Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 7

Principal Evaluation from the Ground Up

author avatar
In this era of accountability, we need principal evaluation systems that focus on the leadership qualities that really matter.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

I vividly remember Fred Shepherd, my principal at Gibson Elementary School so many years ago. Mr. Shepherd was a no-nonsense, tight-ship principal. You didn't run in the hallways; you didn't throw trash on the playgrounds; you did follow rules.
Much more recently, I got to know Lucia Sebestian, the principal of James River Elementary School, where my wife, Terri, taught. Dr. Sebestian's attitude and view of education seemed to permeate the school, which was warm, colorful, and inviting. As an occasional visitor, I could see students' handiwork prominently displayed and could almost smell the coffee the moment I walked through the schoolhouse door.
In terms of leadership style, these two principals were as different as night and day. But when I think about them, what stands out are two similarities: Both of them demonstrated every day that they cared about children and wanted their students to be the best they could be, and both of them emphasized talent. As a child, I knew I had great teachers in every grade—in my core subjects as well as in art, library, and music. It was like being taught by all-stars. And James River Elementary was just the same: Students learned at high levels because the principal insisted on hiring, supporting, and keeping the best teachers she could find.
The lesson? You can't have great schools without having both great teachers and great principals.

Do Principals Matter?

Research over many years has established that principal quality matters. Hallinger and Heck (1996) and Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe (2008) assert that principals make the greatest impact in their schools by influencing teacher quality and by focusing on relationships. As Mendro (1998) stated, "The quickest way to change the effectiveness of a school, for better or worse, is to change the principal" (pp. 263–264).
Recruiting, hiring, developing, and keeping the best teachers and principals are essential for school success. And that leads us to principal evaluation: Unless we have effective evaluation systems in place that accurately differentiate performance, we simply can't begin to improve principal quality.

What's Wrong with Principal Evaluation?

The good news about traditional principal evaluation is that it doesn't hurt anyone. The bad news is that it doesn't help, either. The following scenario is typical: A supervisor walks through a building, talks to a few teachers and students, meets with the principal in his or her office, and—assuming that few parent complaints have landed on the superintendent's desk—they're finished.
This kind of practice falls far short of evidence-based, meaningful evaluation. Unfortunately, even though principal performance is recognized as a vital factor in improving student achievement, schools rarely measure or document it effectively (Westberg, Sexton, Mulhern, & Keeling, 2009). Principal evaluation, on the whole, does not differentiate among poor, average, good, and excellent principals—nor is it growth-oriented or accountability-based.
One comprehensive study of principal evaluation practices in the United States indicated that although states and districts focus on a variety of performance areas (such as management, external environment, and personal traits) when evaluating their principals, they often neglect "leadership behaviors that ensure rigorous curriculum and quality instruction" (Goldring et al., 2009, p. 1), such as creating a culture of learning and professional behavior. The study also found that principal evaluation is usually based on instruments of unproven utility, psychometric properties, and accuracy.
Another problem is that principal evaluation often suffers from the same grade inflation that afflicts teacher evaluation. Too many contemporary principal evaluation systems are nondiscriminating and do not allow for shades of gray: Principals are rated as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, with the vast majority rated in the former category. Other common flaws in principal evaluation include
  • Absence of meaningful and timely feedback.
  • Lack of consequences.
  • Absence of clearly communicated criteria and standard protocols.
  • Failure to enhance principal motivation and improve performance (Reeves, 2005).
  • Nonalignment of evaluation instruments with professional standards, which can produce role conflict and stress as principals struggle to decide where they should focus their attention (Catano & Stronge, 2006).
It's true that many districts throughout the United States have developed excellent principal evaluation systems. But the nondescript, non-evidence-based practices that still dominate most principal evaluation must end. Our school leaders and our schools deserve better.

New Standards for Principal Effectiveness

The principal's role has evolved significantly over the past few decades. In addition to retaining the largely managerial responsibilities of the past, today's principals are expected to lead school improvement, increase student learning, and help staff grow professionally. In other words, the principalship has become far more complex.
One striking difference between today's principal evaluation systems and those of even a decade ago is the explicit assumption that principals are responsible not only for their own behaviors but also for improved student achievement. In fact, principal evaluation is now virtually synonymous with school evaluation.
In this new era of principal accountability, how can we design and implement a performance evaluation system that is based on the evidence of what effective principals do, is fair to both the principal and the school, and balances professional growth and accountability? One approach is to base principal evaluation squarely on practical, research-guided performance standards like those shown in Figure 1, which I advocate in my work with performance evaluation. Let's look at the research supporting the importance of each of these standards.

FIGURE 1. Recommended Standards for Principal Performance


Evaluating Principal Behaviors

Standard 1: Instructional Leadership. Instructional leadership means focusing on factors that promote and support teaching and learning (Hallinger, 2005). In practical terms, principals often enact instructional leadership through the following actions:
  • Building and sustaining a robust school vision of learning.
  • Sharing leadership with teachers.
  • Leading a learning community.
  • Monitoring and supporting high-quality curriculum and instruction.
Smart principals understand the importance of a clear, shared vision that others within the school can embrace (Kouzes & Posner, 2002; Wahlstrom & Louis, 2008). They know that capitalizing on teachers' leadership and instructional strengths is smart leadership. Principals lead in a learning community by promoting practices that result in effective teaching and mastery learning. And they don't just plan and organize a learning focus; they also participate in the process. In terms of monitoring and supporting high-quality curriculum and instruction, effective principals are aware of instructional practices in their schools, they are knowledgeable about curriculum standards, and they ensure that the standards are taught (Cotton, 2003).
Standard 2: School Climate. When you enter the schoolhouse door, how does it feel? As you walk down the halls, what behaviors do you notice? What is the energy level of teachers and students in classrooms? These questions relate to school climate.
Effective principals influence school climate by (1) focusing on the involvement and support of all stakeholders and (2) building and sustaining trust. They build stakeholder buy-in by fostering positive relationships between parents and the school, sustaining professional relationships with the staff, and providing outreach to parents and the greater community (Kythreotis, Pashiardis, & Kyriakides, 2010), all while never losing sight of the school's vision and goals (Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005). These principals know that everyone in the school benefits when trust abounds. They lead from a position of trust, which they model and foster daily (Tschannen-Moran, 2009).
Standard 3: Human Resources Leadership. Many of the human resource functions performed in school districts take place at the school level. Effective principals understand that one of their most important responsibilities is the selection, induction, support, evaluation, and retention of high-quality staff members (Hallinger & Heck, 1996). When principals hire, develop, support, and keep the best teachers, they look like geniuses.
Standard 4: Organizational Management. Day-to-day responsibilities—such as coordinating a safe and orderly school environment, ensuring efficient facility maintenance, using data in organization management, managing fiscal resources, and managing technology resources (Stronge, Richard, & Catano, 2008)—have often been portrayed in the principal leadership literature as mundane and of secondary importance. In reality, however, no good principal would ever neglect them. Schools don't run themselves: A smoothly functioning school that provides a safe and positive learning environment for all requires a principal's focused time and effort (Cotton, 2003; Marzano et al., 2005).
Standard 5: Communication and Community Relations. Effective principals know that they don't act in a vacuum. They understand the importance of bringing stakeholders into a collaborative decision-making environment that focuses squarely on the growth and welfare of all students. Thus, communicating clearly and establishing strong relationships with the community are crucial school principal responsibilities (Lashway, 2003).
Standard 6: Professionalism. This standard includes such practices as engaging in ethical behavior and modeling professionalism for teachers, staff, and students. Another important attribute of principals' professionalism is their own continual professional development and self-renewal. Now more than ever, successful principals must hone their leadership skills and continue to evolve. A study that focused on why good principals stay in the profession found that professional development was a key (Boris-Schacter & Merrifield, 2000). Another study found that effective principals attended more professional development programs—and found the sessions to be more helpful—than their peers did. They were more likely to participate in professional development along with their teachers, visit other schools, participate in learning networks with other principals, mentor other principals, and be willing to observe and critique fellow principals (LaPointe & Davis, 2006).

Evaluating Principal Results

Clearly, the performance standards noted here are heavily loaded in favor of principal behaviors. I believe that this emphasis is justified: Results are achieved through principals' knowledge, skills, dispositions, and behaviors. The more effectively principals meet these behavior standards, the greater the likelihood that they will produce positive and sustained results.
But in today's climate of accountability, measuring principal behaviors is no longer sufficient. Simply stated, principals are expected to produce results. Standard 7:Student Progress reflects the fact that evaluation must hold principals accountable for student achievement. In fact, the student progress standard is so highly valued by policymakers, legislators, and the general public that it alone has come to encompass as much as 50 percent of the total evaluation of a principal in some states and districts—even though various studies point to the principal's influence as accounting for about 10 percent or less of the variability in student learning (Waters, Marzano, & McNulty, 2003).
Yet the 50 percent figure is not without some basis in reality. Some researchers—including John Hattie (2008)—estimate that teacher behaviors account for as much as 30 percent of student learning. And who hires, inducts, supports, and evaluates teachers? Of course, it's the principal. Thus, the principal's effect on student learning in the school is far greater than her or his own direct influence. I think it safe to surmise that schools cannot rise above the quality of their principals. Moreover, if teachers are held accountable for student learning—with 30–50 percent of their evaluations based on student learning gains—then it is fair and reasonable to hold principals similarly accountable.
Because the connection between principal quality and student achievement isn't an exact science—but is rather based on some blend of evidence, policy, public opinion, and politics—I think we may see this 50 percent figure refined over time. Recent findings from a large-scale, three-year study by the MET project recommended that 33–50 percent of teacher evaluation be based on measures of student progress (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013). I suspect that we will see principal evaluation follow this same pattern and eventually settle into a percentage that is equivalent to that of teachers—a substantial portion of the principal's evaluation, but not necessarily 50 percent.

Applying the Principal Evaluation Standards

How can we accurately measure the seven research-based standards for principal performance discussed here and use the results for ongoing principal and school improvement? We must begin by providing a comprehensive, authentic portrait of the principal's work through multiple data sources.

Documenting Principal Performance

Valid, fair principal evaluation systems use multifaceted sources of information to document job performance, including self-evaluation, observations and school site visits, document logs, surveys, and goal setting.
No single source or assessment method can adequately capture the complexities of a school leader's work. The proper use of multiple data sources can dramatically improve the usefulness of the evaluation system (for example, by providing broader and more diverse feedback). It also enhances the validity and reliability of the process, providing a more defensible basis for evaluation decisions.

Using Evaluation Results for Growth and Accountability

Once these multiple data sources are identified and the information is collected and analyzed, effective principal evaluation systems use the results to focus on improvement. Supporting principals is not only essential to the success of schools but also fair to the principals themselves.
To ensure that evaluation is a value-driven and growth-oriented learning process, I suggest organizing the practice around a set of guiding tenets, including the following:
Numbers alone don't matter. Simply applying a numerical score to principal evaluation is sterile. The value in evaluation will come from what we do with the results.
Evaluation is designed for 100 percent of principals, not the 3–5 percent who may be failing. Without a doubt, we must deal with ineffective principals. However, evaluation is best when we grow and support all principals. This means that evaluation should be designed to provide valid, constructive feedback for the vast majority of capable, competent, committed principals in our schools.
Evaluation must balance growth and accountability. Some claim that growth and accountability are incompatible. I disagree. In fact, unless the two are inextricably tied, they tend not to work well. Growth without accountability can easily become merely advice; accountability without growth is pointless.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Principal evaluation systems that reflect both professional growth and accountability are not only desirable but also necessary for evaluation to serve the needs of individuals and schools (Stronge, 1995). In the current era of accountability, a practice-only view of evaluation is no longer valid; instead, we need a practice-plus-results perspective. What the principal knows, values, and does is important, but so is his or her ability to achieve specific, observable outcomes (Clifford, Behrstock-Sherratt, & Fetters, 2012; U.S. Department of Education, 2011).
High-quality performance evaluation for principals—as well as for teachers—must become the standard and not the exception. In this era of accountability, we must focus on growth-based, evidence-supported, results-driven evaluation systems that identify, support, and help sustain effective principals. This is our gold standard.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2013). Ensuring fair and reliable measures of effective teaching: Culminating findings from the MET Project's three-year study. Seattle, WA: Author. Retrieved from http://metproject.org/downloads/MET_Ensuring_Fair_and_Reliable_Measures_Practitioner_Brief.pdf

Boris-Schacter, S., & Merrifield, S. (2000). Why particularly good principals don't quit. Journal of School Leadership, 10, 84–98.

Catano, N., & Stronge, J. H. (2006). What are principals expected to do? Congruence between principal evaluation and performance standards. NASSP Bulletin, 90(3), 221–237.

Clifford, M., Behrstock-Sherratt, E., & Fetters, J. (2012). The ripple effect: A synthesis of research on principal influence to inform performance evaluation design. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

Cotton, K. (2003). Principals and student achievement: What the research says. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Goldring, E., Cravens, X. C., Murphy, J., Porter, A. C., Elliott, S. N., & Carson, B. (2009). The evaluation of principals: What and how do states and urban districts assess leadership? Elementary School Journal, 110(1), 19–39.

Hallinger, P. (2005). Instructional leadership and the school principal: A passing fancy that refuses to fade away. Leadership and Policy in School, 4(3), 1–20.

Hallinger, P., & Heck. R. H. (1996). Reassessing the principal's role in school effectiveness: A review of empirical research. Educational Administration Quarterly, 32(1), 5–44.

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to student achievement. New York: Routledge.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2002). The leadership challenge (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kythreotis, A., Pashiardis, P., & Kyriakides, L. (2010). The influence of school leadership styles and culture on students' achievement in Cyprus primary schools. Journal of Educational Administration, 48(2), 218–240.

LaPointe, M., & Davis, S. H. (2006). Effective schools require effective principals. Leadership, 36(1), 16–38.

Lashway, L. (2003). Role of the school leader, Eugene: College of Education, University of Oregon.

Marzano, R., Waters, T., & McNulty, B. A. (2005). School leadership that works: From research to results. Alexandria, VA: ASCD; and Aurora, CO: McREL.

Mendro, R. L. (1998). Student achievement and school and teacher accountability. Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education, 12(3), 257–267.

Reeves, D. B. (2005). Assessing educational leaders: Evaluating performance for improved individual and organizational results. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Robinson, V. J., Lloyd, C. A., & Rowe, K. J. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership types. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(5), 635–674.

Stronge, J. H. (1995). Balancing individual and institutional goals in educational personnel evaluation: A conceptual framework. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 21(2), 131–151.

Stronge, J. H., Richard, H. B., & Catano, N. (2008). Qualities of effective principals. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2009). Fostering teacher professionalism in schools: The role of leadership orientation and trust. Educational Administration Quarterly, 45(2), 217–247.

U.S. Department of Education. (2011). Application for new awards: Supporting effective educator development grant program. Federal Register, 76(174). Retrieved from www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2011-09-08/pdf/2011-23011.pdf

Wahlstrom, K. L., & Louis, K. S. (2008). How teachers experience principal leadership: The roles of professional community, trust, efficacy, and shared responsibility. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(4), 458–495.

Waters, J. T., Marzano, R. J., & McNulty, B. (2003). Balanced leadership: What 30 years of research tells us about the effect of leadership on student achievement. Aurora, CO: McREL.

Westberg, D., Sexton, S., Mulhern, J., & Keeling, D. (2009). The widget effect: Our national failure to acknowledge and act on differences in teacher effectiveness. Brooklyn, NY: New Teacher Project.

James H. Stronge is president and CEO of Stronge & Associates Educational Consulting, LLC, an educational consulting company that focuses on teacher and leader effectiveness with projects throughout the United States and internationally. Additionally, he is the Heritage Professor of Education, a distinguished professorship, in the Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership Area at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia.

He teaches doctoral courses within the School of Education's Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership (EPPL) Program, with a particular focus on teacher and leader effectiveness, human resource leadership, legal issues in education, and research design.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 113038.jpg
The Principalship
Go To Publication