commentary

(RAND.org)

August 15, 2012

School Principals Respond to Performance-Based Evaluation System

by Laura S. Hamilton and John Engberg

A number of states and districts have made efforts to revamp their teacher and principal evaluation policies. Although much of the focus in the media and in policy debates has been on how these systems will affect teachers, principals are also affected by these policy changes, and it's important to understand how well new principal evaluation systems are working. We recently led a RAND study that took a closer look at one district's efforts to improve its principal evaluation system and offers several recommendations for districts mulling similar initiatives.

The study focused on the Pittsburgh Principal Incentive Program, one of a suite of reforms funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The program provides principals with professional development and leadership mentoring and includes a new system for evaluating — and compensating — their performance. Principals' evaluations were based both on ratings of their practices and on student achievement in their schools.

The majority of participants reported a positive impact on their leadership practices and said that the program contributed to their professional growth. Throughout the program, principals also reported increasing the amount of time they spent observing teachers in the classroom and providing feedback, a change consistent with the district's goal of encouraging principals to serve as instructional leaders. Most agreed that the rubric used to evaluate their practices was useful for assessing their own strengths and weaknesses but added that they were not motivated by the possibility of bonus pay.

Although the study could not attribute changes in principals' performance or student achievement to the program directly, student achievement growth in the Pittsburgh Public Schools did exceed that in the rest of the state in three of the four academic years studied.

It's fair to say the program turned out to be an important step for the district in the context of its overall reform plan considering how important high-quality school leadership is for improving teaching and learning.

Our findings point to several recommendations for other districts that are looking to implement principal evaluation and compensation programs:

  1. Align the elements of the performance-based compensation system with the district's approach to improving teaching and learning. Districts should work to ensure that programs for principals are aligned with other key initiatives and support common goals.
  2. Consider incorporating a range of measures into the evaluation system, including those that reflect input from a variety of stakeholders.
  3. Devise a communication strategy that provides clear, timely, and ongoing information to help principals understand the evaluation measures and the steps the district took to ensure their validity.
  4. Provide principals with concrete tools for accomplishing instructional leadership tasks (especially observing and providing feedback on instruction).
  5. Help principals find the time needed to engage in the practices promoted by the initiative. Districts could encourage principals to spend more time on specific tasks and to delegate other tasks.

Laura Hamilton is a senior behavioral scientist and John Engberg is a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution.

This commentary originally appeared on RAND.org on August 15, 2012.