By h. J. cummins


Districts Matter: Cultivating the Principals Urban Schools Need

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Districts Matter: Cultivating the Principals Urban Schools Need

Elementary school principal Woodland Johnson gets high marks for teacher retention. Ditto for spot-on assessments of his faculty. There is one thing, though: Teachers who have worked with Johnson would like him to offer more detailed feedback on how they can improve. So this year Johnson is training to do exactly that, in a new leadership course called Fierce Conversations. It's the result of a new job performance evaluation system for principals at Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida, where Johnson has worked his way over 21 years and seven schools from music teacher to principal.

The system goes hand in glove with the district's redefined role of principals as the instructional leaders of their schools. Gone are the days of manager-in-chief, days filled with book orders, bus routes and class schedules. The new role is educator-in-chief, as principals turn their attention to the classrooms to see to it that students are mastering their academics.

"Everything revolves around creating a culture of student learning," said Tricia McManus, director of leadership development for the district, which encompasses Tampa and ranks among the country's 10 largest. "We have put that role in the forefront, so we needed to change principals' evaluations to capture how well they're doing what we say they should be doing."

A New Kind Of Evaluation For A New Kind Of Principal

Being a leader of teaching and learning is a role that Johnson has embraced in the six years he has served as a principal at two schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students - five years at Palm River Elementary School and most recently at Mort Elementary School, which he joined in July 2012. "We're looking at everything through a new lens," he said. "My job is to provide teachers the tools they need to be able to meet the instructional needs of each child in their classrooms."

The changeover in the evaluation system started in the 2011-2012 school year, McManus said. Before that, principals were evaluated based on the judgment of a single supervisor.

The new evaluations incorporate measures from many sources - for a more rounded view of the principal - and they rely on hard data, she said. School-wide student learning gains carry the greatest weight, at 40 percent of the total score. Teacher ratings of the principal add another 15 percent, as do ratings by the principal's supervisor. (Teachers and supervisors both use VAL-ED, an assessment tool developed by Vanderbilt University and University of Pennsylvania researchers with funding from The Wallace Foundation.) Measures of student attendance and behavior, teacher retention, and the principal's adeptness at assessing faculty members account for much of the rest of the evaluation. Only 10 percent of the score comes from "school operations" - a more traditional management gauge.

Just as groundbreaking is the new system's second step, its emphasis on improvement. With each evaluation, principals receive a "Professional Growth Plan" - which refers them to any one of 40-plus trainings assembled by the district to cover identified weak areas, according to McManus. The catalog of offerings, including Fierce Conversations, debuted in the summer of 2012 and includes some courses of two to three hours and others up to two to three days.

"The old system just pointed out deficits and did not include a specific plan for improvement," McManus said. "I'm seeing excitement in the principals. We are working very hard to give principals training and tools to be more effective."

Variations on this new system are spreading across the country - partly encouraged by federal programs such as Race to the Top grants and No Child Left Behind waivers, according to Mary Canole, a consultant on school leadership for the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, D.C.

Canole expects that with experience schools will add or subtract various measures, or weigh them differently. She also expects that, over time, districts will address concerns that include the accuracy of various student achievement scores, the quality of training for evaluators, and the need to capture school differences. It stands to reason that principals in stable, high-achieving schools will be more beloved than those in the throes of a turnaround, she said.

For Johnson, the wealth of data in the evaluations is important. That's how, for example, he could see that he was on track with his evaluations of teachers - because his scores jibed with others from a teacher's faculty peers and mentors.

Most importantly for Johnson - who was evaluated when he was still at Palm River and plans to apply what he learned to his new assignment at Mort - the new system is about always aiming higher. "In any given school, with any given needs, there are things to work on," he said. "To me, the evaluation reflects how well I'm doing on those - have I identified the right needs and have I figured out how to focus on them?

"We all have things to continue to develop and improve," he said. "It's a constant growth process. And it should be."

Clark's assertion is borne out by research. Many studies have shown an "inequitable distribution of teacher quality, which disadvantages poor, non-white, and low-achieving students," according to one research article, whose authors go on to find evidence of a similar "inequitable distribution" of principal quality in a large urban school district they examined.23

That's not to say that recruiting top principals for high-needs schools in large districts, where school leaders face added demands and often-inadequate incentives, is an easy task. These schools "tend to attract fewer candidates, with generally weaker credentials and less experience," concluded a Wallace Foundation report.24 Indeed, in Chicago as few as two applicants vie for vacant principal slots in the most challenging schools compared with as many as 100 applicants for posts in higher achieving schools.25

But if first-rate leadership is key to turning around schools, that picture needs to change. The starting point is recognition that struggling schools typically require a greater investment in staffing than others, according to a University of Washington report that described how districts might allocate resources more equitably.26

New York City, Chicago and Charlotte-Mecklenburg illustrate how districts have worked to place well-qualified leaders in their hardest-to-staff schools:

  • The basic rationale for founding the NYC Leadership Academy was to prepare a cadre of new principals capable of turning around the city's most challenging schools.
  • Chicago's Leadership Collaborative has as its core goal preparing a strong pipeline of new principals to turn around low performing schools. In addition, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in 2012 that as part of a national search for top-notch principals, the city will pay signing bonuses of $25,000 to up to 50 such school leaders selected to serve in the district's most challenging schools.
  • In 2008, Charlotte-Mecklenburg launched a "strategic staffing initiative" giving incentives to top-flight principals and teachers to take on the task of turning around the district's lowest-performing schools. A central tenet of the initiative, writes Clark, the district's deputy superintendent, is that "a great leader is needed - a principal with a proven track record of success in increasing student achievement.

Districts have a responsibility to support principals - particularly when they are newly hired, but also throughout their careers.

Also, great teachers will not go to a troubled school without a great leader as principal."27 With that in mind, the district allows principals with strong track records who take on these tough assignments to recruit their own seven-member team of high-performing teachers, literacy facilitators and assistant principals. Team members receive salary increases and bonuses; in exchange, they agree to stay in their new schools for at least three years and produce strong student achievement gains. The results so far: Nearly all 24 of the participating schools have been successfully turned around, with single-year state test scores up as much as 20 points.28

III. What districts Can do to support school leaders

Once principals are on the job, districts have a responsibility to support them - particularly when they are newly hired, but also throughout their careers. That can require a shift in how central office employees conceive of their work, so that they focus less on what they are used to - compliance - and more on "strengthening principals' instructional leadership as a key lever for teaching and learning improvement in schools," as University of Washington researchers put it.29

Here are key actions districts can take:

Develop fair, reliable performance evaluations to help principals improve their work and hold them accountable for their students' progress
An evaluation of principal job performance should accomplish two things. First, it should provide a factual basis on which the district can make decisions about a person's hiring or firing, on-the-job training, tenure, salary and promotions. Second, it should give districts credible information on the strengths and weaknesses of their principals, individually and collectively.

What are some of the main attributes of high-quality principal performance assessments?
Research and experience point to the following:

  • A focus on the most important behaviors and actions that improve instruction, anchored in leader standards.
  • An emphasis on school change.
  • Tools and processes that pass the tests of reliability and validity, and that are flexible enough to take different school contexts into account (leading a large suburban high school, for example, is different from leading a small rural elementary school).
  • Professional development that addresses weaknesses or needs identified by the process.30
  • Multiple measures of student and school performance, including but not limited to standardized test scores.31

In practice, creating assessments with these quality features and then using them appropriately are among the most difficult challenges in the relationship between districts and principals. Often, the problem begins with assessment tools and processes that haven't kept pace with the changing definition of school leadership. A 2007 review of 66 principal assessment instruments in use in large urban districts found that 26 failed to evaluate principals' engagement with the curriculum. None of the instruments examined covered the quality of the curriculum; 25 were silent on the quality of instruction; and 22 didn't evaluate whether a culture of learning and professional behavior existed in the principal's school.32

Fortunately, principal assessment is changing. Since 2005, some 35 states have enacted new legislation on principal assessments aimed at putting less emphasis on "inputs," such as how well particular leadership tasks are met, and more on student "outcomes" and the leadership behaviors likeliest to improve instruction, according to research by the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality. Many of those laws were prompted by a desire to win competitive federal grants, notably the 2009 Race to the Top program, intended to induce states to mandate changes in the way districts assess both teachers and principals. Some states - Delaware and Tennessee, for example - have developed new statewide assessment systems that all districts must use. Others, such as New York, Colorado, Florida and Illinois, give districts varying degrees of local control over their design and implementation.33

Hillsborough County Public Schools, a large district encompassing Tampa, Fla., has recently replaced a principal evaluation in which principals were assessed by a single supervisor with one that uses measures from many sources and gives great weight to student learning gains. [See story on p. 14 for a closer look at Hillsborough's evaluation system.] Over the border in Georgia, Gwinnett County has developed a "Results-Based Evaluation System," in which fully 70 percent of the score for schools and their principals is tied to student achievement, as assessed by indicators including standardized test scores and measures of where schools are in closing the achievement gap. Three other factors - "initiatives to improve student achievement" (which includes a school leader's prowess in data-driven decision making and staff development), "customer satisfaction," and "school management" - account for the remaining 30 percent.


Foreground: Douglas Anthony, acting chief human resources officer, Prince George's County Public Schools

The driving spirit behind the process is to provide a fair, fact-based baseline for constant improvement tied to each school's circumstances. It's "not a gotcha kind of system," says Associate Superintendent for School Leadership Steven W. Flynt, who supervises the five area superintendents who work with the principals of the district's 132 schools. "It's about finding your weaknesses and trying to identify things that you can do in your school or as an individual to get better.34" Indeed, the assessment calls for documentation that a principal has undergone at least 20 hours of professional development during the review year.35 Along with addressing weaknesses, the Gwinnett County evaluation process rewards excellence: The district gives top performing schools a cash incentive that principals can spend as they wish.

The pursuit of high-quality principal assessment reached a milestone in 2006 with the development of the Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education, or VAL-ED, a research-validated process created by a team from Vanderbilt University and the University of Pennsylvania, and supported by Wallace as an effort to address the lack of valid and reliable principal evaluation systems. VAL-ED, which places much greater emphasis than most other assessments on leadership behaviors that promote better instruction, received by far the highest marks for reliability (consistency and stability) and validity (measuring what it is designed to measure) among eight publicly available principal assessments evaluated in a 2012 study by the American Institutes for Research.36

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23. Susanna Loeb, Demetra Kalogrides and Eileen Lai Horng, "Principal Preferences and the Uneven Distribution of Principals Across Schools," Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, June 2010, 205-209.

24. Lee Mitgang, Beyond the Pipeline: Getting the Principals We Need, Where They Are Needed Most, 2003, 5. Available at

25. Orr et al., 28.

26. Margaret L. Plecki, Michael S. Knapp et al., How Leaders Invest Staffing Resources for Learning Improvement, University of Washington, 2009, vii. Available at Findings were based on a two-year study of four districts pursuing more equitable funding practices to address their achievement gaps: Atlanta Public Schools; New York City Department of Education/Empowerment Schools; Portland, Ore., Public Schools; and Lane County District Number 4J in Eugene, Ore. Each district has participated in The Wallace Foundation's education leadership work, launched in 2000.

27. Clark, 17.

28. Ibid, 18.

29. Meredith I. Honig, Michael A. Copland, Lydia Rainey, Juli Anna Lorton, Morena Newton, Central Office Transformation for District-Wide Teaching and Learning Improvement, University of Washington, 2010, 3. Available at

30. Assessing the Effectiveness of School Leaders: New Directions and New Processes, A Wallace Foundation Perspective, 2009, 7-8. Available at

31. This caution against overreliance on standardized student test scores in evaluating principals was emphasized in a 2012 report, Rethinking Principal Evaluation, by the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

32. Ellen Goldring, Andrew C. Porter, Joseph Murphy, Stephen N. Elliott and Xiu Cravens, Assessing Learning Centered Leadership: Connections to Research, Professional Standards, and Current Practices, Vanderbilt University, 2007, 18. Available at

33. Catherine Jacques, Matthew Clifford, Katie Hornung, State Policies on Principal Evaluation: Trends in a Changing Landscape, National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, 2012, 3-7.

34. Interview with Steven W. Flynt, August 16, 2012.

35. Gwinnett County Public Schools Office of Research and Evaluation, "2011-2012 Weighted Principal Assessment" form.

36. Christopher Condon, Matthew Clifford, Measuring Principal Performance: How Rigorous Are Commonly Used Principal Performance Assessment Instruments?, American Institutes for Research, 2012, 8.