Holding Principals Accountable

Seven considerations for effectively evaluating your site administrators by DOUGLAS B. REEVES

The clarion call for accountability falls disproportionately on superintendents and principals. Boards of education, frustrated that student achievement has not sufficiently improved, are elected based on promises of change, and leadership positions are the most visible indicators of apparent stagnation.


Thus the promise that "achievement will improve or heads will roll" sums up a remarkably facile approach to the complex challenge of educational leadership. Only an effective leadership accountability system can respond to this counterproductive combination of threat and bluster.

Accountability is more than a promise of change. Properly implemented, it provides a clear strategic direction for schools and their leaders, with a laser-like focus on student achievement and specific strategies that will be used at the school level to create improvement. If the promise of accountability is to be achieved, however, then more clarity and less rhetoric must be the order of the day.

Counting Improvement
After reviewing leadership evaluations and accountability systems in hundreds of schools, I have concluded there are seven keys to effective educational accountability systems: balance between achievement and improvement, specificity, focus on student performance, frequency, adaptation to individual strengths, rewards for the tough choices and reflection.

Even the most perfect accountability system, however, will fail if leaders are not given authority commensurate with their responsibility. In many districts, site administrators have little or no control over the hiring and discipline of teachers, the daily instructional and assessment activities within the classroom and the availability of basic learning resources, including textbooks, computers and even desks. Accountability is a sham when superintendents and principals are subject to public humiliation and career jeopardy when they fail to improve student achievement under these circumstances.

If--and only if--you're ready to give building leaders the ability to carry out their mission, here are some effective ways to hold them accountable.
  • Balance achievement with improvement.
    The most consistent complaint I have heard from school administrators around the country is that they are being held accountable for things over which they have no control. One principal in Wisconsin spoke for thousands when he said, "I don't feed them before they get here, discipline them at home, limit their consumption of alcohol and drugs except for six hours a day or give them a home where they are safe from violence and abuse. But every one of those factors affects their performance at school, and you're going to tell me that it's all my fault?"

    It doesn't take most principals long to determine that if an accountability system rewards only test scores, then the easiest way to look good is to find a school with a record of high achievement, and that frequently means running away from the problems of poverty, hunger and violence--and denying leadership in schools where it is most needed.

    In fact, several urban schools are demonstrating they can achieve high standards even in the presence of seemingly intractable poverty. Nevertheless, this success takes years to achieve, and it is a constant challenge in the face of mobility, poverty and a host of factors that interfere with the ability of students to learn. Leaders who accept this challenge deserve our gratitude rather than a litany of complaints about why they can't make schools effective.

    How can an accountability system reconcile the tension between the demand for achievement and the need to recognize incremental improvement? The comprehensive accountability system in the Milwaukee Public Schools has won wide recognition for its balanced approach. It is a three-tiered system, including systemwide goals, school-based goals and a school narrative.

    The six systemwide goals focus on student achievement and attendance. Using state and local test data, the board established thresholds that are expected of all students in all schools. The five school-based goals are selected from more than 100 goals that focus on specific instructional strategies at the school level. Each faculty, site council and principal collaboratively selects the five school-based goals, and the accountability system provides credit based solely on improvement. This allows the lowest-performing schools to achieve recognition for progress, even in the early stages of an improvement program when the systemwide goals are not yet achieved.

    In the same way, the focus on improvement challenges the highest-performing schools by requiring them to find areas of improvement, even if they already meet the systemwide targets. Thus every school is challenged, and every school finds opportunity for reward.

    The third tier of the comprehensive accountability system, the school narrative, allows principals to explain the meaning behind the numbers--the context, school climate and professional environment. Taken as a whole, this system is a model for providing clear targets for principals while allowing variation among complex and widely varying schools. The system also enhances communication with the media and the public and makes the essential case that accountability is more than test scores.
Simple But Particular
  • Communicate specific demands.
    Several states and a growing number of school districts have concluded that effective accountability for school leaders requires linking school performance to the job security of the principal. In this way of thinking, when students underperform, the administrator's certificate is on the line.

    Even if one accepts the dubious argument that optimal performance results from threats and intimidation, those on the receiving end of the threat must understand what they are supposed to do. Unfortunately, the complexity of some accountability systems borders on the absurd, and one recent study estimated than only a fraction of the principals who had been warned that their jobs were on the line understood how their activities influenced the results of the complex regression equations driving the accountability system.
  • Focus on student learning.
    Telling principals to focus on student achievement represents a "blinding flash of the obvious," to use Tom Peters' well-turned phrase. However apparent such a focus may be, the real life of a principal is dominated by anything but student achievement. Parent meetings, discipline and a seemingly unending series of paperwork and meeting demands all take time away from serious consideration of student achievement.

    At the secondary level particularly, the expectation that a principal will observe more than a few moments of each class is unrealistic, yet the principal is expected to make decisions of enormous importance on tenure and promotion.

    It doesn't have to be this way. Stan Scheer, superintendent in the Ferguson-Florissant, Mo., School District, follows a tradition of putting himself on the substitute teacher list for 20 days each year--a practice he started as a principal. When he is on the floor with a group of kindergarten students for several hours, he undoubtedly is missing some calls from school board members and meetings with the chamber of commerce. He also is sending an unambiguous message about the value he places on student achievement and the daily lives of students and teachers. In essence, he places his calendar where his rhetoric is, and that is an act all too rare.

    How else can principals demonstrate a focus on achievement? Three specific strategies are used in effective schools.

    First, principals themselves can establish the meaning of "proficiency" in an academic area. Flora Flagg, a Milwaukee principal, creates a writing prompt for her 4th-grade students every week and personally applies the citywide writing rubric to these papers. It is no surprise that the students in this 100 percent poverty-level school scored in the 74th percentile on national writing tests.

    Second, principals can personally review a sample of student portfolios. Another Milwaukee principal reported that when she reviewed just three portfolios per month, teachers reported a significant increase in the quantity and quality of student portfolio contents.

    Third, principals themselves can monitor the performance of students who face the possibility of failure. With the same intensity that we follow the performance and injury statistics for sports stars on a weekly basis, we can track the most critical information on selected students. Principals cannot be expected to personally attend to the performance of hundreds of students. But principals can follow the performance of those who risk failure on a "watch list."

    When these three steps are taken, principals uniformly report two important results--students have several significant adults who consistently care about them, and principals feel less like chief disciplinarians and administrators and more like instructional leaders.
Periodic Feedback
  • Ensure frequency of assessment, evaluation and feedback.
    I am stunned constantly by the number of principals and senior administrators who tell me they have not received formal evaluations during the past three years. Some have never been evaluated but received periodic raises, encouragement, threats or pink slips. This erratic feedback usually came from board members and superintendents who extolled the virtues of accountability but could not find the time to practice it themselves.

    Even those superintendents who conscientiously provide annual feedback to principals should not be complacent. Annual appraisals encourage a binary approach to principal evaluation: success or failure, met the goal or missed the goal, keep your job or look for a job.

    If feedback is to be effective, it must be frequent. We know how ineffective annual feedback is for students and teachers. They receive annual test scores (typically several months after taking the test and in most cases long after the students have departed for the summer). For teachers, such feedback sends a message that "here's the data that would have helped you improve your teaching based on the needs of these students if you would have had it in time, but since it's late and there's nothing you can do about it, we'll just release it to the newspaper so that they can editorialize again about how bad our schools are."

    Most educational leaders would agree this practice is hardly a prescription for motivating teachers; yet we commit the same error when we provide feedback to principals on an annual or less frequent basis.

    The most effective feedback systems provide measurable results at least quarterly. If the results are to be taken seriously, they are carefully considered. This review takes time, and that is something few superintendents have. Therefore, evaluations must be focused and brief so that, within a 10-minute meeting and a two-page memo, the key points of principal evaluation can be addressed.

    Some districts evaluate schools and principals by publicly posting evaluations outside of each school. This is fine, provided the evaluation data can change frequently. This sends the message that "we may not be where we want to be yet, but we're getting better every day." Unfortunately, the more common approach is to place a sign outside of a school based on the results of the previous year and then leave the sign up all year. This sends the message, "we came here labeled as a failure, and we're stuck here until next year, so don't expect things to get any better, because we're going to remind you every day you walk in this building just how bad things are."

  • Adapt to individual strengths.
    John Goodlad is among the leading exponents of the importance of school leadership and the difference a single leader can make. Yet even Goodlad rejects the notion that the principal should be fiscal manager, chief administrator, personnel director, disciplinarian, curriculum designer and instructional leader. "It is naïve and arrogant," he writes, "to assume that principals, who may or may not have been effective teachers, can acquire and maintain a higher level of teaching expertise than teachers engaged in teaching as a full-time occupation.

    "The concept becomes particularly absurd at the secondary level, where presumably the principal who has attended some special institutes on teaching, necessarily for short periods of time, will have acquired teaching competence beyond that of the teachers of each of the diverse subjects ... I certainly would not want to put myself in such a posture of universal excellence!"

    We do expect a great deal of principals, but the best leaders know above all their own weaknesses. Their response is not camouflage but team-building, seeking leadership team members whose strengths complement those of the principal. An effective evaluation system explicitly recognizes that leaders need not be superb in every category but rather encourages them to achieve results with teams rather than follow the ineffectual and mythical model of the Lone Ranger.
Beyond Amusement
  • Reward the tough choices.
    We often confuse effectiveness with popularity and reward the leader who is better at self-promotion than instructional leadership. This occurs predominantly in curriculum choices and staff development.

    Consider the extraordinary state of curriculum options in secondary schools. I recently visited a high school in a relatively small community. Both the district and the state had established academic content standards, and administrators spoke eloquently about the need to focus on the academic needs of an astonishingly large number of underachieving students. I asked, "With the majority of your students failing 9th-grade algebra, would you consider providing additional math instruction in middle school and high school so these students would have a better chance on the state graduation exam?"

    "Oh no, we can't do that," came the quick reply. "Our parents, students and teachers really like all of our electives--in fact, we have more than 400 different courses in this high school, so we just don't have time for the 9th graders to take more math."

    The next few years in this district are predictable. Students will perform miserably on the state exam, the principal will be replaced and the superintendent will be fired. Their successors will join the Rotary Club and make some rousing speeches--but they had better not touch the unfocused curriculum that got the district into trouble in the first place.

    Staff development poses a similar challenge for leaders who must reconcile popularity with effectiveness. The "Dr. Fox" research shows our frequent response to teaching effectiveness. Adult students listened to an entertaining but vacuous presentation by Dr. Fox and raved about his insight and the educational and professional value of the experience.

    Alas, Dr. Fox was a professional actor who provided a series of empty platitudes and encouragement, but none of the professionals in the audience saw through him. Worse yet, the real expert who followed Dr. Fox with solid content and essential information was barely tolerated by the audience. This is not to say that staff development need be boring or dominated by lectures. However, it must be more than entertainment, and leaders must reject demands for programs that are distinguished more by amusement than substance.

    Of course, tough choices are not limited to curriculum and staff development. Bus schedules, cafeteria food, coaching changes, library books, student rules and rights and a host of other decisions test the effectiveness of school leaders. The popular model of seeking input in all decisions has its limits, particularly if the standard for the final decision is what is best for student achievement rather than what is most popular.

  • Take time for reflection and self-evaluation.
    Teachers and parents know that among their most important jobs is the emancipation of the student from the need for minute-to-minute guidance. Only when the student, confronted with a difficult decision, can reason out a sound solution independently will the parent and teacher be able to say that their hard work has paid off.

    School leadership involves hundreds of independent decisions, yet many leaders are evaluated on the basis of compliance rather than judgment. An effective evaluation system can help principals distinguish between these two criteria by requiring the person being evaluated to write a brief reflection and self-evaluation.

    Among the many inaccurate caricatures of Asian schools is the notion that schools are filled by automatons who never exercise independent judgment. In fact, an integral part of the educational ethic in Japan (and several other Asian countries) is the notion of hansei, or self-evaluation and reflection. The Third International Math and Science Study astonished many observers when it noted that Japanese math classes included debates and discussions of alternative answers--a far cry from the Western stereotype of stale recitation in the Asian classroom.

    Leadership evaluation can benefit from a healthy dose of hansei by beginning every evaluation conference with a serious self-reflection on what the educational indicators for that school district imply about leadership, decision making and future strategies. This self-reflection should be revealing to the superintendent and board. Is self-evaluation a series of excuses, a litany of achievements or a serious attempt to learn from the past and construct a better future?

    No one doubts that accountability by school leaders is imperative. The goal of improved student achievement is best achieved not by intimidation and threats, but by a system that focuses on academic improvement while providing specific and meaningful feedback to students, teachers and leaders.

Doug Reeves is president of the Center for Performance Assessment, 1660 South Albion, Suite 1110, Denver, Colo. 80222. E-mail: TestDoctor@aol.com

For Further Reading
Doug Reeves suggests the following works for those who want to learn more about accountability for principals:

"Accountability in Complex Educational Systems," by Douglas B. Reeves, available from Center for Performance Assessment, 800-844-6599

Holding Schools Accountable: Performance-Based Reform in Education, edited by Helen F. Ladd, available from the Brookings Institution, 202-797-6252

Transforming America's Schools: An Administrators' Call to Action, by John Murphy and Jeff Schiller, available from Open Court Publications, 800-852-0790

A Place Called School: Prospects for the Future, by John I. Goodlad, available from McGraw-Hill, 800-999-6430