Evaluating School Principals: The “Other” Educators

John Mooney | May 4, 2011 | Education
Gov. Christie has made teacher evaluation a hot-button issue, but his proposed changes will also affect more than 2,000 New Jersey school principals

As teacher tenure and other reforms get debated ad nauseum in New Jersey, one topic that seems to have fallen off the radar screen is how to improve the quality of the people who actually supervise teachers: school principals.

Gov. Chris Christie last month laid out detailed proposals for reforming tenure and evaluating teachers and principals, but it was teachers — a subject he often rails about at town meetings — that got most of the attention.

Yet the draft bills could affect the more than 2,000 school principals in the state, holding them to stricter standards than ever before.

According to the proposals, principals, like teachers, will be evaluated in part on how well their students do on standardized tests, a consideration that will likely affect whether principals receive and preserve tenure. Student attendance and graduation rates will also play a role, possibly in merit pay.

The most important factor may well be how principals encourage the best teachers on staff and take action to deal with ineffective ones.

“The focus seems to be on how we evaluate teachers, and I haven’t seen much focus on the principals,” said Brian Zychowski, the North Brunswick superintendent who led the governor’s task force that developed much of the plan for evaluating teachers and principals.

“But I’ve been of the opinion from the get-go that we want to start with the person leading the school and work our way down,” he said.

Zychowski is slated to go before the State Board of Education (BOE) today to give an overview of the task force report and its recommendations for both teachers and principals.

The task force’s recommendations carried forward into Christie’s draft bills call for a new evaluation system that would include using student test scores as a key measure of whether teachers and principals are deemed “effective” or not.

Such grades could determine when and how both teachers and principals would receive and retain tenure, under Christie’s bills, as well as lay the groundwork for potential merit pay and other systems for rewarding educators.

But where teacher evaluation systems are better known, how the same factors would apply to principals is less clear. Christie’s plans only say they would fall under the same general guidelines, but leave a fair amount of discretion to the state education commissioner to determine the details.

“We’re still waiting to see exactly what it would look like,” said Debra Bradley, chief lobbyist for the state’s principals and supervisors association. “We’re open to the fact we can do better and to the idea of having some uniformity across the state, but there are also some concerns.”

As with the debate over teacher accountability, one of the main issues remains how student achievement for principals will be measured with the state’s tests in flux and the system for linking student scores to individuals still in development.

It’s easier with principals, since scores are already linked with entire schools. But Bradley said she understood there would be other achievement measures to be considered as well, including attendance and graduation rates.

“That’s the big question: what will be on the list and how will each be rated,” she said. “We would prefer that local districts be able to pick from the list.”

Another point of contention is a specific proposal from the task force report that would give weight to how well a principal retains strong teachers and acts on low-performing ones. The report recommends that be 10 percent of the grade; Christie’s draft legislation doesn’t get into that much detail.

Bradley pointed out that principals are not always the ones responsible for such staffing decisions. But Zychowksi argued that there needs to be a cleaner connection between a principal’s leadership and the success of the people he or she leads.

“Right now, the only ones really held accountable for student performance are superintendents,” he said. “We can’t be making excuses any more.”