As part of a national drive to improve school leadership, four California charter schools are instituting rigorous evaluations of their principals, in contrast to the pro forma review that principals often receive.
Among its most distinctive features is that the principals will be evaluated by an educator from outside the school. A major part of the evaluation is based on how successfully principals help teachers become more effective instructors.
The five-year program is being developed in partnership with the Reach Institute for School Leadership in Oakland, with the help of a $7 million federal grant from the Teacher Incentive Fund to develop teacher and principal evaluation systems. Reach is a nonprofit organization dedicated “to fostering leadership at all levels within schools.”
Stephen Sexton, principal at the Lighthouse Community Charter High School in Oakland, one of the four participating schools, has been a principal for a decade. “But I have never been evaluated on my craft,” he said. “I’m excited to have this kind of feedback.”
In particular, the outside evaluator provides “a fresh set of eyes and offers different perspectives of what’s effective,” Sexton said.
A 2010 WestEd report titled “Effective Principals for California Schools” cited research showing that the quality of school leadership affects how long teachers are willing to stay at a school and is the single greatest predictor of whether high schools made “adequate yearly progress” as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Yet despite programs like the Principal Leadership Institutes at UC Berkeley and UCLA, the report asserted that “leadership development [in schools] has not been prominent on the California action agenda, pushed to the background by the press of other urgent education challenges.”
In addition to Lighthouse high school, the new approach to evaluations is being instituted on a small scale at the Bay Area School of Enterprise, a charter high school in Alameda, and ARISE High School and Lighthouse Community Charter School (K-8), both in Oakland.
The four charter schools together employ about 50 teachers and 45 other staff members. They educate roughly 1,000 students, of whom the vast majority are African American or Latino and are from low-income families.
This is a just a tiny fraction of the 6.2 million students in California public schools. But Page Tompkins, executive director of the Reach Institute, hopes that the experiment, if successful, could be extended to other schools around the state.
One of the most important roles of a school principal is helping teachers get better at their jobs, he said, and that is a major focus of the evaluation system being implemented by Reach in the four charter schools this year for the first time.
As in every public school, the principals are expected to evaluate all the teachers in the school. But in these charter schools, in addition to their regular teacher assessments, principals also choose one “case study” teacher each year to focus on and will be evaluated on their ability to coach him or her.
After regular observations of that teacher’s classroom, the principal answers questions on a 17-page questionnaire. The principal is asked to describe his or her relationship with the teacher and the teacher’s progress toward goals as tied to voluntary teaching standards developed by the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing. The questionnaire asks for a detailed explanation of the principal’s coaching strategies.
The principal and teacher then meet to discuss the teacher’s evaluation, and their session is videotaped. After the conference, the principal analyzes the video and answers questions about his or her reflections.
An outside evaluator — who must have had experience as a school leader and have been trained in how to score the principal’s abilities — reads the written explanation, views the video, and rates the principal.
“It requires principals to focus on their actual skills as instructional leaders and provides an outside evaluation of some of those skills,” Tompkins said. “That’s very rare.”
In effect, the principals at the charter schools — or “directors” as they are called at some of the schools — are subjected to some of the same evaluation techniques as teachers at the schools, including having their work videotaped and assessed by outsiders.
“For me it is important that principals be evaluated in the same manner as teachers — as critically and with the same opportunity for growth too,” said Jason Gardner, co-director of the Bay Area School of Enterprise in Alameda.
Sheila SatheWarner, the school’s other co-director, said she looks forward to seeing the video of herself in action, evaluating her own performance, and then receiving feedback from an outside observer, learning “what they are seeing that I’m not.” The new approach, she said, is “forcing us to be much more self-evaluative and critical.”
Lynda Tredway, the founding coordinator of the Principal Leadership Institute at UC Berkeley, said a more typical evaluation might consist of the principal’s supervisor from the district’s central office visiting the school, having a conversation with the principal, and filling out an evaluation form.
The supervisor might take into consideration student test scores and whether there have been any complaints about the principal’s work from parents or teachers. But often the evaluation would be based on how the district office views the success of the principal and the perception of whether the principal is a team player, she said.
The evidence they collect is often anecdotal rather than systematic, Tredway said. “It does not often help the administrator improve,” she added. “Sometimes it does, as there are some thoughtful supervisors, but that is not the norm.”
Each year, an evaluation team from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education will review what Reach and the charter schools are doing, evaluate the impact on teaching and learning, and give feedback on changes that need to be made.
Over the past decade, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing has adopted six very detailed standards to guide the credentialing of school principals, the California Professional Standards for Education Leaders (CPSEL). Efforts like Principal Leadership Institutes at UC Berkeley and UCLA are still underway.
Yet the state as a whole still has a ways to go. “California’s recent investment in school leadership development has been minimal,” the WestEd report found. “Little concerted effort has been made to pull together a coherent system of high-quality and sustained school leadership preparation.”
For background information:
The highly regarded North Carolina Principal Evaluation Process has been used by at least one district in California (San Rafael City Schools).
See these EdSource’s reports: Superintendents and Principals: Charting the Paths to School Improvement and Envisioning New Directions in Teacher Evaluations.
Thanks for reading.
Can you help sustain our reporting?
Our team of journalists, editors, and fact-checkers do an estimated 440 hours of research every week to bring you the news on California education. That's a lot of work.