I could have sworn that goalie Tim Thomas was talking about the evaluation of principals when he met with the press following the Boston Bruins victory in the Stanley Cup Finals. Thomas, whose meteoric rise from minor league obscurity to Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the National Hockey League Finals, had a reaction that reminded me of how I felt when I received an "all exemplary" evaluation a few years ago.
When the press asked Thomas how it felt to be the MVP, he matter-of-factly responded that ‘if I get off to a bad start next year, the MVP may buy me some extra time, but I know that if I don’t produce, I will be gone.’
I felt no joy from my A+ evaluation. Most high school principals have learned over time that when something good happens, something bad will come along to bring you back down to earth. When our school was honored with a Presidential Visit, to the surprise of my staff, I decided to hold the regularly scheduled Faculty Advisory Committee meeting that same day. When asked why, I responded, "They will make certain that I am brought back to earth."
Why no happiness from a stellar evaluation? First, I felt more of a sense of relief than joy. I had taken a big career risk going to work in a high-poverty school just as our State (Virginia) decided to become a high-stakes accountability state, and I had paid a heavy personal price for it. I didn’t have a good night’s sleep for over five years.
Nevertheless, nothing could have been more rewarding than working with an outstanding group of teacher leaders, all of whom had years of service in that school, to turn the school from the ranks of the condemned to that of the commended. Second, the opinion of the people in our school was more important to me than the evaluation mainly because the evaluator had no idea what I actually did. Finally, and most importantly, like Tim Thomas, I knew that the evaluation wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. I knew that I served at the pleasure of the Superintendent and the School Board and that I could be removed and replaced on a whim. Something could go wrong the next day, and, if it was expedient to do so, I would be unceremoniously thrown under the proverbial bus without hesitation.
My attitude toward the current discussions about better ways to evaluate principals is simple. Bring it on, because it doesn’t matter. As one of my first principals told me, "you can delegate responsibility, but you can never delegate accountability." The principal is solely accountable for everything that goes wrong in a school, and believe me, there is a lot that can go wrong in a school.
Being a principal is similar to being a coach in a professional sport. When things go wrong, it is the coach’s fault. When things go well, it was because the team had good players. In school, when things go wrong, it is the principal’s fault. When things go right, it’s because the school has great teachers.
The Bottom Line
The principal must answer for everything that happens in a school. The evaluation methodology will not change the culture, which is set up to squeeze those in the middle–the school principal. True, over time, principals can earn some extra credit that may buy a little extra time, but a principal can and will be removed at a moment’s notice irrespective of their most recent evaluation.
Instead of focusing on evaluating principals, the emphasis should be first on building the capacity of current principals to do their jobs and secondly on reducing principal turnover. However, building capacity and reducing turnover will require more effort than I believe the so-called experts are willing to exert or fund.