Head Evaluation: The Risk Of Not Doing It Or Doing It Poorly

Evaluation Of Boards: Self-Reflection In A Healthy School
August 1, 2015
Leadership Transitions: Strategies To Support A New Head And Maintain School Stability
August 1, 2015
Show all

Head Evaluation: The Risk Of Not Doing It Or Doing It Poorly

A veteran sixteen-year Head noticed that many of his peers were being evaluated by their Boards. He suggested to his own Board that perhaps it was time that he was evaluated also.

The Board agreed with the suggestion. Key trustees met with focus groups of teachers, parents, alumni and students to ask for feedback on the Head’s performance.

One month later the Board met again with the Head to provide feedback. The Board Chair’s first comment was: “I regret to say that we will not be renewing your contract.” The incredulous Head asked why. The Board Chair gave two telling answers:

  1. “We should not have waited sixteen years to evaluate your performance as there were too many “unlanced boils” on the political landscape; and
  2. We should not have used focus groups because we stirred up a hornet’s nest, and now we cannot put “Humpty Dumpty” back together again.”

While this unfortunate message draws laughter when the story is told, the key elements remain all too sad and all too true. Many heads are not evaluated annually. They should be. Boards forget or put the topic on the back burner. Heads are at fault as well because they tolerate this state of affairs. The board and board only should evaluate the head.

    1. The Correct Approach to Head Evaluation

Only the most naïve (or lucky) of schools would involve faculty and other representatives outside of the board in the evaluation of the head of school. Faculty quickly learn that they can pay a head back for any unpopular decision the head may make and that they have that opportunity annually through a head evaluation process to the Board. Fewer than 10% of all independent schools seek faculty feedback as part of a head evaluation process. There are solid reasons for this.

Heads evaluated by the faculty learn quickly not to rock the boat, make many changes, demand accountability or terminate an incompetent teacher because the price he or she will pay may be a heavy one.

Who should be charged with the evaluation of the Head? The board. Boards often ask: “How can you assess a head’s performance if you do not ask the teachers and the parents for their evaluative feedback?” The answer is: Look at all the indicators of school success. If they are up, or most of them are, then you have all the “outside assessment” you need.

Those outside indicators, or benchmarks of school success include: enrollment demand, retention of students and teachers, parent morale established through parent opinion surveys, test scores such as AP exam results, alumni loyalty, all forms of giving, school and college placement, community reputation, school spirit as reflected through athletics and other extra curricular programs; and many other indices.

    1. The Basic Model of Head Evaluation

How SHOULD a head of school be evaluated? The answer is simple, and over 70% of all independent schools follow this model. It does not require long checklists, “instruments”, a 15-item job description or a personality inventory. It includes these simple seven steps:

      1. An evaluation/compensation committee of the board is appointed. It usually includes the chair, the finance chair, and perhaps the vice chair, or immediate past chair or likely next chair. The committee should consult with the head about its make up.
      2. The committee meets with the head in late spring, summer or very early fall to set mutually agreed upon goals for the year. There should be no more than 3-5 such goals, and they should be tied to the school’s own strategic planning needs. A long list of unmanageable goals sets the head up for not meeting expectations and for disappointment by both parties.
      3. Once the committee and head agree upon these goals, they should be taken to a full board meeting for full and frank discussion and for the imprimatur of approval of the entire board.
      4. In the middle of the year, perhaps in January, the evaluation/compensation committee should meet with the head, informally. This might occur over dinner. The head should outline progress towards the agreed upon goals, and a dialogue should ensue with the committee members.
      5. In late spring, the head should write a self-evaluation of progress against goals. Each member of the Board should also write a confidential evaluation of the head’s performance against those same earlier approved goals. Each board member should be counseled by the chair to evaluate the head’s performance relative only to those goals, and to exclude personal agendas and assessment of intangibles, such as the head’s personal style.
      6. The committee should meet again and compare the head’s self evaluation with the board’s combined evaluation. A dialogue should ensue that provides both praise and affirmation for success achieved and constructive feedback about areas that still need work. These areas will become a part of the next year’s goal setting process.
      7. The board chair should write a one to two page summary for the file, and report back orally to the entire board on the closure of the process.

The evaluation/compensation committee should then set the head’s compensation for the coming year or undertake a formal contract renewal. This should occur AT LEAST 12-18 months before the head’s current contract ends. One of the common occurrences on boards is to ignore the head’s evaluation and compensation until long after all other staff members have been reviewed. The head, whose evaluation and compensation process should come first, is often last or forgotten entirely.

    1. Conclusion

This process is open, fair, clean and honest. It should occur annually. It will make the head feel valued and help the head to grow and improve. It should also develop more “buy in” by the board.

This process is not bureaucratic. It should not be. Check lists are the bane of any head evaluation process, and we counsel against them. The process described above will affirm, guide, support and critique, as necessary, the head of school.

John Littleford
Senior Partner