SUPERINTENDENT PERFORMANCE EVALUATIONS
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
Superintendent evaluations have a bad reputation. At least according to most superintendents and the experts who study them. Many view it as a means to identify grounds for termination, not a growth tool for continuous improvement and organizational effectiveness. It's unfortunate because quality evaluations hold the promise of developing strength and stability at the highest level of the organization, positively impacting both the superintendent and governance team. High performing school districts view it as an inextricable factor in their success. Leaders should always be learning. A highly effective performance management system is a learning tool that nourishes the superintendents/school board relationship so that it may flourish.
Among the most respected experts on the subject is Michael F. DiPaola, Chancellor Professor in the School of Education at the College of William & Mary. Dr. DiPaola spent three decades in public schools, ultimately serving as a superintendent.
His recent book, Evaluating school superintendents: A guide to employing processes and practices that are fair and effective (2019), coauthored with Tracey Schnedier and Steven Staples, reiterates a common theme: superintendent turnover is prevalent and the process of evaluating superintendents contributes to that prevalence.
Hard feelings, mistrust, and reduced communications are all too often the results if the process is not perceived as fair. Why? Primarily because accepted industry standards established by the Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation require that persons with appropriate expertise and credibility conduct the evaluation, following the propriety standards intended to ensure that a personnel evaluation will be conducted legally, ethically, and with due regard for the welfare of the evaluatee and those involved in the evaluation.
In a 2010 White Paper published by the American Association of School Administrators, DiPaola explains what he found in his research: "All too often superintendent evaluations are performed hurriedly in an attempt to satisfy a legal requirement or a policy mandate. If the evaluation is merely an event it has little, if any, impact on the professional growth of the superintendent or improvement of the school district. The success of the superintendent and, ultimately, the success of the school system are inextricably tied. If the superintendent of schools is to receive a fair evaluation, and if the evaluation is to contribute to her or his professional development, success and overall effectiveness of the district, then adequate time and resources must be devoted to designing, developing and implementing a comprehensive and quality performance evaluation system."
Furthermore, he writes, "Superintendents are the only school district employees not supervised or evaluated by another licensed professional. Yet, it is imperative that superintendents be evaluated in a manner that meets all the criteria of good personnel evaluation. It is a responsibility of board members for which they have not been provided adequate preparation. All evaluators, including board members, need adequate preparation and training in order to evaluate within the spirit and intent of the process."
Superintendents understand that they are not supervised or evaluated by another licensed professional, and consequently cannot be assured that the process meets all the criteria of a good personnel evaluation.
As DiPaola writes, "Moreover, she or he is the only employee in the entire organization who is supervised by multiple evaluators, all of whom are typically community members, unfamiliar with the complexities of running a school system and untrained in the evaluation of professional educators."
For all of the reasons above, it's imperative that the evaluation process is part of the contractual agreement superintendents and school boards sign off on when their relationship begins. The complexity of the position demands an equally complex evaluation process if performance is to be fairly assessed. As the position has evolved and responsibilities shift upward to the school district level, the evaluation criteria must follow suit.
How do high performing districts with a high-functioning evaluation process evaluate their superintendent? In many cases, a neutral and agreed-upon third party conducts the evaluation.
This approach mitigates the argument that a licensed professional is not involved in the process. The neutral works with the governance team to clearly define the role and responsibilities of the position and establish performance expectations to measure superintendent effectiveness. Commonly, organizations that are retained by school boards to conduct their superintendent search are positioned best to also work with the board on the annual evaluation because they worked with the board to develop the job description and identify desired qualities. The job description serves as a basis for the evaluation. DiPaola and his team recommend the job description and the evaluation be aligned and updated anytime either one changes.
DiPaola and his team identify three tiers in defining the role of the superintendent and evaluating superintendent performance: domains, performance standards, and performance indicators. Domains are the top tier and consist of categories. Most frameworks range from five to seven domains. Examples include Instructional Leadership, Policy and Governance, Organizational Management, and Communications & Community Relations. Performance standards, the second tier, are the duties of the superintendent, broadly stated as they would appear in the job description, and indexed by domain. Superintendents are evaluated on each standard. Performance indicators constitute the bottom tier and "indicate" in observable terms what provable behaviors might satisfy standard attainment. Performance indicators serve as benchmarks and examples of competencies. A superintendent may exceed the requirements of a performance standard without having met some or all of the indicators. Performance indicators are not units to be measured.
As an example of the model endorsed by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA):
Domain: Communication & Community Relations
Performance Standard: The superintendent promotes effective communication and interpersonal relations within the school district.
Performance Indicator: The superintendent establishes and maintains a collaborative relationship with staff members in promoting the district’s mission and in communicating expectations.
The format and form is not as important as the manner in which it is constructed. For it to serve its purpose as a key component of an effective school system it must be built collaboratively and with positive intentions. Many superintendents have experienced the evaluation disintegrate into a politicalized event commandeered by a disgruntled member of the school board with intentions that are neither pure nor veiled. Multiple superintendent studies have found that superintendent performance was perceived to be most inhibited by politics.
All but seventeen states have superintendent evaluation policies. California is among the seventeen. While the form and format may vary, the basic structure of domains, standards, and indicators are present. In some states, including Massachusetts, it's a cyclical process and highly prescriptive. It includes the entire process beginning with a superintendent’s self-assessment and ending with an end-of-cycle and summative evaluation report. The superintendent proposes at least four goals for the upcoming year and identifies key strategies and benchmarks to measure goal attainment. At a subsequent public meeting, the governance team revises as needed and adopts the annual goals. Massachusetts utilizes a 4-scale rating system on a continuum: Unsatisfactory, Needs Improvement, Proficient, or Exemplary.
Another state's model, Iowa's, is less prescriptive and resembles the AASA model above, with nuanced differences. They utilize domains, standards, indicators, descriptors, and artifacts as evidence. Superintendents either meet or do not meet the standard, nothing in between.
Domain: Shared Vision
Performance Standard: An educational leader promotes the success of all students by facilitating the development, articulation, implementation, and stewardship of a vision of learning that is shared and supported by the school community.
Performance Indicator: In collaboration with others, uses appropriate data to establish rigorous, concrete goals in the context of student achievement and instructional programs.
Descriptor: Participates in a planning process to establish measurable goals with all stakeholders.
Examples of Evidence/Artifacts: Board agendas/administrative team agendas
Experts agree that superintendent performance systems rest on the ability of the school board and superintendent to clearly define the job responsibilities in terms of performance standards. Clarity of purpose and good intentions form the foundation of a successful evaluation system and go a long way towards developing the level of trust and mutual respect necessary for both the school board and the superintendent to function at the highest level as well as grow as a governance team.
Read a series of essays on Performance Management for leaders who report to the superintendent or members of their team.