Another bite at evaluating principals

I’ve written about this topic before, and indeed the Utah legislature has directed the state’s education evaluation laws toward administrators rather than on teachers. So I thought readers would be interested in some recent research that validates a heavier focus on principals.

From Stanford economist Rick Hanushek (one of the researchers and a leading education policy expert):

While there is considerable anecdotal evidence that principals are important – including various movies about the charismatic principal or the bumbling bureaucrat, there has been very little systematic evidence about the magnitude of differences among principals or about their impact on student learning.  Separating the influence of the principal from other factors including the choices of parents and teachers proves to be a very difficult task.

In a recent article, Greg Branch, Steve Rivkin, and I use a variety of statistical approaches to isolate the impacts of a principal on student learning.  The primary approach is to observe how student achievement in a school changes when the principal changes.  In the most conservative estimation approach, a good principal (one in the top 16 percent of principal effectiveness) compared to an average principal annually gets the equivalent to an extra two months of learning out of students.

Importantly, these gains hold for all of the students in school.  While good teachers get similar gains compared to average teachers, those gains accrue just to the students in a single classroom.

The other side also holds.  An ineffective principal slows learning of students at the same rate.  Thus, it is important to select and retain effective principals.

Hanushek makes another good point:

something left out of many policy discussions is the necessity of aligning the evaluation of principals with that of teachers.  It would set up bad incentives to have the principal evaluating teachers without themselves being evaluated on student performance.  If principals are evaluated primarily on other grounds than student achievement, they will not necessarily make decisions that are consistent with improving student performance.  In this case, the common concern of teacher unions that decisions by principals can be arbitrary or can show favoritism in various ways may be justified.

For those of you would like to delve more deeply into the research methodology, here’s a link to the article itself.

The longer includes this interesting comment on a missing link in the research (due to inadequate data):

Unfortunately, our data do not contain direct information on personnel decisions that would enable us to separate voluntary and involuntary transitions, and existing evidence suggests that teachers rather than principals initiate the majority of transitions. In addition, the Texas data do not match students to individual teachers, meaning that we must draw inferences about teacher effectiveness from average information across an entire grade.

With detailed information on teacher effectiveness and transitions, we could investigate whether better principals are more likely to dismiss the least-effective teachers and reduce the likelihood that the more-effective teachers depart voluntarily. In the absence of such information, however, we focus on the relationship within schools between the share of teachers that exits each grade and the average value-added to student achievement in the grade. We examine how this varies with our measures of principal quality based on student achievement gains. For example, in a school where 5th-grade students learn more than 4th-grade students, we would expect a good principal to make more changes to the 4th-grade teaching staff.

Somehow we need to figure out a way to put the teacher and principal evaluation pieces together.



  1. Marie


    Just to clarify a misrepresentation in the new law. You state, “the Utah legislature has directed the state’s education evaluation laws toward administrators rather than on teachers”.

    With all do respect to you, please reread the statute. The bill addresses issues of evaluation of both administrators AND teachers. I truly feel that we must accurately represent the facts when we are discussing such important issues as teacher/administrator evaluations.

    Thank you, Mary, for allowing me to clarify this fact. I appreciate the thought-provoking conversation.

    • Mary McConnell

      Thanks for the correction. I should have looked this law up again. My recollection was that the legislature decided to focus its big guns on principal evaluation, and backed away from a stricter teacher evaluation. By the way, I had a lot of respect for the way this compromise was reached, which involved legislator meetings with teachers and administrators around the state. Listening really can be the beginning of wisdom.

      But I’m not surprised to be informed that teachers are included in evaluation rubrics, and I’ll follow through and look up the provisions of the original proposal and the final legislation as soon as I can. If you’d like to post the relevant portion of the statute, by the way, I’ll post it immediately.

      I’d also love to share any comments you or your colleagues have about how well this is working in practice.

  2. Marie

    Thank you for your reply. I want to clarify something else. The UEA, the Utah School Boards Association, and the USOE were the creators of this bill. Senator Osmond truly listened AND then he assembled the stakeholders to craft this legislation.

    It is absolutely imperative that you know that the UEA played a major role in creating this bill. I hope that those who tend to blame the teacher’s associations for the ills facing public education, will recognize that our Utah Education Association stands for excellence. I am a proud member.

    • Mary McConnell

      I do know that the UEA was involved in developing this legislation, and said so at the time. Indeed, I applauded the cooperation with teachers. Here’s a link to my earlier blog posting.

      One of the points I’ve made repeatedly is that teachers need to take the lead in designing and administering evaluation schemes. I’ve posted articles about some places, such as Montgomery County, Maryland, where a teacher-led evaluation system has led both to much better mentoring AND to more teacher terminations.

      By the way, I noted at the time – and SHOULD have remembered – that teacher evaluations were part of the new law. But I don’t think I’m wrong that the legislature made a choice to focus more attention on administrators. Certainly that’s how it was reported at the time. The article I posted suggests this may be a smart approach!

      I’d love to hear from you – or others with “boots on the ground – how you think the new system is working so far. Of course, it may be too early in the process to evaluate what impact the new law will have.

Leave a comment encourages a civil dialogue among its readers. We welcome your thoughtful comments.