Part 3: Six Essential Principles in Superintendent Performance Review

In Part 2 of this series I outlined the benefits of conducting performance reviews for school superintendents, provided they are done well.  Today’s post will discuss six essential principles that need to be embedded in the process if those benefits are to be realised.

  1. The Shared Responsibility for Student Achievement

The most important partnership a board has is with its superintendent.  Together they have a mutual responsibility for improving achievement for all students. This is their top-most duty. Everything else flows from this – district policies, superintendent responsibilities, staffing, school configurations, transportation, you name it. If ultimately it’s not linked back to improving student achievement, it’s not part of the superintendent’s or board’s job.

This relates to the performance review process in two important ways. Firstly, the content of any performance review for the superintendent has to be linked to improving student achievement in a clear and significant way. This is just one of the reasons I don’t prefer performance reviews that consist of a large number of check-list items. They focus on breadth rather than depth, seducing boards into a false sense of having a comprehensive process. They also risk minimising the role of the superintendent into a series of operational tasks and vaguely described dimensions of leadership. I believe it is preferable to select a small number of items that are significant to the current context. Focus on what is going to make the biggest difference over the coming year.

The second outcome of this principle of shared responsibility is that the performance review itself is a shared responsibility. This means that the superintendent should be fully engaged in the development and implementation of the process (more on this later) and that the results of the review reflect on the board as much as the superintendent. The performance review is a critical opportunity to determine how the superintendent AND the board are doing in their primary purpose of improving student achievement.


  1. Aligning Vision and Action

Every year every board should be reviewing and revising its strategic plan. Unfortunately, for some boards, this can end up being a motivating weekend that produces flipcharts full of inspiring visions and goals that don’t actually drive decisions and actions throughout the rest of the year. It’s not intentional. All kinds of things get in the way once everyone is back from the strategic planning session – life gets busy, agendas get packed, new issues crop up, money gets tighter. More frequently it is because the goals are not translated into action plans that are then monitored throughout the year.  This post is not intended to be an essay on strategic planning (perhaps another day) but there is an important connection with the superintendent’s performance review.

Almost every goal a board may have has to be actualized through the superintendent and staff. While there are an enormous number of tasks related to running a school district, the superintendent’s actions should be aligned with the previously identified strategic priorities – not just obliquely but in a direct and identifiable way. If not, how are any of the board’s goals from the strategic plan going to get accomplished? Therefore, the content of the performance review – the outcomes and competencies being reviewed – should be clearly linked to the strategic plan. This makes the performance review process an important tool in helping the board align its vision with the superintendent’s actions. Remember the old saying – what gets counted counts.


  1. Focus on the Future, Not the Past

This principle underscores one of the significant weaknesses of traditional performance review tools – they tend to be retrospective, report card-style processes assessing performance over the past year (or longer). Looking at past performance does have value – we clearly need to talk about what was accomplished and how – but that is only useful if it helps both the board and superintendent plan for the future.  With students, we differentiate between summative and formative assessment. Summative assessment, as the term implies, is a summary of how the student did over a period of time, often documented through a formal report card.  Formative assessment is smaller in scale, more frequent, and intended to help guide the teacher and student in what needs to happen next. If we assume that one of the main purposes of performance review is to support and build future performance, then it is helpful to include both formative and summative parts in the overall process. How we can do that will be discussed in later parts of this series, but for now, the key point is that we want the performance review to be future focused, not just a look in the rear view mirror.


  1. It’s an On-going Process

Traditional performance reviews are usually events rather than processes. They might be conducted annually but they usually are completed in a few weeks. This may be appealing to busy boards and superintendents but it is one the main reasons why they have limited impact on performance. First of all, it sends the wrong signals – that we are only going to pay attention to this once a year. It also assumes that everyone providing input to the review has full and accurate recall of events over the past year. There is no way to take a formative approach when the feedback is provided only once a year.

If the board and superintendent are serious about building performance it has to be an ongoing, year-long process rather than a single event.  Don’t be alarmed by this timeline. It actually requires no more time than the more intensive once-a-year traditional approach – it’s just spread out. Subsequent posts in this series will outline the process in greater detail, but briefly it involves three main phases: determining at the beginning of the cycle which tasks and competencies on which to focus in the coming year; scheduled informal check-in sessions two or three times over the year, and; a year-end summative session that documents progress over the past year and kick starts the next cycle.  This is far less onerous than it sounds and brings a multitude of benefits, not the least of which is a strong commitment by board and superintendent that this is important and worth doing well.


  1. No Surprises

As mentioned in the first post in this series, performance reviews produce a lot of tension, particularly so for superintendents. They are at the pinnacle of their education careers, have dedicated themselves to years of academic and professional development, and perform complex roles as education and administrative leaders that few who have not done the job can fully appreciate. The traditional performance review usually culminates with a written report and feedback session that is received with no less trepidation than a student on report card day. What will it say? What will they like – or not? It is the not knowing that produces the tension and sometimes resentment.  A well-designed performance review process is built on the principle of no surprises. This is accomplished in two main ways – mutually agreed upon criteria and increased feedback frequency.

The first step is deciding on what performance will be reviewed in the coming year. Most importantly, this selection must include input from the superintendent. The superintendent most likely has a better idea of the tasks and competencies required by the role than the board, particularly if you are going to focus on a limited number of criteria as recommended above. This is not to suggest that the selection of the criteria is left entirely to the superintendent, but that the selection is done by the board after considerable dialogue with the superintendent on what is really going to be important in the coming year.

The second way to reduce surprises is to build scheduled but informal check-ins into the process as mentioned above. If the board has any concerns regarding the superintendent’s performance it is far better to bring them forward sooner rather than later. This provides time for modification if necessary and reduces anxiety because it is not a formal one-shot deal. Performance review is too important to be treated like a year-end exam.


  1. Done “With” Not “To”

This principle underscores the partnership between the board and the superintendent. Put simply, the superintendent should not be a passive subject of the review. She/he should be fully engaged not only in helping to determine the criteria to be included but also how best to identify and collect the information throughout the year. In fact, the superintendent probably does more of the work in the process than the board. The board is basically asking the superintendent to recommend what good work will look like over the coming year and how it will be demonstrated and documented. This principle emphasises the governance role of the board in guiding and monitoring the work of the superintendent rather than micromanaging it. It shows Srespect for the professionalism of the superintendent without abdicating the board’s responsibilities as an employer. Most importantly, it not only builds better performance but also a stronger working relationship with the board’s most important employee.

In next week’s post, I will outline the three phases of this performance building process.

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