Spotlight

Reconsidering Superintendent Evaluation

by SUSAN HOLLINS

I wonder about the hours governing boards and superintendents spend developing and carrying out the superintendent’s evaluation. Over a span of 35 years working in the central office, I only recall having three evaluations. To be honest, I don’t think the absence of annual evaluations interfered with effort, focus or accomplishments.

 

Sidebar_HollinsSusan Hollins

Everyone needs feedback, of course, and all parties benefit from a clear sense of purpose and goals — administrators, teachers, students and governing boards. But generally, superintendents receive constant feedback from their close work with colleagues and board members. This job requires ongoing professional analysis and goal setting, whether or not there’s an evaluation. There is no absence of dialogue about leadership.

I question whether the benefit is worth the time spent developing and implementing superintendent evaluation instruments. The position of school superintendent is political, even in small communities. A superintendent can leave or be asked to leave at any time. One’s tenure has as much to do with the changing composition of school board membership or the evolving career interest of the superintendent as with the superintendent’s performance on the job.

Stay or Go
The key to a successful superintendent-school board relationship seems to be developing a mutual respect for each other’s roles and responsibilities. It’s not clear that this needed relationship building results from the hierarchical employer-employee structure of one party evaluating the other.

At the end of the day, the superintendent needs to know if he or she has the support of the ever-changing governing board and if board members want the superintendent to continue on the current path.

If the answer is yes, then it’s important to have feedback and consensus on forward-moving school system goals. If the answer is no, the parties need to separate in a fair and timely manner that doesn’t harm either party. If the board wants the superintendent to stay, the evaluation is going to be positive, and if the school committee wants a change, the evaluation will not be glowing, regardless of actual accomplishments or leadership.

Wasted Efforts
The time-consuming superintendent evaluation process may not be as useful as one might assume. Consider:

  • Superintendent evaluation instruments in many school systems are multipage lists of specific tasks that are not relevant to the work at hand.
  • District goal setting is usually connected to the budget development process, but this isn’t when the superintendent evaluation generally takes place.
  • School committee members rotate on and off the governing board. New school committee members have limited understanding or knowledge of the responsibilities the superintendent is duty-bound to address.
  • Superintendent evaluations take place in public and on cable TV, making honest performance discussion awkward and difficult.
  • If something is really wrong with the superintendent’s performance — dishonesty, mismanagement of funds, unlawful behavior — the board likely will not use the evaluation process to articulate this anyway, based on advice of its attorney.

My Self-Direction
During my 32 years in central administration with no evaluations, I administered the schools using a set of guidelines that anchored my work as a self-directed leader. These are fairly simple and seem to have worked well:

  • Always do what you think is right for the school district and children. Let the chips fall where they may. You must be grounded with ethical values and true to yourself.
  • The person who has to represent the school district in court gets the major vote deciding district guidelines.
  • A stitch in time saves nine.
  • There’s more than one way to do almost everything.
  • Keep the boss informed — no surprises. (My administrators keep me informed; I keep the school committee chairman informed.)
  • Answer the media’s questions in writing until you have a working relationship with the reporter.
  • Schools belong to the community, not to the superintendent. But otherwise, treat all students as if they were your own.

Of Dubious Value
Being close to retirement gives one an interesting perch for pondering public school regulations and institutional protocol.

School systems need intelligent, quality, results-oriented leadership that benefits the education of children. We need a respectful, productive working relationship between the superintendent and school committee.

But I have to wonder whether the superintendent evaluation process really has objective integrity and whether the requisite leadership talents are advanced through the sometimes-awkward, often time-consuming superintendent evaluation process.

Susan Hollins is superintendent in Greenfield, Mass. E-mail: superintendent@gpsk12.org