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Principals Wait For Results Of First-Ever Evaluations

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Fairfax County is considering allowing specific students to take standardized English or math tests early.
J. Durham
Fairfax County is considering allowing specific students to take standardized English or math tests early.

More and more research is showing the importance of a strong principal. They are often the most senior people walking the hallways of public schools. But hanging on to a good principal -– and getting rid of a bad one –- is a difficult process, one that, in D.C. at least, has been overshadowed by the intense focus on teachers.

Former DCPS chancellor Michelle Rhee brought the discussion of principal firings to the forefront during her time with the school system, firing several -- one of which was captured in a PBS documentary on Rhee. (The principal's identity was not revealed in the documentary.)

Principals are lynchpin of a school's success

Being a principal is, by almost any measure, a difficult job. You have to make sure the school is safe for students, meet parents, and support teachers. You also have to know when you're treading on thin ice.

Hilary Darilek is responsible for recruiting, supporting, and compensating principals in DCPS. She says research shows principals are a critical part of a school's success.

"Everything. Principals are responsible for everything that happens in a school building," she says. "Most importantly are responsible that every child in their building is learning."

New principal evaluations will clarify process

There are 125 principals in DCPS, and in 2007 approximately one third of them didn't return to their jobs. For the years after that, principal turnover has generally been 20 to 25 percent. DCPS would not provide an exact breakdown of how many principals were fired and how many left for other reasons.

Previously, there were no formal principal evaluations, and the principals themselves were often not told why they were being let go -- or "non-reappointed", as DCPS has termed it. Now, the new evaluation will be tied directly to a principal's appointment -- or lack thereof -- for the coming year.

The new evaluation tool for principals initiated this year has a number of components. For starters, principals and teachers are held equally responsible for student achievement, Darilek says.

"We think that's critical," she says. "Teachers are held accountable for 50% of student achievement, principals are also held accountable for 50% of student achievement. "

Teachers on hook for student performance

This 50 percent is based mainly on straight numbers: whether students have made their federal learning targets in their standardized tests, how much students have improved compared to the previous year, and whether they've met school specific goals.

"So at the high school level that might be SAT scores, advanced placement scores or it might be in a particular school if there's a sub group that really struggling like English language learners, the school may choose to set targets around how much they want to improve in a school year," says Darilek.

The other 50 percent is what's called "Leadership Outcomes." At least twice a month an outside evaluator is in their schools, observing the principals and speaking to staff. They’re also evaluated on whether they can hold onto high performing teachers.

"Many of them voiced concerns, but through conversations they also realized that it is their job to make it a school community where teachers want to be," says Darilek.

Could evaluations actually increase principal turnover?

Aona Jefferson is president of the Council of School Officers, which represents principals. She says the new process encourages school leaders to make decisions that are popular rather than right, since it includes feedback from parents and the community. And she says principals often don't feel comfortable speaking up.

"Principals are on a one year appointment. So they can be non-reappointed without due process or just cause," she says. "So therefore they have to be very careful how they protest, how they push back on anything they don't like."

All this may contribute to what’s called "churn and burn," or high turnover among principals. Jeff Smith, who heads DC Voice, a community advocacy group, says they have found that veteran school leaders get students involved with college and career plans earlier on. Those longer-term principals also had more time to build relationships with parents and the community.

"Those are really developed with individuals not with the school system," Smith says. "So it takes time to vest those partnerships and then the continued leadership to manage them."

Darileck agrees having a new principal in a school can be a challenge.

"Getting used to a new manager and getting used to a new style and getting used to a new vision and direction," she says.

Darilek says this evaulation system will help set expectations for everyone. But in the end, if a principal isn't the right fit, it's better to end the relationship, she says.

"Sometimes turnover is critical to drive change at the school and not just keep the school where it was and on the same path," she adds.

The average principal salary is $115,000 and Darilek says DCPS is working on a system of bonuses, similar to that of teachers, which they hope will be in place soon.

Principals will get their evaluations in July and will then know whether they have their jobs for another year.

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