Principals Evaluating Peers

How one school district is developing leadership capacity to assume full responsibility for student growth by LIBIA S. GIL

The word "evaluation" evokes a variety of responses dictated by personal experiences with the process. Often the mechanistic procedure is simply viewed as a necessary chore to complete for both the evaluator and evaluaee.

In fall 1993, as the new superintendent of the Chula Vista Elementary School District, in Chula Vista, Calif., I conducted an individual assessment of the organization with each principal. Thirty-two principals provided their insights on strengths and areas for improvement. The top three issues quickly surfaced, and the principals' evaluation process was on that list.

The principals here shared deep concerns that the existing evaluation process was a "dog-and-pony show" with little or no relevance to their leadership performance, their improvement and student achievement. Under this system, principals presented individual goals and objectives annually to all cabinet members. Subsequently, they would be evaluated by different assistant superintendents who had differing standards and expectations. Some principals believed that competition between the two assistant superintendents distorted their efforts so the focus became who could produce the best video, portfolio or presentation by the end of the year.

Many principals candidly admitted they fabricated observation data for submission to their supervisor. To gain approval, principals sent documents to comply with central-office dictates with no qualitative review and feedback. Recording activities and keeping track of participation in events had taken on its own value because no attempt was made to connect these actions to outcomes. Individual principals were jumping hoops to please central-office administrators with little or no accountability for leadership's impact on staff and student performance.

During the 1993-1994 school year, a principal task force was formed to review literature and research on evaluation models. At the time, we discovered many peer models for teachers but none designed for principals. We studied several interesting evaluation processes and instruments (Louisville, Ky., Seattle, Wash., and Vancouver, Wash.) and incorporated various components to create our own.

Promoting Growth
We spent considerable time defining the purpose of an evaluation process. We agreed that the primary purpose of an evaluation process is to promote professional and personal growth and development. We agreed that an effective evaluation process is ongoing and open and reflects honest communication, pointing to the importance of sharing concerns and critical feedback immediately to avoid surprises.

In addition, the philosophy of multiple assessments for performance status needs to apply to adults as well as students. Regular surveys of community, parents, staff and students are conducted and feedback is considered seriously and incorporated for improvement actions. Longitudinal student achievement data as well as attendance rates and other school profile data also is considered in the feedback process. This shifts the focus on making a difference for student results by doing in contrast to recording activities for compliance.

Our Procedures
Changes in the evaluation process were implemented in 1994-1995. All 35 principals now report directly to the superintendent. Peer groups were formed through self-selection with consideration of common goals, geographic representation, size, diversity and relationships. Peer group sizes range from four to seven members and meet monthly throughout the school year.

Each principal has an initial conference with the superintendent followed by group goal-setting sessions. The group selects a common focus based on predetermined criterion. (The peer groups use performance indicators in professional growth, school improvement, evaluation of school personnel, management, communication and community relations.) Throughout the process, it is important that individual concerns or personnel issues remain confidential between the principal and the superintendent unless the principal chooses to divulge.

Each peer group identifies individuals to be evaluated on a two-year rotation cycle with the exception of new principals who must submit annual evaluations for a three-year probationary period. Peer group evaluations do not preclude the superintendent's role and responsibility in holding individuals accountable for their leadership behaviors and implementing plans for improvement when necessary.

The peer groups use an array of approaches to observe, learn and provide feedback to each principal. These include classroom observations, analysis of student work, formal interviews with key staff and parent leaders and regular meetings to solve problems and exchange ideas. Peer sessions also provide a measure of catharsis.

At the end of the first year, group conferences with the superintendent address these two questions: What did we learn? What difference has it made (if any) on my leadership ability to improve student learning?

Two-Year Assessment
In fall 1996, principals assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the peer group evaluation process.

Among the strengths, they reported the following:
  • valued interactions with other principals because they lead to new relationships and friendships;
  • found support and assistance for dealing with difficult issues;
  • gained diverse perspectives and varied expertise;
  • brainstormed solutions to common and uncommon problems;
  • built trust through frequent non-threatening, candid communication with a core group; and
  • established meaningful evaluation through learning and cooperative efforts.

They pointed to these weaknesses:

  • lack of enough time to visit and process information;
  • lack of consistency in that expectations are not clearly defined; and
  • reluctance to offer criticism.

The principals offered several suggestions for improving the peer review process. These included the need to clearly articulate expectations among the group members; to designate one meeting per month for principal peer groups; and to share procedures among groups.

An Evolving Process
The Peer Group Evaluation Process has evolved to a higher level of expectations that are generated internally and externally. Most peer groups have taken advantage of the opportunity to strengthen their leadership impact with ongoing dialogues and supportive critiques.

Although relationships within groups are strong and each group has established a foundation of trust, transfer to the group-at-large has been minimal. Intergroup dynamics continue to fluctuate as a result of professional rivalry, intolerance and resistance to changing the status quo. In addition, we must reinforce questions about accountability and a continuous focus on data-driven, student-based decision making.

The peer evaluation process has provided an effective structure for continuous principal support, allowing the superintendent and assistant superintendents to focus on individuals with the greatest needs. Linking leadership effectiveness and student achievement remains a priority and a challenge for accurate assessment.

Over the past five years, 13 principals have been placed on plans of improvement and six have gone on to become successful principals in the district.

The ongoing issues are these:
  • how best to accomplish higher performance levels for our students and staff; and
  • how best to develop leadership capacity that assumes responsibility for student growth and development.

The following excerpt from a recent report from one of the peer groups nicely captures the value of this process:

"The group agreed that the process of peer evaluation is both positive and risk taking. Used appropriately, the group can select coaches and mentors. Members also have immediate access to the experience and advice of colleagues with whom we can solve problems, brainstorm issues and receive constructive feedback on actions contemplated or taken.

"The process forces us to expand our professional repertoire, particularly because of the responsibility to bring something of value to the group to expand the knowledge of the group and to focus on student achievement with colleagues of like purpose. The peer evaluation process makes us responsible to and for providing competent leaders in education."

Libia Gil is superintendent of the Chula Vista Elementary School District, 84 East J St., Chula Vista, Calif. 91910-6199. E-mail: lgil@cvesd.K12.ca.edu