Report suggests new system for principal evaluations

A new report suggests that principals must be more involved in school reform discussions.

Principal evaluation systems should not be based solely on student achievement gains, but rather on the quality of a principal’s school-level leadership and performance, according to a new report released by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

The report, titled, “The Ripple Effect,” found that principals and other school-based leaders are being left out of education reform discussions. “Principals’ voices, at times, have been lost in efforts to define effective school leadership and rapidly improve educational quality,” it states.

For evaluation systems to accurately reflect a principal’s effectiveness, evaluations should focus on principals’ work and school-level leadership. The report said that many professional principal organizations and researchers have defined principal effectiveness by a principal’s knowledge, skills, attitudes and behavior that overall produces a certain quality of leadership style.

The report identified key qualities found in successful principals, including time management, modeling ethical and professional behaviors, showing initiative and persistence, engaging in ongoing reflection and learning, using data to inform strategy, judiciously allocating human and financial resources, and censuring compliance with district, state, and federal policy.

“Our research review makes it clear that principals have a strong influence on student learning, but that they do so indirectly, through the work of many other educators,” said Matt Clifford, a senior research scientist at AIR and author of the report.

“The review suggests that principals’ work focuses on establishing school conditions that are conducive to better teaching and learning. If we accept that performance feedback is most effective when it is actionable, then it makes sense that principal evaluation systems emphasize measures of school quality and leadership performance, along with measures of student learning.”

The report provides a research-based approach to principal performance evaluation design. In many ways, the report says, policy efforts have outpaced research on principal effectiveness and evaluation design.

As a result, teacher evaluation systems are being applied to principal evaluations, and principal evaluation designs focus too heavily on effectiveness measures that don’t capture the entire role of a school leader.

“Principals have voiced concerns that educators are being evaluated on effectiveness measures that they do not fully understand, and therefore cannot hope to address through changes in practice,” notes the report. “Although appealing in its simplicity, the focus on principal impact relies on new and complex statistical models to determine principal effectiveness.”

The report concludes that measuring principal effectiveness is very complex and requires multiple measures. To be useful to principals, evaluation should also focus on measuring the aspects they directly influence: principals’ work quality, school climate, and instructional quality. Over-reliance on one set of data, such as student test scores, runs the risk that high stakes decisions about principal effectiveness will not be valid.

It also describes how principals’ work has changed over time, and the new demands on principals’ time and attention. In the authors’ assessment: “Today, we are asking principals to be instructional leaders, a role that encourages them to deeply engage with teachers in student learning issues, while also asking them to retain traditional roles. We have added more work to principals’ already overflowing plates.”

Principals are key players in the education arena, with their work impacting 3.4 million teachers and 55 million k-12 students in the United States. As the report notes, principals are the second most influential factor on student achievement after teaching quality, and principals with strong leadership skills and effective practices often run successful schools in which teachers feel supported in their work and student achievement is high.

Diann Woodard, president of the American Federation of School Administrators, said the report “only confirms what school leaders have experienced first-hand for years. When principal evaluations are based solely on student achievement, namely test scores, our leadership abilities and years of classroom experience are suddenly diminished to a number that reflects what a student faces each day at school and at home; a number that lacks the integrity to define what our jobs truly demand of us.”

The report comes as states are offered waivers to opt out of NCLB AYP requirements, which subjects schools to an escalating series of sanctions if students fail to make AYP. NCLB requires principals and teachers to be evaluated on test scores, although the terms for the waivers also contain these requirements. Since the announcement, 11 states have been approved for waivers, with more than 30 currently waiting for their waiver applications to be approved.

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