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The measure of a great principal

Solid research on what effective school principals know and are able to do to increase student achievement has increased dramatically during the past decade.  Currently, a majority of states are developing educator effectiveness systems that assess teacher and school leader knowledge, skills and dispositions so they can be continually strengthened.

In Minnesota, this principal evaluation movement led to changes to state law that required the formation of a task force to develop a model for principal evaluation.  Finding a way to engage Minnesota teachers and other school staff in the process of shaping the nature and content of this mandated principal evaluation fit well with the Bush Foundation’s ongoing educational achievement work. The outcome was to cofund the VIVA Project (Voices Ideas Vision Action) with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Working with Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher and Governor Dayton’s administration, VIVA designed and administered a survey of just two questions:

Every year teachers face new requirements, curriculums or “public wisdom” about what should be happening in their classroom.  What are the four or five most important ways a principal should support both students and teachers?  How can those be measured?

More than 500 public school instructional professionals responded and posted almost 130 ideas during an online moderated discussion in January 2012.

VIVA then identified 12 “thought leaders,” based on their thoughtful responses to the survey, and asked them to analyze and distill the ideas from the survey into discrete, workable recommendations about how to measure the attributes of a good principal.

The VIVA report, 360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals, includes 10 recommendations that are very consistent with research on effective schools leadership. The report emphasizes four of those recommendations that aren’t often required in legislation yet are instrumental to developing effective principals.  These are:

  • All stakeholders—parents, students, staff, community—need to be involved in a principal’s evaluation to ensure a well-founded evaluation of principals.
  • There should be a three-track approach to principal evaluation that uses both on-site and off-site evaluations to ensure a full principal effectiveness
  • Design a strong support system for struggling principals.
  • Measure all parts of a principal’s performance.

The report  proposes a process that is primarily based on a 360-degree evaluation and review of a principal’s portfolio and that is grounded in progress on school improvement plans.  The results of the evaluation will then be used to tailor the principal’s professional learning growth plan.

The recommendations and evaluation model developed from the survey add a depth and richness to principal evaluations that honors the legislation and will also help it achieve its intended outcome—ensuring every school has an effective instructional leader who collaborates with teachers to raise student achievement.

Jane ArmstrongJane Armstrong is a member of an FHI 360 team working in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota to support the Foundation’s efforts to change the ways teachers are recruited, prepared, placed and supported and, in doing so, to increase educational achievement and close the achievement gap.

Talk Back to Bush

How has the support of a principal improved outcomes in the school in which you teach or where your children are educated? How has lack of support hindered educational achievement? Tell us a story of an amazing school leader who made a difference in your life or the life of a student. We want to know what you think.


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