Assessing Leadership Beyond the Principal

By Mark Blitz, Ph.D., Research Associate, Wisconsin Center for Education Research, and Project Director, the Comprehensive Assessment of Leadership for Learning (CALL), Jun 29, 2017

In September, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Policy Board for Educational Administration (NPBEA) released a draft of a “refresh” of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) Standards―the standards that articulate the expectations and responsibilities for school leadership practice. In addition, CCSSO and NPBEA, through the support of The Wallace Foundation, have turned their attention to the development of the first set of standards for supervisors of principals. Coupled with the implementation of new principal evaluation and support policies across the country, these standards represent an opportunity for state and district leaders to make real progress in promoting effective leadership.

Research shows there is room for improvement in principal evaluation. In 2006, a study of common principal evaluation systems in the United States found that school districts tended to use subjective, compliance-based instruments and processes. And, as is the case for teachers, principal evaluation systems did not generate feedback specific enough to be useful in improving leadership.

State education agency (SEA) and local education agency (LEA) leaders can seize the opportunity to advance research-based principal effectiveness systems that are worth the time and effort required for implementation. These systems must provide useful, timely, and relevant data and feedback, and they must recognize the changing role of the school principal. Contrary to the popular culture perception of the principal as a metaphorical superhero who, by herself or himself, can enter a struggling school and “save the day,” recent literature shows an increasing need for and acceptance of distributed instructional leadership: a strategy that uses the work of many formal and informal leaders within a school to enhance student learning.

To illustrate the changing role of the school principal, researchers at the University of Washington have offered the metaphor of “principal as orchestra conductor,” which acknowledges that leadership practice is distributed across a school organization and the principal must ensure that these practices are carried out effectively and harmoniously. As one principal in the Oakland (California) Unified School District put it, “If someone were to survey my staff about my work to implement effective professional development activities, I’d receive a low rating. It is not me but a team of teachers that creates and administers these activities.” As the principal, she ultimately is responsible for the effectiveness of these activities, but she is not doing the actual work of implementation herself.

For an accurate account of leadership effectiveness in a given school, we need to focus on the collective work of school leaders, rather than target a specific person. Granted, the principal is ultimately responsible for ensuring that all the necessary leadership tasks are being carried out. But it is not necessarily the principal who is doing all of the work alone.

State leaders should consider these points when designing systems for evaluating school leadership:

  • Assess leadership beyond the individual principal. Although the common approach of assessing the individual principal yields valuable information, it also overlooks a great deal of information on schoolwide leadership effectiveness. SEAs and LEAs could include these data as part of a comprehensive, multi-source evaluation system.
     
  • In conducting performance evaluations, separate the “work” from the individual. Past research has shown that when responding to survey questions about the individual principal, respondents often consider factors such as personality traits and physical characteristics that have little to do with the principal’s job performance.
     
  • Ensure that principal evaluations provide timely, relevant, and practical feedback. Effective principal evaluations need to benefit the principal (who uses the feedback to improve leadership skills), not just the principal supervisor (who typically receives valuable information about the school, which can be used for instructional and personnel decisions). With the emergence of ISLCC standards for principal supervisors, those who assess leadership need to ensure that they are supporting those who are being assessed.
     
  • Consider using Title I funding in implementing this type of assessment system. Rather than viewing principal evaluation as a compliance-based activity, principal supervisors should use this opportunity to promote school improvement planning. SEAs can use Title I funding to support struggling schools by providing actionable data that promotes effective instructional leadership.

Now is the time to evaluate systems and policies that promote effective leaders―not just principals, but all those who contribute to student learning.

Now it’s your turn. We want to hear your thoughts:

  1. How will the new ISLLC standards for principal supervisors affect principal evaluation and practice in your state?
  2. How would a greater focus on distributed leadership support principal professional development and school improvement in your state?
  3. To what extent do current principal evaluations provide practical feedback and promote professional growth for principals in your state? How could this system be improved? 

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