Evaluating the performance of school principals can be challenging. As we noted in previous posts, principals’ roles are complex and multi-faceted. Principals are expected to run building operations, implement state and district policies, manage relationships with parents and the community, and ensure effective instructional practices, thereby promoting academic progress in their students. Assessing their performance in all of these different roles isn’t easy. A supervisor from the central office who is responsible for evaluating the principal typically observes only a small part of what a principal does every day. It is also hard to measure a principal’s impact on student learning, which can be substantial but is largely indirect and channeled through teachers.[i] Researchers have not yet found a reliable and valid statistical approach to measure the effect of an individual principal on student outcomes—we’ve tried, but thus far failed.[ii]
At REL Mid-Atlantic, we’ve worked with states (Pennsylvania and New Jersey) and districts (DC Public Schools and Pittsburgh Public Schools) over the past several years to address these challenges and improve their principal evaluations, typically by developing and refining multiple measures of performance. To provide useful information, principal evaluation systems must be objective, fair, applicable to a range of leadership styles, and capable of differentiating between effective and ineffective school leaders. The complexity of the principal’s job suggests that assessing the principal’s performance from multiple perspectives would be valuable. Teachers have a unique perspective because they see principals daily and experience their leadership practices directly.[iii] Including teacher input in principal evaluations therefore could produce richer and more comprehensive information on principal performance that would be useful not only for human resources decisions in the central office but also to help principals improve their leadership.
Including feedback from those who report to a leader is a common evaluation practice in the business world. Although practices from business don’t always translate well into schools, the evaluation of leaders is one domain in which extensive experience in business might be instructive. In particular, “360”-style evaluations often incorporate information not only from supervisors, but also from subordinates, colleagues, and customers to gather a variety of perspectives on a leader’s performance.[iv] This kind of feedback is already in use in some education settings: college professors are routinely evaluated by their students, and even at the K–12 level, student input has been shown to provide valuable information on the performance of teachers.[v] Surely if students are capable of evaluating their teachers, teachers are capable of evaluating their principals.
The potential value of teacher feedback on principals has already been recognized by a joint committee of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The committee’s report suggests using teacher surveys to measure key domains of principal leadership, including professional qualities and instructional leadership, school culture, school planning and progress, and stakeholder support and engagement.[vi]
Some schools across the country are already using teacher surveys in principal evaluations. Some states, including Minnesota and Massachusetts, have developed their own surveys to capture teacher input on principal performance. Other states, districts, and schools use commercially available instruments such as the Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education (VAL-ED) and the Tripod teacher survey. The VAL-ED instrument has been shown to produce scores distributed across the entire range of possible performance categories, an improvement over many current evaluation systems in which nearly all teachers are rated at the highest categories. It has also produced more objective and actionable feedback than evaluation systems that lack teacher feedback. The VAL-ED has also been part of a comprehensive teacher and principal evaluation and feedback system that produced significant improvements in instructional leadership practices and teacher–principal trust.[vii] Meanwhile, research on the Tripod teacher survey has shown that its measures of principal performance are related to students’ achievement growth in math, an indicator of that survey’s validity.
There is more than one way to incorporate teacher feedback into principal evaluations. States, districts, and schools can and should use an approach that best meets their needs (and avoids becoming just another paperwork burden). One possibility is that results from teacher surveys could be built into the formula for a principal’s multi-measure rating. An alternative approach—one that might be more viable in places where the formal components of a principal’s evaluation rating are already clearly defined—would simply make results of teacher surveys available as data for the supervisor who is responsible for evaluating the principal. Teacher surveys can address the same dimensions of leadership on which supervisors evaluate principals, thereby informing the supervisor’s judgment about the principal’s performance. Regardless of whether teacher surveys are formally incorporated in a multi-measure scale or used as data for a supervisor’s consideration, they could provide helpful feedback to principals on specific elements of their leadership.
Both principals and teachers might have concerns about using teacher feedback in principal evaluation. Teachers might worry about retaliation if they give negative feedback. To mitigate this concern, it is important to ensure that feedback is anonymous so that individual teachers cannot be identified.
And principals might worry about retaliation in the other direction: We’ve heard principals raise concerns about having their evaluations sabotaged by disgruntled teachers. This concern might be particularly salient in a school with a problematic professional culture that a principal has been asked to reform, where changes that some teachers won’t like are ultimately in the interest of students according to the principal. But it is worth recognizing that professors and teachers who are evaluated by their own students face a similar risk, and yet research on student surveys has demonstrated that responses on these surveys are significantly related to student-achievement growth.[viii] Moreover, the U.S. Department of Education’s rigorous study of evaluation systems found that schools using the VAL-ED experience an increase in trust between teachers and principals.[ix] Even so, the possibility of sabotage might be a reason to use teacher feedback for advisory purposes rather than as a fixed component of a formal evaluation framework.
Districts and states that are considering using teacher feedback in principal evaluations should anticipate concerns from principals and teachers alike, and work to develop buy-in before implementing a teacher survey. This would include engaging stakeholders—including principals, teachers, principal supervisors, other relevant central office staff, and representatives of unions or professional associations—so all those involved are aware of the purposes of teacher feedback, and ideally, involved in setting goals, planning implementation, and selecting or developing a survey instrument.
Educators and policymakers who are interested in incorporating teacher feedback into their principal evaluation processes should check out the infographic we created on the topic, or watch the recording of our webinar, “Using Teacher Feedback in School Leader Evaluations,” which included perspectives of both researchers and a practitioner. In the meantime, here at REL Mid-Atlantic’s research alliance on training and supporting excellent educators, we’re going to keep working on better ways to measure principals’ performance in support of improving teaching and learning across the region and beyond.
 The REL has no material interest in the VAL-ED or the Tripod survey, and does not formally endorse any particular commercial products.
[i] Louis, K. S., Leithwood, K., Wahlstrom, K., & Anderson, S. (2010). Investigating the links to improved student learning: Final report of research findings. Retrieved from https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/Documents/Investigating-the-Links-to-Improved-Student-Learning.pdf
[ii] Chiang, H., Lipscomb, S., & Gill, B. (2016). Is school value added indicative of principal quality? Education Finance and Policy, 16(3), 283–309. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1162/EDFP_a_00184
[iv] Kanaslan, E. K., & Iyem, C. (2016). Is 360 degree feedback appraisal an effective way of performance evaluation? International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences, 6(5), 172–182.
[vi] Clifford, M., & Ross, S. (2012). Rethinking principal evaluation: A new paradigm informed by research and practice. Alexandria, VA: National Association of Elementary School Principals and National Association of Second School Principals. Retrieved from http://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/PrincipalEvaluationReport.pdf
[vii] Garet, M. S., Wayne, A. J., Brown, S., Rickles, J., Song, M., Manzeske, D., & Ali, M. (2017). The impact of providing performance feedback to teachers and principals. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED578873
[ix] Garet, M. S., Wayne, A. J., Brown, S., Rickles, J., Song, M., Manzeske, D., & Ali, M. (2017). The impact of providing performance feedback to teachers and principals. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED578873
Cross-posted from the REL Mid-Atlantic website.