Part Two: Why Bother with Superintendent Performance Reviews?

In Part One of this series I outlined the challenges and ineffectiveness of traditional performance review processes for School Superintendents. While this begs the question of why bother doing them at all, there are beneficial and necessary reasons to do performance reviews, provided they are done well.

Many school boards have performance reviews written into their superintendent contracts, usually specifying how often they should take place and linking them with contract renewal. This is a good thing. When superintendents are being hired they should know that the board has a performance review process in place and how it works. Out of fairness to the superintendent, and to fulfil the board’s fiduciary responsibilities, all decisions to renew the superintendent’s contract (or not) need to be based on documented evidence of performance through a defensible process. However, if the performance review is poorly or irregularly done, it can not only be a waste of time, but a performance reducer and possibly, an expensive legal nightmare.

Apart from fulfilling contractual obligations, there are several other potential benefits that can come from a well-designed superintendent performance review process. Although traditional approaches have been shown to have minimal impact on performance, a process that fully engages the superintendent and is linked to pre-agreed upon outcomes can promote an ongoing dialogue and support for continuous development. As we will see later in this series, this shifts the role of the superintendent from someone being judged to that of co-identifying and building plans for professional development that are directly linked to current and upcoming district objectives. It also shifts the board out of the role of judging to one of facilitating the development of its most important employee.

Equally important, a fair and inclusive performance review process can help to strengthen the working relationship between the superintendent and the board. There is always some degree of inherent tension between the role of the board and the superintendent – perhaps not on a personal level, but by the very nature of the arrangement. The superintendent is a highly educated and experienced professional responsible for operating a complex and critically important organisation with hundreds of employees and a multi-million-dollar budget. If the board has hired the right person, nobody should know how to run the district better than the superintendent and the team she/he leads. But the superintendent is also an employee of the board – a group of elected individuals who are not education professionals and who likely have varying ideas on what the district should be accomplishing and how it should be run. Add to this the fact that many superintendents have received little or no training on the realities of working with elected boards and you have the potential for misunderstanding and mistrust. Fortunately, most superintendents and boards work through these challenges successfully, but a clumsily implemented performance review can put that relationship at risk, and certainly does nothing to enhance it.  A Dilbert cartoon that I love shows a manager giving Dilbert his performance review results by saying, “I’ll read your faults one at a time. Tell me when your performance improves.”

Related to the previous point, another benefit of a properly designed performance review process is that it can help to increase the board’s understanding of the superintendent’s role. As boards are not (and shouldn’t be) involved in the operations of the school district they are not often sure of what good work for a superintendent would look like. Conversely, superintendents legitimately may grumble about the validity of having their work judged by people who don’t fully understand its complexity.  But a process that is built on the principles of mutual learning and dialogue rather than checklists and judgement can help to close this gap – for the board and the superintendent. An inquiry approach builds understanding.

Another problem with traditional performance reviews is that they tend to be retrospective in nature, focusing on what has happened, sometimes several months or years ago. But everything we know about improving any kind of human performance is that the feedback needs to be timely and specific. A common feature in a traditional performance review is that issues are saved up for the annual review, which makes understanding and improvement significantly harder. A well-designed process has informal but scheduled check-ins to provide feedback on the previously set objectives. This provides an opportunity for understanding and correcting concerns while they are fresh, for re-enforcing positive performance, and reducing surprises and anxiety at the summative year-end review.

In addition to the above benefits, a properly designed performance review process helps to fulfil the board’s accountability responsibilities to its community. When boards are elected they assume a fiduciary responsibility of trust to oversee the running of the school system on behalf of its citizens. The board then delegates the educational and operational aspects to the superintendent. It is incumbent upon the board to ensure that these responsibilities are being properly fulfilled. Although the superintendent is the educational and operational leader the buck stops with the board. If a superintendent is failing, so too is the board. A strong performance review process provides the superintendent and the board with clear expectations, ongoing feedback, and opportunities for quick adjustments.

So far we have discussed why traditional performance reviews are ineffective and why well-designed systems are still necessary. In Part Three I will outline the key principles on which such a system is built.

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