February 2013 Newsletter: Principal Evaluation Comes Into Tighter Focus
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Principal Evaluation Comes Into Tighter Focus
Charter school teachers aren't the only ones facing closer inspection of their effectiveness. So are their principals. Laws and practices are changing to put more emphasis on the performance of principals and their impact on the schools they lead. Developing and implementing principal evaluation systems that accommodate the diverse circumstances of charter schools, aid student achievement, and build better leaders and school communities amounts to a complex, high-stakes challenge. This issue of the National Charter School Resource Center's monthly newsletter focuses on the principal evaluation trend, covers a Baltimore charter school's collaborative approach to the process, and provides resources that readers can consult to learn more about the topic.
The accountability for student performance incorporated into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended in 2001, required regular evaluation of principals and allowed for financial awards for those achieving consistent gains in academic performance. But the law fell short of resulting in systematic and comprehensive evaluation of the work of principals, according to Matthew Clifford, a senior researcher at American Institutes for Research who specializes in principal evaluation. "Even though that was written into law, states were not taking action to improve teacher and principal evaluation systems," Clifford said in an interview with the Resource Center. Since 2009, in the wake of federal programs such as the Race to the Top competitions that have awarded extra funding for specific types of education reform, more than 30 states have enacted legislation involving principal accountability. But Clifford said that turning intent into effective practice requires another leap.
Operating in the Dark: What Outdated State Policies and Data Gaps Mean for Effective School Leadership, a February 2013 report from the George W. Bush Institute of Dallas, concluded that in too many cases, states "are not effectively using their principal preparation and oversight authority to increase the quality and quantity of school leaders." The report highlights what it calls a "troubling absence of metrics and data" on the supply and training of principals and on the value of licensure requirements. It also includes estimates of a coming wave of principal retirements and notes that a shortage of high-quality school leaders counts among the key factors hampering growth in charter schools.
In Texas, a 2009 study indicated the challenges that charter schools face in their retention of principals. Tenure and Retention of Newly Hired Principals in Texas, a report from the Texas High School Project's Education Leadership initiative covering 1996–2008 data, focused on how long newly hired principals stay in their jobs and analyzed influences on their tenure. Regarding charter schools specifically, the study found "extremely low retention rates" and stated that "only 50 percent of the principals returned after one year and only 36 percent after five years." Among schools overall, student achievement and levels of poverty strongly influenced retention, with higher student performance and economic status correlating to higher retention. The study found that "certification test results appear to have little impact on principal retention rates."
Lack of effective leadership is unlikely to help a struggling school succeed. A 2011 analysis by the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) of 58 low-performing charter schools noted a range of leadership deficiencies among many schools, including lack of academic expertise, turnover of leaders, leaders resistant to change, lack of involvement in the school, and no clear improvement plan, and, in two cases, "ethical/legal issues." In about a quarter of the schools, the analysis found that the leader's role was part-time. The study's purpose was to determine whether charter schools with low scores and poor growth rates on the state index were "truly underperforming"; to solicit schools' views relative to their performance; and to check the CCSA's accountability framework for its capacity to differentiate among schools in identifying the lowest performers. According to the study, a "shared underlying assumption among these schools that they are being held to unfair standards that penalize them" for the high-risk populations they serve did not hold water and that many schools with comparable populations and similar challenges "are performing significantly better."
Charter school leaders, researchers, and education policymakers have been working to build better systems, to better understand the role of principals, and to test new ways to improve the way principals are trained, evaluated, and supported. The work is being aided by major grants from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and others. In 2010, for example, ED awarded the KIPP Foundation a five-year Investing in Innovation (i3) grant totaling $50 million to support work that includes enhancement of its principal evaluation system, training for KIPP and non-KIPP leaders, and dissemination of best practices. In 2012, ED awarded Teacher Incentive Fund grants to "improve pay structures, reward great teachers and principals and provide greater professional opportunities to teachers in high-poverty schools." At least eight of these awards involved charter schools, including a five-year, $27.8 million project by the Aspire Public Schools charter network of California. In February 2013, ED announced a $25.3 million grant opportunity for non-profit organizations to support up to five projects aiding teacher or principal training or professional enhancement activities.
Evaluation Systems Require Detailed Preparation, Follow-Through
The extent to which state laws and the role of charter school authorizers apply to principal evaluation varies around the country. One of the key responsibilities of a charter school governing board is evaluation of the school leader. But that leader might not necessarily be the principal or the only principal. A charter school board might evaluate a school leader who, as a supervisor, then evaluates principals.
Developing and implementing an effective and fair principal evaluation system requires planning and consideration of diverse points of view, as well as a laser focus on the specific needs of a school, according to researcher and principal evaluation specialist Clifford. "Local design helps people make decisions and clarifies values that need to be integrated into principal evaluation," according to Clifford. Communication and ongoing engagement with the many stakeholders of a school community are among the most critical challenges in building an effective system. "Where we've seen processes break down, it's been around communication," Clifford said. It's too late if the evaluation system rolled out without having taken the broad pulse of school community, according to Clifford, who noted that stakeholders want a voice in the process. "That's really essential for charters," Clifford said. "Charters are typically constituted by people who are looking for something different."
Multiple measures, including surveys of parents, student test data, and staff and principal work products such as school improvement plans, must be brought together to get a clear picture of the range of functions of a principal. With a principal observation, the process may become complex, according to Clifford. A useful observation might involve seeing how well a principal works with a group of teachers to analyze student performance data and to devise a plan to address the need. Reliability of the people who rate principals comes into play most keenly in observations, according to Clifford. "When their work is observed by someone who is well informed and trusted about school leadership and the mission of their school, the feedback that they get is really powerful," Clifford said.
All the pieces need to be "synched in a schedule on an annual basis to make sure the data is collected, people have an opportunity to reflect on the data, and the principal can adjust his or her objectives and professional development plans," Clifford emphasized.
Performance evaluation measures aren't all necessarily available when needed. "The availability of data on student performance collected by the state may at times not be synched well with the principal evaluation process," Clifford noted. For example, standardized test data might not be ready in time for an evaluation or decision about principal assignment. Clifford went on to point out, "We're starting to see local measures being brought to bear because the timing is synched better. Staff can produce student learning objectives that are tailored to their subject area and their students. And the principal is assessed against the degree to which those objectives are met."
The extent to which such local objectives are permitted to serve as measures depends on the state and the level of oversight by an authorizer, Clifford said. "In the ones that I've seen, it's been fine as long as a strong rationale is provided."
Success for a principal does not necessarily mean a bigger payday. As Clifford observed, "It's more common for principals to be let go as a result of poor student performance as opposed to giving them some sort of performance bonus."
Baltimore Group Approaches Principal Evaluation Collaboratively
In Baltimore, a single charter school that opened in 2005 has evolved into a group of three schools and a support foundation that takes a broad and deep approach to outreach when it comes to principal evaluation. "Who should be making the decisions?" asked Bobbi Macdonald, Executive Director and Founder of City Neighbors. "That's something that we think about over here." The answer is everyone, a part of a cooperative effort to reflect diverse views.
City Neighbors includes two K–8 schools, each with about 200 students, and a high school that is expected to have 380 students when it is fully enrolled. The first K–8 school, which started in 2005, has had the same principal—who replaced the founding principal—for the past seven years. The other K–8 school, which is in its fourth year, is guided by its third principal. And the high school, which is in its third year, has been led by the same principal all three years. Each school is an individual non-profit corporation, with its own 12-member board and its own principal. By law, the charters' principals, like their teachers, come under the union contract that applies to employees of the traditional school district, which is the authorizer. The schools' governing boards are made up of parents, teachers, students, and the principals. The boards govern the schools, which are owned by the parents under the bylaws. The principals, while they are involved in developing partnerships with outside organizations, are largely free to focus on academic and school community development.
"When it came to evaluation we had to do a lot of thinking about what would actually be really informative for the principal and actually help lead our school forward, which is the whole point of evaluation," said Macdonald. "Sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle."
The president of each governing board works with Mike Chalupa, academic director for the three schools and principal of the first K–8 school, and with the board executive committee to develop principal goals and objectives. The president, the executive committee, and Chalupa then meet on an ongoing basis to check progress. The goals include objectives for the school, the leader, and whatever else turns out to be relevant, according to Macdonald. With goals in place, plans can be developed in cooperation with faculty.
"For us, a successful school leader is thinking 'Who else would want to weigh in on this decision,'" Macdonald said. "Or 'How do I distribute the opportunity and the leadership?'"
A principal evaluation rubric is developed with the principal, seeking to determine "what do we need to know and why? We would never create that without the principal's input."
In the same vein, the teachers create the curriculum for their classes, which are focused on project-based learning. "We would never hand them a textbook and say 'Teach this'—not that they can't use best practices or texts from other places," Macdonald explained. "I don't think there is much value in any form that anyone can hand us and say, 'Do this,'" Macdonald said. "You miss an amazing opportunity if you simply take someone else's form and apply it. You've got to create your own living document with the people who are going to be engaged in your school."
The same goes for students, Macdonald pointed out. For example, students are asked not to simply abide by the school's conduct code for behavior but to evaluate it for what might be missing or how it can be improved.
The Baltimore City Public Schools' evaluation system, a checklist of 16 items on which principals are rated as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, is not optional for the charter schools. And principals must be certified by the state of Maryland. "We mostly pursue our own evaluation system, which we've created, and then at the very end of the year we translate it over to the Baltimore City checklist," Chalupa said. A meeting is required with a representative of the district to "confirm together that, from their perspective and our perspective, the checklist is correct." An excellent principal could officially receive a rating of satisfactory. "Or, conversely, they could be satisfactory but not as excellent as we want them to be," Chalupa said. "There is a dilemma when you have a binary approach."
It is the district's evaluation that is controlling, according to Chalupa, who said Baltimore is reworking the city's system. "I don't know what that is going to look like."
When it comes to students' service on the board, it is the student council president who fills the seat. Students are aided in their interactions with issues by the principal and have not been in a position of casting a deciding vote, according to Chalupa. "It hasn't come up that way," he said.
The schools' principal evaluation has evolved, including the addition of an element that specifically addresses attitudes about leadership. At times, executive decisions must be made to advance the ball, but the school's model eschews authoritarian leadership. "It takes a lot of professional judgment to realize that even though I can make this decision right now, quickly and easily, it would actually afford a great opportunity for a few folks to come together and dig in a little deeper and come up with something I can't even think of right now," Macdonald explained.
The approach is not for everyone. "We go through such a big process when we hire someone and so it is, of course, incredibly surprising when you realize, wow, this isn't working out," said Macdonald. "Sometimes when the school year actually starts and the person becomes the principal, that authoritarian model comes out."
Macdonald noted a case in which the school was forced to address the conflict and a principal departure ensued. "We just brought forth our charter, our mission, our feedback from all the stakeholders," she said, making the clash in philosophy or expectations apparent, and an agreement was reached to part ways.
Feedback surveys that go beyond the views of a few school directors provide consensus and leverage, according to Chalupa. "It's a little bit harder to displace the blame," he noted. "That helps that process, but it still doesn't mean that the person isn't going to feel hurt."
Macdonald said the process is intended to be constructive. "If someone says, 'I want to do this and I want to figure out how we can move forward,' then we'll do that," she commented. "Nobody's perfect. We're all at some place on the continuum."
Macdonald, who served as a university kindergarten lab teacher and gained a master's in curriculum and instruction, described herself as coming from a long line of salesmen and educators. She said that seeking and gaining broad input into the schools' development takes commitment and hard work. "You can just get it started in the strongest possible way and then let the folks involved actually create the school," Macdonald said. "So evaluation is in that same line of fierce ownership of the process and real commitment to creating the best school we can imagine."
Resource Center Webinar Offers Tips to Improve Charter Board Meetings
Running an effective charter school governing board meeting can be a challenge, even when many talented people occupy the room, according to Marci Cornell-Feist, the author of the Charter School Trustees Guide and founder and CEO of The High Bar. But the process can be improved with techniques designed to aid preparation, time management, and outcomes.
Cornell-Feist, who has been helping train charter school board members for 16 years and has worked in most states, was the featured presenter for the Resource Center's February 2013 webinar, Board Governance: Strengthen Your Board By Fixing Your Board Meetings.
Key issues covered during the webinar included the importance of setting the context for board service. Even though they are volunteers who are busy with their regular work, charter board members still must perform in their school governance role and must not lose sight of their legal responsibility as custodians of the charter contract, Cornell-Feist said.
The idea is for board members to have a manageable amount of work that is clearly defined. Too often, board members "show up and react to things that the leader puts in front of them," Cornell-Feist said. Planning meetings to address strategic issues and viewing the process as a joint effort of the school leader and the board allows for better results.
GAO Report Calls for Guidance on Military Base Charter Schools
A February 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office focuses on charter schools on military bases and recommends that additional guidance be developed regarding operation of the schools.
The report, which profiles the eight charter schools in seven states that were identified on bases, covers start-up, use of federal grants, preferences for admission, facilities, and base security and access for civilian members of the school community.
The report states that "demand among military families and base communities for more military base charter schools will likely increase, especially in light of residential growth on bases affected by military Base Realignment and Closure," and that such schools present a "novel set of challenges" and opportunities.
The development of military base charter schools was the subject of the January 2011 newsletter of the National Charter School Resource Center, which has posted diverse resources related to the topic on its website.
Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching Offer Winners $10,000
Teachers in Grades 7–12 are eligible for the 2013 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST), which recognize teachers who develop and implement high-quality instructional programs. Up to 108 awards are authorized to be made each year. Winners receive $10,000 and a paid trip for two to Washington, D.C. The nomination deadline is April 1, 2013, and the application deadline is May 1, 2013.
USDA Offers 'Farm to School' Grants
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking applications for its $5 million Farm to School grant program, which supports efforts that improve schools' access to local foods.
Grants of $20,000 to $45,000 are offered for project planning, while grants of $65,000 to $100,000 are offered for implementation and support services. Charter schools have received grants.
June 30–July 3, 2013: National Charter Schools Conference in Washington, D.C.
This framework from the State University of New York Charter Schools Institute guides the authorizer's collection and evaluation of school performance to determine whether a "school has made an adequate case for renewal." The framework covers a range of benchmarks for academic success, effectiveness, and viability, including evaluation of school leadership.
This guide from the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality describes strategies and resources for evaluating school principals, including an example and a review of the existing literature describing the benefits of the process and cautions to consider.
The Ripple Effect: A Synthesis of Research on Principal Influence to Inform Performance Evaluation Design
This Quality School Leadership report reviews research focused on identification of principal actions that influence student performance and instruction by teachers. It includes a review of national policy research affecting principal professional standards.
This 2012 report from the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality reviews changes in the regulatory landscape for principal evaluation, including local control for designing systems, key elements of evaluation, the impact of evaluation on personnel decisions, and selection and training of evaluators.
Principal Development: Selection, Support & Evaluation: Key Strategies From NewSchools' Portfolio Ventures
This 2008 report from NewSchools Venture Fund provides examples of approaches to principal selection and evaluation from leading charter school and talent development organizations. It includes sample rubrics, staff support systems, and principal observations methods.
This November 2008 report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools includes an assessment of the charter school leader landscape and issues related to expanding the pool of high-quality charter school leaders.
This report from Public Impact, while presented in the context of school turnaround, provides guidance for evaluating school leaders who can succeed in the face of adversity. It also includes information about interviewing techniques and rating and comparing candidates.
This website section of the New Leaders program includes publications focused on evaluating principals, strategies and approaches, measures of effectiveness, and sample rubrics.
This 2012 guide from the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality covers the policy context for principal evaluation and the development and implementation of evaluation systems. The guide discusses goals and selection of measures, use of results, and models for systems.
The April 2012 issue of the National Charter School Resource Center newsletter includes a discussion of approaches to a governing board's evaluation of the charter school leader.
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