Making Superintendent Evaluation Fun?

The author’s organic appraisal system revamps the dynamics of board behavior and eliminates much of the angst by PAUL L. VRANISH

The evaluation of a superintendent is often a stressful, unpleasant experience for both the superintendent and the members of the school board.

Typical board trustees have little experience in evaluating CEOs. Worse yet, they are hamstrung by the limitations inherent to their roles. They lack the advantage of a day-to-day working relationship with the superintendent, so they must estimate performance based on school district data and sometimes hearsay from patrons or employees.

On the other side of this process is the superintendent, who navigates the top executive position, performing many unheralded tasks necessary for the schools’ smooth operation, matters that likely fall off the radar screen of the evaluating board. How frustrating it is to be evaluated by individuals who may be passionate about topics that interest them, yet may not have a full appreciation for the totality of the superintendent’s overall work performance.


Feature_VranishPaul Vranish (left) has been able to eliminate much of the stress associated with performance evaluation by the school board.

Paradigm Shifting
It is easy to change this tense environment if the board and superintendent will simply alter some of the paradigms. These paradigms often promote a fallacy that the board is “holding the superintendent accountable,” and bring tension to the process. Some of these paradigms are traditions — often actively promoted at school board training sessions — and thus hard to break. They are toxic to the board’s relationship with the superintendent and actually weaken the board’s overall influence relative to the direction and operation of the school district.

Many superintendent appraisals are generic, contain difficult-to-rate subjective items and lack ongoing communication during the process. The approach I designed several years ago broke age-old evaluation traditions, improved trustee participation and built group trust.

An effective trustee is one who can point to accomplishments during his or her board service. A strong superintendent will support board members who seek consensus on the board and strengthen their input as trustees.

The superintendent’s evaluation can serve as a mechanism for the board-superintendent team to actually get things done.

Nightmare on the Floor
During my first superintendency, I had achieved several notable feats after just a single year. The school district had accomplished an exemplary rating, the highest given by the Texas Education Agency and the district’s first ever. We had finished the year with a budget surplus after two years of deficits under my predecessor. Under my personal supervision and work we had set up a wireless wide-area network to provide network connectivity among our remote complexes. In short, things were happening, and we were moving forward.

The evaluation experience already had been unpleasant for me in this district. In January of my first year, the traditional month to evaluate superintendents in Texas,
I had drawn two votes against extending my contract. The board president, one of the five most dishonest people I have known in my life, had led the effort against my contract. He went so far as to falsify an analysis of an anonymous survey of direct-report subordinates with his fellow trustees in executive session, out of my presence.

When I was called in for the summative conference, I didn’t have a vote in the room. What saved that night and resulted in a 5-2 vote in my favor came about when I suggested he open the envelope with the surveys and show them to everyone. He refused but then changed his mind at the threat of a physical beating by an 18-year board veteran. Only one of 17 surveys had any indicator rated negatively — and only three of 22 indicators were rated negatively on that one! He got caught in a blatant lie and could only persuade his close colleague to vote with him against my extension. I must confess I would have rather seen the beating than win the vote.

The evaluation experience of my second January with that district was even worse. As this day approached, I was feeling stressed due to the prior experience. But given the great track record of the completed year, I was hopeful this time around it would be better.

The night started off with a call to my wife and me as we awaited the beginning of the meeting in my office. We received the grim news that my father-in-law’s stomach problems had been diagnosed as inoperable cancer. It was with a heavy heart that I opened that 7 o’clock meeting. There were 50 or more individuals in the audience, an unusually large group, who were there in my support as rumors of shenanigans planned by some trustees had been circulating. We completed the business briskly, and the board adjourned into executive session at 7:24 p.m.

The trustees’ behavior exhibited that night was, in the view of many, sleazy. They remained endlessly in executive session. Every now and then one would come out to use the restroom, always checking on the remaining size of the crowd in the board room — which had remained remarkably stable.

After several hours, several astute members of the audience directed the group to remain silent, and they turned the lights out. Sure enough, after one more trustee bathroom trip, the board returned to open session only to turn on the lights and be greeted by 42 angry patrons who were laying on the floor, many of them sleeping. The board had been cloistered for eight hours exactly to the minute. They hastily extended my contract unanimously, but the board president announced, “We have not yet finished the superintendent’s evaluation.”

A prominent community leader immediately stood up and stated, “Mr. President, if you cannot lead this board to finish an evaluation of this superintendent in eight hours, after the district’s first-ever exemplary rating, then you need to resign.” The crowd went wild with applause, I won the battle, but the war was lost. I left that district within a year.

It would have been easy to correctly identify the substandard behavior of these individual trustees and move forward emotionally using that assessment as “The Answer” to what went wrong. Choosing to be more reflective, I identified the dynamics of the process that nurture substandard behavior in board members relative to their relationship with and assessment of the superintendent.

Organic Evaluation
Picture this: You are attending a home game of your high school’s basketball team. The other team shoots and misses. A hometown player sweeps the rebound from the glass and passes to a guard leading the fast break up the middle of the floor. At the free-throw line on the opposite end of the court, the guard fakes a pass left and throws a pass to the right. Another hometown player catches the pass, leaps to the basket and slam dunks the ball home. The hometown crowd goes wild!

Did it ever occur to you that you just watched an example of spontaneous, organic evaluation? That crowd said, “Yes, we like that. Please do more of it!”

Think about this basketball paradigm and how it compares to the superintendent evaluation process. Superintendent evaluation so often is negative — whereas organic evaluation fixates much more on reinforcing positive outcomes.

This concept is the first area of consideration when building a superintendent evaluation instrument. Simply put, construct performance indicators that are structured and worded like marching orders. Let the wording reflect what is expected (what “good” would look like) and what the board members will need to see to ascertain that good has been achieved.

If the board and the superintendent participate actively together in writing these indicators, there will never be a misunderstanding as to the board’s expectations. Scoring becomes exceptionally easy due to the predetermined outcome expectations. If constructed properly — either something happened or it didn’t — the scoring becomes far more objective and less influenced by perceptual bias.

Break Old Habits
Think about the scoring system you use. Do you have numbers, as in “Five is great and one is low”? How many times have two board members argued, wasting considerable time on a late night, over a trivial point about whether an indicator merited a 5, near perfect, or a 4, really good.

Worse yet is the scenario of cannonade arguments that should be set to the music of the “1812 Overture.” Two trustees think the grade is a 5, two members think it is a 1, and three others have gotten bored with the long exchange of verbal shots across the table. In the end, someone will point out the average is a 3, and the argument will cease, but the superintendent will view this 3 in the same context as a unanimous 3. What information can he or she use as a basis for future performance improvement?

This foolish tradition makes the board weak. The practice of scoring with numbers should cease. If there is an effort to end the superintendent’s employment, a savvy attorney will point out that the evaluation’s average is at least average or above.

Instead, use word indicators: above expectations, meets expectations, below expectations — or similar terms. Declare philosophically that the appraisal is not averaged; every indicator is important by itself. This method will stop most of the board members from arguing over nuance, and it will certainly reinforce the importance of each indicator on the document.

Another tradition I would suggest be rethought is the board’s exclusion of the superintendent during the initial discussion of the assessment. Think about this custom in light of another custom pointed out in the “1812 Overture” example. Can you see how such a practice actually makes the board weak? How would the superintendent in that example ever know what were the competing schools of thought? How would he or she be able to approach the issue differently in the coming year — using an approach that may be acceptable to all trustees?

By excluding the superintendent from these discussions, the board members exhibit a few negative behaviors. They maximize the chance their CEO will not understand some of their valid concerns. They become the only evaluating entity in the school system that uses anonymity in assessment (a poor moral example for others), and they subliminally skew the supervisor-employee hierarchy. By this, I mean the board is the boss, so why would it need to hide from the employee?

Before including the superintendent in these discussions, set the ground rule that the superintendent is a spectator, not a participant, unless asked to join in on a specific topic. It is important for the superintendent to hear the flow of the discussion. Doing so will open opportunities for the superintendent to make changes that satisfy the entire board.

Another change to consider should only be implemented when the board-superintendent relationship is on solid footing. This change will serve both parties well should the relationship go sour.

Consider a major cause of stress in the evaluation process. The board evaluates and then votes up or down on a contract. The board may have genuine concerns that are expressed in the evaluation, but the superintendent often is hostile to the criticism. Why? Because the ability to keep one’s job and make one’s car and house payments are important. When this is threatened, any individual naturally becomes hostile and resistant to criticism.

A board can easily change that dynamic. A board that wants to be supportive can deal with the superintendent’s contract at one meeting and then evaluate at the next. Watch the tension ease, watch the superintendent be much more receptive to criticism, and notice now much less toxic the environment is. Why do I often find resistance to this suggestion when giving presentations? Because it has always been done another way!

Successful Result
This evaluation method is designed to greatly increase board member involvement in both understanding the rationale for current district operations and using this understanding to become more effective when offering suggestions during planning of future school district endeavors.

Since implementing this superintendent appraisal system in Tornillo, we adopted a similar appraisal approach for all school administrators. As a result, we’ve seen our administrator turnover drop to virtually zero, our teacher turnover drop from a 48 percent rate to single digits, and test scores go from a three-year rating of low performing (and a threatened state takeover of the district) to the area’s highest passing rate on state-mandated assessment for the last four years.

And, notably, board trustees, in surveys, consistently say they feel valued and an important part of the school district’s success. Yes, sometimes superintendent evaluation actually can be fun!

Paul Vranish is superintendent of the Tornillo Independent School District in Tornillo, Texas. E-mail: VranishPL@tisd.us