matter the most and are most directly related to increases in learning and student achievement, as a powerful communication tool for providing and securing both summative as well as formative feedback from/to a school leader and, as the basis for setting organizational goals for school leaders' professional development.

It is time to unleash one of the greatest powers of a school leader, the power to create the narrative in their schools - will it be a narrative of curriculum, budget, test scores, bus schedules, tracking - the peripherals of schooling that need management; or will it be the narrative about the impact of all the adults in the school on student learning - learning in its widest sense? 

We suggest that the latter rather than the former--knowing the quality of the impact of the leader as well as of the instructional programs in the school (and all else serves this narrative). Hence we place much reliance of the presence of excellent evaluation of this individual and of these programs within our principal evaluation framework. It is time to focus on less so that school leaders can produce more!

It is a time to propose a principal evaluation system that emphasizes that evaluation is for a purpose and not an end in itself (see Evaluating Instructional Leadership: Recognized Practices for Success, 2015).  The aim of our evaluation system is to discover the worth, merit or significance of the leader, their practices and programs that they implement in our schools.  The aim is to learn and empower those who deliver the programs to adapt, replace or continue.  It is about identifying where exemplary leadership practice is occurring and often such success is all around us - if only we knew. And that is the point of our single criterion principal evaluation framework.

Can't See the Forest for the Trees

Most likely you have heard of the 16th Century English idiom, "You can't see the forest for the trees." A very generic translation of the idiom refers to someone who is so involved with the details of a situation that he or she loses sight of the larger issue. In our case we have found that most educators are so involved with the details of what it means to be a principal and all of the leadership practices they must perform that they have lost sight of the larger issue or the practices that have the greatest impact on learning and student achievement.

Consequently, evaluators of principals race around attempting to collect evidence as to leaders' effectiveness on the many leadership qualities as if they all have equal impact, which is a flawed assumption.

Based on our review of contemporary principal evaluation systems we conducted for our book, we came to the conclusion that when it comes to evaluating school leaders most educators appear to have such a myopic view of the varied roles and responsibilities of school leaders that they loose sight of the significant few leadership practices that have the largest impact on student achievement. For example, we found the number of leadership practice items in typical principal evaluations ranged from a low of 25 leadership variables to a high of 86 variables.

We desire to change the present principal evaluation narrative from a focus on the many to a focus on the few practices that matter most.

Leadership Practices that Matter the Most

Consequently, we settled on five elements of leadership practice--practices that are associated with instructional leadership (Robinson et al., 2008)--because current research has concluded that the impact of instructional leadership on student outcomes is three to four times greater than the impact of other types of leadership practices (Robinson et al., 2008, p. 655).

So, what are those high-impact instructional leadership practices? The five leadership practices on which our evaluation system focuses include:

  • Establishing a shared mission/vision, goals, and expectations
  • Strategic resourcing
  • Ensuring teacher and staff effectiveness
  • Leading and participating in teacher/leader learning and development
  • Providing an orderly, safe, and supportive environment

How does your principal evaluation system help you focus on the proficient or higher exercise of specific leadership practices that have been shown to have a strong, measurable effect on student achievement, teaching quality, and schools? Are you focused on the trees or the forest? 

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