Feature

When Superintendent Evaluation is Lacking

Two leaders’ personal stories shed light on what to watch out for when the board takes up your performance review

EDITOR’S NOTE: The School Administrator asked a pair of veteran superintendents to describe what they considered less-than-satisfying experiences with their board of education’s process of performance assessment. They offered to do so with candor in hopes of helping their colleagues address this need.

 

Kristen K. School: Uncharted Territory

I recently completed my sixth year as superintendent in a 250-student, rural school district in north-central Illinois, during which time I gained a new perspective on evaluation and professional expectations. My experience with this district and school board overall was very positive, but it did lack clarity and direction from the school board.

When it came time to undergo a performance review, I privately raised plenty of substantive questions that did not have ready answers. How do you seek direction from a group that you are responsible for guiding? How do you solicit meaningful feedback from a group that truly doesn’t understand your day-to-day job? How do you make recommendations for your own salary increases when no tool is available to use as an assessment? Whose goals will be used, and how will they be measured? Who will complete the evaluation of the superintendent? What will the timeline be? How will it be presented?

 

Feature_SchoolKristen School, superintendent in Mendota, Ill., used unsatisfying experiences in an earlier post to strengthen board training in personnel evaluation.

The most pervasive question about the evaluation process was this: What exactly is the school board looking for? I believe that as a professional educator you accept a job, work hard, give your very best and continuously look for ways to improve yourself and your school district. This work ethic, however, did not translate to well-defined superintendent goals nor clear board-superintendent expectations.

The result was an agonizingly stressful process that left board members feeling uncomfortable and a superintendent uncertain. The scene unfolded like this: The board’s personnel committee of the whole convened an executive session to discuss my performance over the previous year. The board chair recorded the members’ comments while I nervously waited in another office.

As the first hour, then the second hour, then the third hour passed, I became less certain that I was performing successfully and even less certain I’d have a job when the board adjourned. Quite the contrary, they told me I was doing an admirable job. They did, however, compile a list of items for improvement on matters that I’d never discussed with any member, nor were those matters exactly included in my goals.

In an effort to address board members’ perceived concerns, I continued my pursuit of the agreed-upon written goals and added the sidebar concerns to my to-do list. I do not wish to minimize board members’ perceived needs nor the importance of addressing local issues, but in conjunction with the evaluative process, one cannot accomplish goals that are written in shifting sands.

Process Improvements
I share this scenario not to criticize but rather to point out an obvious shortcoming in board training as well as superintendent preparation. The evaluation process for the superintendent is vitally important to the effectiveness of the board as well as to the superintendent. The superintendent’s goals, as approved by the board, should include items for professional and personal growth as well as matters pertaining to the district’s vision, mission and strategic plan. Priorities should be clearly incorporated into the goals.

My suggestions for improving the evaluation process for a superintendent are:

  • Ensure the goals are measurable and clearly defined when they are written and approved.
  • Determine who drives the priority list for these goals and make sure to include all board members when communicating your progress.
  • Assess the local political issues that are beyond the control of a superintendent to determine their potential impact on the evaluation.
  • Decide what instrument will be used and what feedback you are seeking from the board.
  • Define clearly the timeline and process to be used to communicate your evaluation.

The end result of a successful evaluation should leave a school board feeling comfortable and a superintendent with clear direction. After accepting a new leadership position in a much larger school district, I have used my experience in a sagacious manner to create a clear, concise, objective evaluation process that meets both my needs and those of the board. What has been reinforced in my mind is that we often learn more from a negative experience than a positive one.

Kristen School is superintendent of Mendota Elementary School District 289 in Mendota, Ill. E-mail: kschool@m289.lasall.k12.il.us

 

Middleton K. McGoodwin:

Feature_McGoodwinVeteran superintendent Middleton McGoodwin of School Administrative Unit 6 in Claremont, N.H. believes board evaluation practices too often focus on personality, not performance.

The school board’s performance evaluation of the superintendent may be one of the more shortchanged processes in a typical school district. That assumes, of course, the school board has a formal process in place — and then commits to its use. (More on this point later.)

 

A school committee’s evaluation of the superintendent is a critical responsibility. However, often it is the governing body’s greatest challenge, especially when all school committee members do not recognize this process is essential for the superintendent’s ultimate success as an effective instructional leader.

 


This is not an isolated matter. According to a 2002 survey by the Education Commission of the States, the annual evaluation of the superintendent does not exist in 25 percent of the nation’s school districts. And when an evaluation does take place, it often fails to include both strengths and weaknesses, does not focus on improvement and centers on personality, not performance.

PowerPoint Advice
In March 2008, while serving as superintendent of a 4,800-student district on the south shore coast of Massachusetts, I publically reviewed the superintendent evaluation process with my five-member school committee (as school boards are called in Massachusetts). I put together a PowerPoint presentation for the committee that included these keys points:

  • An effective evaluation clarifies what is expected of the superintendent.
  • These expectations should be an extension of the school district’s improvement plan.
  • The superintendent’s evaluation is essential for each central-office administrator, building principal and teacher.
  • The superintendent’s evaluation has the potential to unify and guide the entire school district if it (a) is informative; (b) contains constructive feedback; (c) is based on valid, reliable data; and (d) is free from bias, rumors or assumptions.
  • The current superintendent evaluation format, which focused on job responsibilities and performance standards, was created in 2001, three years before a multi-year district improvement plan with goals was implemented.
  • Each of the evaluation performance standards lacked measures, or performance indicators (descriptions of the superintendent’s behavior that help the committee objectively determine whether a standard has been met).
        I then recommended the school committee consider the following factors when reviewing the superintendent evaluation protocol:
  • Consider the evaluation of the superintendent as an extension of the district improvement plan.
  • Develop an evaluation instrument that consists of (a) a set of goals for the superintendent and (b) a mechanism to review general aspects of the superintendent’s job performance.
  • Align the superintendent’s goals with the district’s goals.
  • Develop additional goals, if necessary, for any aspect of the superintendent’s job performance or district operations where the committee wants to see significant change.
  • Establish annual goals that are SMART: simple, measurable, attainable, results-oriented and time-driven.

Evaluation Timeline
The school committee accepted my recommendations and agreed to redesign the superintendent evaluation process and instrument. A school committee subcommittee was appointed to develop this new evaluation process that would be implemented at the onset of the 2008-09 school year.

This is what unfolded during 2008-09 in relation to this superintendent evaluation process:

3/11/08: Superintendent presents a PowerPoint to school committee on “Revisiting Superintendent Evaluation.” An evaluation subcommittee starts work on a new instrument.

7/15/08: The full school committee adopts the new superintendent evaluation process.

8/5/08: The school committee agrees on the superintendent’s annual goals for the new school year.

9/9/08: The school committee approves the evaluation timetable.

10/28/08: The superintendent presents an interim progress report for the school committee that reviews the 2008-09 superintendent evaluation process. The process includes the superintendent’s annual goals, superintendent evaluation instrument, 360-degree evaluation, superintendent’s self-evaluation and superintendent’s portfolio.

1/20/09: Consultant William Ribas provides superintendent evaluation training for the school committee. Of the five school committee members, one fails to attend the training. Another member leaves the training for an hour to attend a music program involving his child. (Note: All members had been reminded of this training during the prior four months.)

1/27/09: The superintendent presents a second report to the school committee to review evidence of progress toward his 2008-09 goals.

3/22/09: Three school committee members meet at the home of parents whose children attend one of the district’s elementary schools. One school committee member leaves to avoid an Open Meeting Law violation. The remaining two discuss issues involving the alleged conduct of a district employee and the superintendent’s investigation into the matter. (I include this incident in the timeline to illustrate what can occur when school committee members do not adhere to their legal responsibilities. The members’ involvement in this personnel matter jeopardized the rights of an employee and ultimately influenced their evaluation of the superintendent.)

3/24/09: The superintendent prepares another progress report for the school committee on attainment of his goals.

4/7/09: The superintendent presents his self-evaluation instrument, accompanied by 15 pages of evidence.

4/9/09: The committee receives a presentation on the findings of a 360-degree evaluation of input from all stakeholder groups concerning the superintendent’s performance. In a closed session, the school committee is unable to follow the established superintendent evaluation process and can agree on only four of the 35 evaluation criteria.

6/30/09: The school committee chair provides the superintendent with an oral summary of the committee’s comments. The comments are based on perception and assumptions, not measurable data.

7/7/09: The school committee chair asks the superintendent to submit a letter that requests a raise because the committee is unable to use the new evaluation instrument.

7/19/09: The school committee chair acknowledges receipt of the superintendent’s letter.

9/8/09: The superintendent meets with the committee in executive session to review his letter. One committee member states that the superintendent should have asked for a zero percent increase, claiming he “showed lack of leadership.”

9/25/09: The chair meets with the superintendent to discuss the committee’s response to his letter. She indicates the committee has denied the request for a 4 percent raise, but is willing to offer a 2 percent increase. She says it would be politically difficult for the school committee to defend a 4 percent increase. (The teachers’ average salary increase was 5 percent.) The committee also denies a requested extension of the superintendent’s contract to 2013, indicating this should be viewed as a vote of “no confidence” in his leadership.

9/25/09: The school committee chair summarizes the discussion in a letter that concludes, “As you know, the current financial climate requires constant vigilance to protect our students and staff.”

Several Lessons

Based on 41 years as a public school educator, especially my six years as a Massachusetts superintendent, I’ve learned the following lessons worth sharing:

  • Do not attempt to develop or improve an evaluation instrument unless each school committee member respects and is committed to his or her legal responsibilities.
  • Place your energy and time on continuously helping all school committee members to understand why adhering to their legal responsibilities (budget and policy) is essential, especially when confronted with personnel matters involving the alleged conduct of a school employee.
  • Emphasize that each school committee member’s conduct as an elected official has an enormous impact on the superintendent’s ability to be an effective instructional leader, as well as on the building principals, teachers and, ultimately, every child in the school community.

Middleton McGoodwin is superintendent of School Administrative Unit 6, in Claremont, N.H. E-mail: mmcgoodwin@sau6.k12.nh.us