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Philly schools won't benefit from new principal rating system

By James H. Lytle on Sep 18, 2014 11:32 AM

Beginning this month, all School District principals will be subject to a new evaluation system, mandated by the state’s Department of Education.

In this system, called the "Framework for Leadership," principals will be rated by their supervisors on 20 different criteria as “failing,” “needs improvement,” “proficient,” or “distinguished.” According to PDE, the intent is to create schools that are on track in preparing students for college and career.

But the new rating system raises major issues for the School District and principals. Foremost is the fact that more than half the principals are in their first or second year in their positions. This brings up two serious questions: whether it is fair to judge them by the same standards as more experienced principals and whether they are getting the resources, support, and mentoring necessary to ensure their success.

Further complicating the situation, principal evaluation will be in the hands of eight assistant superintendents, five of whom are new to the position this year. Each regional superintendent will be responsible for up to 30 schools, and many will lack familiarity with the particular history and context of their schools. Also, they will need time for proper training and practice in the new evaluation system, something that’s necessary to ensure consistency across the District.

Above all else, what’s most important is whether the principal grading system will benefit the schools that principals lead, the teachers they supervise, and the students whose learning environment they are responsible for.

First, some background: The new evaluation system, like those in several other states, draws heavily on the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) standards, published in 1996, and the Educational Leadership Policy Standards, published in 2008, which are an updated version of the ISLLC standards. Those standards are now six years old, and a new version is due this fall.

Meanwhile, a number of studies have been published in the last few years that call into question not only the standards, but also current reform policies and leadership-preparation programs that are based on them.

Both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top call for market-based strategies to drive improvement: choice, charters, deregulation, national curriculum standards, high-stakes testing, merit incentives, accountability, data-driven decision-making, and competition. There is little precedent for this “corporate-style” approach in educational leadership and little evidence to date that it produces results better than more traditional approaches to schooling.

At the same time, a consensus is emerging about how school leaders affect school performance and how important principals are to improved student learning. Yet national reform policies, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top incorporate assumptions about school and district leadership that are very much at odds with this research.

In an article I wrote, published in a professional journal two years ago, I agreed with critics of the neoliberal reform agenda. I encouraged a focus on those things that recent research suggests principals can do to improve student learning. These are, in order of importance:

  • Establish and maintain a safe, orderly school climate, where things operate smoothly.
  • Focus on parent and community support and engagement.
  • Provide instructional guidance, including an aligned and enriched curriculum, pedagogical support, and a focus on rigorous academics.
  • Establish and build trust with teachers, students, parents and the community.
  • Read, interpret and respect context – a school’s demographic, historical, political, and cultural characteristics.
  • Attend to teacher hiring, support, assignment, and retention.
  • Distribute leadership; approach leadership as a collective responsibility for teachers and parents. 
  • Encourage the use of data and research.
  • Allocate resources (people, time, money, space) in relationship to priorities.


Although these research findings could be considered obvious, they reflect the complexities of school leadership. One doesn’t learn how to do these things simply by taking graduate courses or intensive training programs. Despite the claims of alternative and “turnaround” leader-prep programs and the rise of alternate-route licensure, learning how to lead schools takes time, reflection, coaching, and seasoning.

Take, for example, the first of the 20 categories in the PDE's leadership framework, which focuses on creating an "organizational vision, mission, and strategic goals." As the list above suggests, the first thing principals need to focus on is establishing and maintaining a safe, orderly school climate, where things operate smoothly. That is what students, parents and teachers expect, and unless and until these conditions are in place, no one is going to be interested in visions, missions, and goals.

What’s notable about the recent research on school leadership is that it suggests the need to reorder the ISLLC standards and completely reshape the approaches to school leadership prescribed in No Child Left Behind, promoted in Race to the Top, and embedded in the state's new principal evaluation system. This research contradicts current policy that presumes school leaders should concentrate on supervising teachers in classrooms, considering data, determining performance incentives (merit pay and bonuses), and developing vision.

Because the amount of freedom principals have to do their jobs is increasingly constrained by the focus on test results, current policies, including the PDE framework for leadership, will have the opposite of intended effects.

Principals are being coerced into acting against their inclination to lead schools in ways that create the necessary conditions for teaching and learning, conditions that allow teachers to do good work, engage students and their parents, respond to community contexts, and improve student outcomes.

As a Philadelphia principal, I had the experience of being evaluated by District superintendents. I’ve spent almost as much time evaluating principals, as a District superintendent in Philadelphia and a superintendent in Trenton, New Jersey. I’ve also taught graduate courses in educational leadership and been involved in research projects dealing with effective school leadership.

In my judgment, the District is in no position to implement the new principal evaluation system this school year, one that pigeonholes principals as “failing,” “needs improvement,” or “proficient.” Too many supervisors and principals are new in their roles, and recent research on effective school leadership makes the case that the new state evaluation system is not likely to achieve its intended ends.

The SRC and the principals’ union should immediately apply for a waiver deferring implementation and should advocate for a principal evaluation system appropriate for Philadelphia.


James H. Lytle is Practice Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a former District administrator, and a former superintendent in Trenton.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (11)

Submitted by notebook reader (not verified) on September 18, 2014 1:12 pm

Torch makes sense here.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 18, 2014 2:37 pm

Teachers should also be part of evaluating principals.  Give teachers a truly anonymous way to rate their principals and the results would be more meaningful.  

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 18, 2014 2:28 pm

Good job Torch. The new system imposed upon schools and school systems by the much maligned PA Department of Education is regressive and backwards thinking. As you know, I have been studying and researching effective leadership and governance practices for nearly two decades now.

Quite frankly as I said on my recent posts -- democratic pratices in choosing and even choosing not to keep principals is far superior to what has been imposed upon Pennsylvania's schools. 

It is backwards thinking.

If we think that effective leadership can be reduced to a set of criteria -- we do not know very much about leadership. Effective leaders come in so many shapes and forms.

That is not to say that principals should not be rated. We just have to use a more collegial and collaborative approach.

Leadership can not be taught in a classroom, it must be learned through experience --- leadership emerges.

Submitted by Walter Spencer (not verified) on September 19, 2014 5:49 pm
Having supervised professional employees for over 35 years, there is no way these Asst. Superintendents can responsibly evaluate 30 principals each in addition to their other responsibilities.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 19, 2014 10:48 pm

I agree that it is a huge responsibility for 1 assistint superintendent to rate 30 principals, however, I do wonder, how can these "inexperienced principals" be responsible for rating teachers with a system that they themselves are not familiar with. Especially the new SLO component considering the fact that the distrist has provided no trainings on it for teachers. 

Submitted by simplyforposting (not verified) on September 19, 2014 10:45 pm

Thank you Torch. The first sensical thing you've written in some time. 

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