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Turning the Tables on Assessment

Assessing and evaluating school boards and superintendents are vital to meeting district goals. (First of a Two-Part Series)


Formative assessments are crucial for managing all areas of a district—and not just for students but even for the leaders themselves. A school district leadership team is comprised of the school board, forming the governance team, and the superintendent, who is the leader of the management team. But how does the school board track progress toward goals? How does the public know whether the board and superintendent are fulfilling their roles effectively? As a child, my mother would let me throw boiled spaghetti noodles on the refrigerator door to see if they would stick—a sign that the noodles were cooked. Unfortunately, school boards and administrators often throw up self-assessment and evaluation instruments in a similar fashion, to see what sticks or what's effective. But there's another way.

One Model

One method of assessing the effectiveness of district leaders is an evaluation process. In 1996, Strategem started its work on one. The approach is unique in that many school board and school administrator associations, such as those in Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Iowa and Colorado, have developed assessment and evaluation instruments, but few have developed a comprehensive assessment and evaluation process. There has not been an integrated model that guides the leadership team to govern better, while being fully accountable to the public for educating students. A growing number of state association trainers have taken this new model and applied it to their work with school boards and school superintendents. Self-assessment of the board and evaluation of the superintendent’s performance is fundamental to the success of a school district. Without self-assessment and evaluation, progress and goal achievement cannot be measured. These tools provide the leadership team with the best opportunity to identify strengths and weaknesses.

Through the self-assessment and the evaluation processes, goals are revised and improvement is facilitated. Before putting an evaluation process in place, the board must answer some questions, such as: What are the legal requirements of superintendent evaluation? What is the purpose of the evaluation? Parallel leadership roles in the public school governance structure exist so that the “chief operating officer” is the superintendent, who also serves as leader of the management team, and the “chief governance officer” is board chairman or president, or governance team leader. The parallel leadership of the board and the superintendent is enhanced when the board self-assesses its governance of the school district, monitors the district’s performance as measured against established goals, and evaluates the superintendent’s performance. These elements are part of the accountability measures that the board must put in place to assure the public that the school district is providing an excellent education for its students.

Evaluation versus Assessment

It is important to differentiate between assessment and evaluation to more precisely define the function of each instrument. Ken O’Connor, author of How to Grade for Learning, has provided some help. Although O’Connor’s concepts for the assessment and evaluation come from a grading frame of reference, I’ve adapted his concepts and applied them to the board self-assessment and superintendent evaluation process. So an assessment is “the process of gathering information” about the school board’s performance as it relates to the governance process and board-superintendent relations. It answers the question “How is it going?”

An evaluation is “the process of integrating information from many sources and using it to make judgments” about the performance of the superintendent. It answers the question “How good is it?” In effect, the board self-assesses its governance performance, while evaluating the superintendent’s performance in leading the school district. Ultimately, the public holds individual board members accountable for student success at election time.

Other Standards

Since superintendents look to the American Association of School Administrators as their professional organization, its standards can help a board establish guidelines for a superintendent evaluation. AASA has developed eight professional standards, or criteria, for the superintendent performance.

At least two states use AASA standards. Oregon School Boards Association (OSBA) has adopted those standards and added a few more to evaluate the performance of the superintendent. And the Iowa School Boards Association (ISBA) and school administrators have added performance indicators/targets to give evidence as to the degree of accomplished goals. Iowa, which includes AASA standards and is congruent with the integrated Strategem model, is one of the few states where the state school board and the state school administrator organizations have come together to form a common instrument for school boards and superintendents to use in evaluations.

The Process

Regardless of what criteria or standards districts choose to use, Strategem proposes districts undergo its model of board self-assessment and superintendent evaluation, which has school boards reviewing their own governmental process and considering how much their superintendent achieves and how he or she leads.

The board self-assessment and superintendent evaluation cycle begins on or about July 1 whenever a new superintendent has been hired. The board needs to adopt a policy on selecting the superintendent, develop a superintendent evaluation instrument, and formalize an evaluation process, including the procedures and the timing. The board in successive steps reviews the school district’s strategic plan, establishes goals for the superintendent, defines the limits of the superintendent’s authority, establishes the budget and sets parameters, and monitors the superintendent’s implementation of policies.

Around January, the board conducts a midyear evaluation of the superintendent, which gives the superintendent a chance to apprise the board on progress toward meeting goals that were established for him or her at the beginning of the school year. There is an old business school adage that applies: Never allow your boss to be surprised.

In March or April, the board undergoes a self-assessment. The board’s goal in its self-assessment is to examine its governance process and practices, as well as review the board-superintendent relationship. Another part of the self-assessment process is to review the progress toward achieving the district’s goals for the current year and to plan for next year’s goals.

This portion of the process prepares the board for the final superintendent evaluation meeting, which occurs in May or June. The board evaluates the superintendent’s performance based on goals established before the school year. The board also discusses the goals for the next school year. The contractual status of the superintendent is based upon the performance review. The question should be: Should the contract be extended, held in abeyance or terminated?

Superintendent Joel Aune of the Snoqualmie Valley (Wash.) School District, which uses the Strategem model, finds it helpful. “I appreciated the thoughtful reflection, deep thinking, and meaningful dialogue in which the board members engaged throughout the board self-assessment process,” he says.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

The National School Boards Association has identified some shortcomings when evaluating a superintendent: failing to understand what the superintendent should be doing; evaluating in a vacuum; considering evaluation only in terms of correcting deficiencies; failing to acknowledge and reward good work; measuring performance without carefully constructed standards; “posturing as psychologists”; not giving the superintendent time to correct deficiencies before acting on them; and not giving the superintendent due time or place to respond to the board’s evaluation or concerns.

Members should avoid personal issues, such as grudges against the superintendent. They should be fully engaged in the process and focus more on a global view of performance than a recent event that might warp the evaluation.

Superintendent Evaluation

As CEO, the superintendent is responsible for the district’s overall performance. As the district leader, the superintendent affects not only the work of principals but also the teachers’ work, which in turn affects student achievement. Typical elements of a superintendent evaluation process clarify the relationship and communication between the board and the superintendent; document the performanceof the superintendent; highlight the superintendent’s strengths and weaknesses; determine whether district goals and board desires have been met; provide board direction for professional growth for the superintendent; and meet legal requirements where applicable.

“The processes of board self-assessment and superintendent evaluation allow the board and the superintendent to stop and take a moment to ensure that everyone is on the same page and working in the same direction,” says Kathryn Lerner, board member of the Snoqualmie district.

“Is this still the best plan for kids? Do we need to revisit our priorities based on changes in funding, student needs, community preferences? Is this the best way to spend our money? The tools should be directly tied to the district’s mission, vision, and goals,” she adds. “By taking the time to have this conversation and do this work, school board members and the superintendent can ensure that they are working in concert with one another on behalf of the students and taxpayers of their community.”

Building Effective Leadership

As a way of measuring the effectiveness of the board, self-assessment is an important tool. The board self-assessment process holds the board accountable for its governance practices; engages each board member in self-reflection; fosters open communication among members and the superintendent; provides insight into the decision-making process; improves conflict resolution skills; highlights strengths and weaknesses of board members; assists in goal setting; and aids in long-range and strategic planning.

Read more on and review sample superintendent evaluations and board self-assessments.

Chuck Namit is president of Strategem LLC and member of North Thurston (Wash.) Public Schools Board of Directors. He’s trained boards and superintendents for 28 years.