With increasing pressure over the last decade to improve student achievement, a growing body of research highlights the crucial role school principals play in creating good environments for learning.
But in Minnesota, there is no uniform method to evaluate the state's roughly 1,700 principals. That's about to change, due to a law passed this summer, and a group of educators who will develop the evaluation criteria and method.
In the state education budget that passed this summer was a requirement that every principal be evaluated starting the 2013 school year. The law also lays out what must be measured.
Districts must develop their own evaluations, but they'll have help. A group that met for the first time Monday will recommend an evaluation model that districts can use or adapt. The working group could start from an existing model — two groups which represent school principals participated in developing a model last year.
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Fred Storti, executive director of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals' Association, said evaluations are a hot topic because the job has transformed so much.
"I think about when I was first a principal 25 years ago, you were viewed more as a manager of resources. Storti said. "Today we view principals as being instructional leaders, setting the tone in a building, developing a culture, and helping teachers be more effective with student achievement."
Storti also points to studies that show how principals are critical to setting the tone that leads to a school's success or failure.
Former school superintendent Greg Vandal now consults with schools across the state about principal evaluation and has found wide variance.
"There were school districts across the state that, frankly, didn't have any formal evaluation system in place. The evaluation was typically a conversation between a principal and that person's administrator," Vandal said. "And there were some systems in the state that had very comprehensive, and in some cases, almost cumbersome systems of evaluation."
With the new law, principals will be evaluated on items such as how they manage day-to-day matters, such as busing and scheduling , to whether they oversee the instruction in a manner that encourages a culture of learning. Evaluations will be more than just a chat between two people — on-the-job observations will be required, as will the use of data on student performance.
Minnesota is not the first state to require principal evaluations by law, in fact, Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said the state is behind in that respect. Erickson chairs the House Education Reform committee and she credits the White House for pushing the issue, so states like Minnesota would finally join the fray.
"We have a president whose philosophies I don't agree with, but who is saying 'We need teacher evaluation, we need principal evaluation' and I'm just very pleased with that," Erickson said.
By having the requirement in place, Minnesota can be in better position to obtain a waiver from parts of the No Child Left Behind law. The federal government last month said waivers will be granted only to states that meet certain benchmarks — having a system to evaluate principals being one of them. State officials say they're confident they'll meet this requirement, even though Minnesota's system isn't yet up and running.
How much student performance should factor in the evaluation prompts the biggest discussion. Minnetonka High School principal and working group member Dave Adney said the group will need to address questions about what data should be used, how much it should count toward an evaluation, and if it should determine things such as pay raises.
"Some things that you measure maybe are not worthwhile, and some things that are really worthwhile sometimes can't necessarily be measured," Adney said. "If we go to what I call an operational level, where we're just crunching numbers to show who's gaining what, I think we lose some great perspective on how kids learn and how kids improve."
The concern is warranted, Erickson said, but it's crucial that the group have the debate. Erickson said this is where she will pay most attentionwhen the working group submits its final report to lawmakers in February.