As always, I learned as much as I taught from the superintendents participating in the preconference workshop I presented on February 12 at AASA’s National Conference on Education in San Diego – “Cementing the Board-Superintendent Governing Partnership.” The diverse, high-level experience participants brought to the session made for a stimulating, thought-provoking four hours. We spent the better part of an hour discussing practical ways to cement superintendents’ working relationship with their school boards. One of the relationship building tools we closely examined was board evaluation of the superintendent’s performance, which long experience has taught me is a potentially powerful relationship sealant. But, as we discussed at the NCE workshop, I didn’t mean one of those highly subjective and essentially meaningless questionnaires that board members often individually fill out in the privacy of their own offices.
These questionnaires miss the point by having board members assess their superintendent’s functional excellence rather than measurable bottom-line outcomes. For example, using one of those notorious 0 to 5 scales, board members typically judge how well the superintendent has performed in carrying out such functions as hiring and motivating top administrators, strategic planning, financial planning and management, external relations, etc. Although tabulating board members’ numerical rankings to come up with average superintendent scores in each functional area lends an air of scientific precision to the evaluation process, it is basically a highly subjective opinion survey. If it weren’t bad enough that the questionnaire process involves making subjective judgments about irrelevant performance metrics, it is open to abuse, putting the superintendent professionally at risk. Believe me, on several occasions over the years I’ve witnessed board members who were “out to get” their superintendent assign rankings of 0 or 1 in several functional categories, ensuring that the superintendent’s averaged overall score was in the mediocre – or worse – range. The complete absence of objectivity and quality control make the traditional questionnaire a potentially lethal tool indeed!
The remedy we discussed in San Diego? Employing an evaluation process that focuses on pertinent, measurable outcomes, rather than functional excellence, at two levels. The obvious level is districtwide outcomes that are typically identified in the annual operational planning process (e.g., lowering the dropout rate by 3 percent; raising math scores by 10 percent, passing the property tax ballot issue, etc.). The second, less obvious level involves what I call the superintendent’s “CEO-centric” outcomes, which are typically negotiated toward the end of the fiscal year with the board’s governance or board operations committee. These CEO-centric outcomes are essentially targets that the superintendent intends to make a top leadership priority of her own – that she will devote significant time and attention of her own to achieving. For example, In a recent daylong work session with his school board, Rockford (Illinois) Public Schools superintendent Ehren Jarrett sought board members’ input on a number of student-achievement related outcomes he intended to devote substantial time and attention to over the coming 18 months, such as: “By June 30, 2021, the superintendent will bring the Board proposed policy changes intended to address kindergarten readiness, attendance, chronic truancy, and student mobility.”
We had a really robust discussion during the NCE workshop about what makes employing these CEO-centric outcomes in the evaluation process such a potentially powerful board-superintendent relationship sealant. As I shared with workshop participants, the superintendent’s discussing his own CEO-centric leadership targets sends a clear signal: “I welcome your input on my leadership goals as your chief executive officer. To make a real difference in our district, we have to work closely together, and I’m not the least bit worried about your treading on what might be seen as my turf.” My readers well know that in the “olden days,” traditional superintendents would have felt the need to maintain distance from their board and protect their CEO turf from board incursions. But I’m seeing a new breed of superintendents these days, who see themselves as hybrid leaders: part board member, part top district administrator. This new breed will without question be far more effective at building lasting partnerships with their boards and, as a consequence, boost district educational performance.
By the way, the subject of board evaluation of superintendent performance is covered in some detail in Chapter 5 of my newest K-12 leadership book, “Building a High-Impact Board-Superintendent Partnership” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).