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Principal evaluation: The next big reform?

Are principals not effective instructional leaders?


As states and districts have worked tirelessly to implement teacher effectiveness initiatives, largely driven by new and more rigorous teacher evaluation systems, the topic of principal evaluation has begun to take a more prominent role in the conversation.

And although principal evaluation is not a new concept, it is a fundamentally different conversation than it was several years ago. The field’s conception of what is possible relative to evaluative processes (i.e., using student achievement data to evaluate effectiveness) has significantly changed how we approach the process of evaluating both teachers and school leaders.

Several states and districts have begun to tackle the issue head on, working to ensure a rigorous and fair evaluation process is in place for school leaders. In fact, it appears that reform of principal evaluation systems is based, at least in part, on the fact that teacher evaluation systems have highlighted gaps in the effectiveness of school leaders to evaluate teachers effectively. Does this mean principals are not effective instructional leaders?  Perhaps not.

However, it has signaled to the field that there is work to be done when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of leaders in our schools. When coupled with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, which require exceptional instructional leadership, the field is ripe for examining how to ensure that principals are indeed effective at supporting teachers in the very important work of serving the students in their classrooms.

(Next page: Examining teacher evaluation effectiveness )

The current widespread interest in reforming principal evaluation systems appears to stem primarily from two factors:

  1. An increased awareness about the importance of these evaluation processes to student achievement, and;
  2. Clarity about how to best build effective educator evaluation systems.

Teacher evaluation as the initiator for principal evaluation reform

The urgency of implementation of teacher evaluation systems plays a significant role in the desire of the field to revise how we evaluate school leaders. At a very basic level, the skills needed by principals to effectively evaluate teachers with new tools immediately highlighted the need for principals to:

  • Consistently and accurately rate instructional practices of classroom teachers across multiple grade levels and subject areas;
  • Manage a significant increase in the amount of time spent evaluating teachers while still effectively balancing all of the other responsibilities of a principal when running a school;
  • Provide actionable feedback to teachers that actually moves their practice;
  • Maintain a culture of achievement amidst the particularly political and high stakes national initiatives: Teacher evaluation and the Common Core State Standards; and most importantly,
  • Ensure that all students are learning.

As districts have worked tirelessly to implement such evaluation systems, they cannot ignore the pressing need to provide more intensive support (and feedback) to principals. Thus comes the “new” conversation on how to build principal evaluation systems that mirror the rigor of teacher evaluation systems as well as a focus on what matters most.

Leadership frameworks as the centerpiece of evaluation (and growth!)

While there are many questions to answer, at the foundation of any good evaluation system is a set of expectations for school leaders. The best practices knowledge base on effective instruction has been strengthened by the work of experts in the field who have introduced, among other practices, leadership practice frameworks and performance rubrics. States and districts across the country have either adopted existing leadership frameworks or worked to develop their own.

As an example, Syracuse City School District approached the development of its framework in tandem with the development of its instructional framework for teachers. Both systems were built through a collaborative process with stakeholders in the district. As a district, it built a custom leadership framework rather than opting for an “off the shelf” solution, as it wanted to ensure its school leaders had a voice in determining what should be included in the expectations for principals. The framework then became the guidepost for all professional development and support of school leaders, and was ultimately used to evaluate school leaders.

Whether you adopt an existing framework or build your own, this is a critical first step in the process of building a quality principal evaluation system. And don’t underestimate the impact of this decision. Ensuring you are using a framework that suites your context is critically important.

Design challenges

Once you have determined what expectations principals in your district must meet, you must then design an evaluation system that will provide you with the information you need to determine if principals are indeed meeting those expectations while also providing data on opportunities for growth.

If there is one thing we have learned from reforming teacher evaluation, it is that it is not easy. We are continuously faced with hard decisions about what matters most.

In designing and improving principal evaluation systems, there are a number of questions to consider:

  • What are the characteristics and actions of effective principals? Which leadership framework will we utilize, or build? How do we articulate everything about a good principal or prioritize what matters most?
  • What else should be included in a principal’s evaluation? Student achievement, feedback from stakeholders, climate and culture?
  • How will we gather data to assess a principal’s effectiveness? Multiple observations – how many and what is involved in an observation?  Artifacts? Growth data?
  • How do we ensure the system is built to grow a principal’s practice? Given that the evaluator will not likely be present at the school on a regular basis (as opposed to a principal with the teachers they evaluate), how do we ensure that the process can indeed be leveraged for on-going conversation on growth versus an activity to provide an “effectiveness score” to the principal?
  • How do we evaluate those in leadership positions who are not the principal, given their job responsibilities may be different than those of the principal? APs, deans, etc.?
  • Who will evaluate principals and how will we ensure that they are equipped to effectively evaluate effectiveness across multiple campuses? How will we calibrate principal evaluators to ensure evaluations are both fair and reliable?

These questions are critical to the conversation, and represent the many facets of this process that need to be considered when designing such evaluation systems. And while we cannot attempt to answer all of these questions here, they represent the complexity of implementing an evaluation system that works.

What we do know is that it is critically important to ensure deep engagement of teachers, school leaders, and principal supervisors in the design, implementation, and revision of educator evaluation systems.

Lessons learned

The good news is that many states and districts across the country have already begun to implement new systems of evaluation and growth, and many lessons have been learned through the process. Our work in several school districts and the State of Tennessee has taught us some important lesson when tackling such an initiative.

Lesson #1: Plan for a process in which deep engagement and conversation is encouraged. This is not easy, and will not be a quick conversation. The most effective systems will come out of a process in which multiple stakeholders are involved – particularly those with whom the tool will be used.

Lesson #2: Don’t build the principal evaluation system in isolation. This should be viewed as part of an effectiveness initiative, and thus should be built with the teacher evaluation system in mind. In fact, make every effort to allow the guiding principles of your teacher evaluation system to serve as the guiding principles of your efforts to assess and support school leaders. After all, this is all about providing meaningful feedback for all educators in the system.

Lesson #3: Less is more. There are thousands of things (or more) that good principals do. The goal is not to identify every single thing that needs to be evaluated. Rather, to make the system manageable, focus on the things that matter most. A usable tool will serve you much better in the long run over a framework with dozens of indicators and a long rubric.

Lesson #4: Make sure evaluators are normed. Like teacher evaluation systems, credibility is attained through effective implementation. In other words, are all of the evaluators equipped to utilize the evaluation tool and process in a manner that inspires confidence in the principals that the process is fair? When the principal feels as if the evaluator is unfair or unskilled, the system loses credibility immediately with the individual it is intended to serve. This takes a thoughtful norming process with support for those who need additional help figuring it all out.

Lesson #5: Don’t underestimate the roll of communication. Although the designers of such evaluation systems have the best intentions of creating a process that is fair and growth oriented, making assumptions about what people know and how they’ll respond can prove to be a significant set back. Make sure that there is a clear plan of communication from the beginning of the process through implementation.

The right work

We are in the midst of a very exciting time in the field. The pressures of implementing multiple, high-stakes initiates can be overwhelming yet we have seen the value of thinking about such initiatives as a system of development and support for educators in our schools.

This is the “right” work.  We cannot forget why we’re in this field – to ensure students are achieving at high levels. And understanding the role of the principal in this process, and how to assess effectiveness should serve us well. Although the process may present challenges, we must continue to pursue systems that truly support the growth of leaders in our schools today.

Michael Moody, PhD, is CEO and Founder of Insight Education Group, a national consulting firm that supports the growth of teachers and school leaders to provide students with a great education. Since 2000, Insight has partnered with schools, districts, charters, states, and education organizations to design and implement initiatives that get results. Dr. Moody has served as a classroom teacher and school and district administrator. He may be reached at


Rethinking Principal Evaluation: A New Paradigm Informed by Research and Practice, NAESP/NASSP.

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