The Head of School Evaluation: An Introduction

The responsibility for the head of school evaluation rests completely with the board.  Some boards conduct what is referred to as a “360 evaluation” of the head in an effort to collect input from many of the school’s stakeholders.  This can be a productive process in that it brings to bear many perspectives of the head’s effectiveness.  However, it can also be a very destructive process if not handled appropriately.  This 360 process should be referred to as “360 input” rather than “360 evaluation.”

The board assumes ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the school.  In light of this role, the evaluation of the head’s performance is an extremely important undertaking.  This is a role that is too often relegated to a committee or is not given sufficient attention.  The evaluation of the head should be honest, based on reliable methods, and instructive.  Each evaluation should provide the board with a set of expectations for future performance.  In reality the board can set any expectation they choose; however, if they wish to retain an excellent head of school the expectations must remain realistic and attainable.

Head evaluations should begin with clear expectations.  The head should be evaluated only on the degree to which he or she accomplishes the pre-defined objectives and on whether the day-to-day administration of the school is carried out so that the school is not jeopardized by negligence or illegal activity.  Board discussion during the head evaluation should not deteriorate into a “nit-picking” session where each board member is asked to give their opinions on the highly subjective issues such as the “way in which the head interacts with stakeholders.”  Indeed how a head interacts with stakeholders is important, but it is essential that the way this is assessed is defined when the expectation is expressed.

In addition to the industry norms of maintaining a school that satisfies the expectations of safety and lawful operation, a head of school can only reasonably be held accountable for objectives and goals previously defined by the board.  It is not reasonable for a head of school to be evaluated by a board of 20+ individual trustees when the evaluation focuses on personal preferences or personality issues.  I often state that the board / head relationship is much like a marriage; however, in every case the board / head ‘marriage’ has at least one of the partners with multiple personalities. It is not reasonable to expect a head of school to satisfy the personal preferences of all board members.

For this reason the expectations should be defined in advance.  The board must begin with an honest appraisal of expectations and what constitutes meeting those expectations.   The decisions regarding the future employment and compensation of the head must be tied directly to satisfying the defined expectations.  It is okay for boards and heads to have personality differences, even to the point of not being personal friends, as long as the interests of the school are being served.

Because the board selects and provides strategic direction to the head, only the board should be conducting the evaluation.  It is not uncommon for the board to direct the head of school to implement an unpopular or challenging strategy as a result of tough decisions the board might make.  The head of school should not be seeking to sway public opinion, but rather leading in a way that serves the best interest of the school. The head’s evaluation should never be a popularity vote but rather an effectiveness vote.  The board’s sole focus on evaluating the head is whether or not the head is meeting the performance expectations of the board.

And while performance expectations could include maintaining  a “happy and contented student body” as measured by a student survey, I do not recommended that students be asked to assess how effectively the head is running the school.  Indeed most of the stakeholders will rarely understand the board’s performance expectations of the head.  By extension, I suggest that not even the faculty will completely understand the performance expectations of the head.

For boards that choose to employ a 360 evaluation, yet another concern rests in how it is interpreted.  The board must be prepared to interpret the responses appropriately and not succumb to a temptation to take each individual response as cause for concern.  When such broad input is sought for an evaluation, a single response rarely represents reality.  Rather a pattern of responses should cause concern and warrant further scrutiny.  I suggest that there is likely not a head of school that would have no negative comments lodged against him or her if all stakeholders were given an opportunity to evaluate them.  This fact does not minimize the value of a broad-based input model, but rather gives rise to cautions for board members when interpreting such evaluations.

It is clear that a school operates at maximum effectiveness when both the head of school and the board operate effectively.  This occurs when communication is honest and clear, goals are collectively developed and understood, and the head of school and trustees understand that their role should be entirely focused on the students that the school serves today and in the future.  The board and the head must have open and honest communication, if for no other reason than for the sake of the children.

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