Revamping Our Evaluation

A school board in Michigan refocuses the work for all through a refined protocol for assessing the superintendent and itself by THOMAS OWCZAREK

Many board of education members question the importance of superintendent evaluations. Others consider it a thankless job.

During my 28 years as a member of the school board of the 3,300-student Fitzgerald Public Schools in Warren, Mich., I have participated in several evaluations and can attest to their value.

Our two-square-mile, blue-collar district has been led by seven superintendents over its 117 years of operation. The incumbent has held the position for four years. Our greatest successes in preparing our students for their future have been achieved when the superintendent and school board maintained effective communications and worked together to meet the expectations and goals for the school district.

One way to ensure everyone is working toward the same goals is through an effective superintendent evaluation process. In fact, Fitzgerald’s evaluation process has become a continuous improvement tool in our district.


Feature_OwczarekTom Owczarek (left), a school board member in Warren, Mich., for three decades, helped to craft a process for superintendent evaluation that uses color coding to identify strengths and weaknesses.

Over the Years
Fitzgerald Public Schools used the same superintendent evaluation instrument for decades. Nobody really questioned its effectiveness. Then, seven years ago, as part of an overall review of the district personnel evaluation process, the school board decided to revise the evaluation process for administrators, teachers and support staff. We discovered all evaluation instruments and processes differed from each other, and no cohesive focus seemed in place for the district to be successful.


The questions on the superintendent’s evaluation were vague and focused more on the superintendent’s social standing with staff and community than on education. In attending to adequate yearly performance standards under No Child Left Behind and standardized testing with its higher stakes, we wanted to directly link the superintendent’s evaluation to student achievement.

This was the first major change in the evaluation process in more than 20 years, and it was long overdue.

Range of Topics
The superintendent evaluation process in the Fitzgerald Public Schools began with a three-person ad hoc committee of the board. The committee — consisting of the board members who served on the policy, community relations and human resources committees — set out to verify that the district’s evaluation procedures were aligned with the superintendent’s job description and that language in the contract adequately addressed the evaluation.

The committee members also ensured all policies and procedures were included in a timeline for the evaluation cycle (see article at left) and that they adhered to board, state and federal mandates.

The committee members identified the performance criteria and the performance rating continuum and then looked closely at the evaluation instrument itself.

As a basis for their revision, they reviewed past evaluations, evaluation-related research from the National School Boards Association, board training materials and information about successful superintendent evaluation programs across the country. They also discussed what issues might be important to the community, the district and individual board members.

Based on this information, the committee compiled a set of evaluation questions that address 48 topics in seven performance standards. The 48 topics cover such areas as the superintendent’s accuracy in his/her general work, communication, diversity, innovation, knowledge, professionalism, quality, student achievement and analytical skills. The seven performance standards are vision, technology, culture, management, community/organizational needs, integrity/policies/laws/regulations and board relations.

Each year, the board and the superintendent agree on the evaluation criteria prior to the actual process, taking into consideration the experience of the superintendent and the board and the political and cultural climates, as well as student/system performance factors, including adequate yearly performance, assessment results, achievement gaps, staff development, the state of facilities and stakeholder perceptions.

Looking Within
At least a couple of weeks prior to beginning the evaluation process, the superintendent provides the board with a self-assessment of the past year, listing accomplishments, the status of the district and personal goals, and progress on community and staff-related objectives.

The self-assessment is critical to the evaluation because it reminds the board’s seven members, all from different backgrounds and with varying degrees of contact with the superintendent, what issues were raised during the previous year and how the superintendent sees his or her progress on the tasks at hand. The board members independently review the superintendent’s past performance and accomplishments and then focus on the formal evaluation.

With pencil in hand, each board member rates the superintendent’s performance on the seven standards and 48 categories. For example, one of 11 questions/statements in the section of the evaluation that addresses standards relating to vision, data and technology is:

Question: A leader promotes the success of the district by facilitating the articulation, implementation and stewardship of the district’s vision through the use of data and technology.

The board members rate the superintendent on a scale of 1 to 4 based on the following criteria:

1 — Unsatisfactory: There is no evidence that the district vision and mission are being used.

2 — Progressing: Is aware of the district vision and mission.

3 — Effective: Superintendent acts in accordance with the district vision and mission with focus on student achievement.

4 — Distinguished: Superintendent is strongly committed to supporting the district vision, mission and goals.

Board members are able to add comments to explain their ratings.

Flagging Differences
The evaluations are anonymous. Each board member is assigned a number. Once all seven members have submitted their evaluations, the board president compiles the results into an Excel spreadsheet, which includes seven individual tabs (one for each board member), summary pages and graphs.

The color coding provided by the conditional formatting makes it easy to identify when board members agree on a particular rating. When one or two members agree, the box is red; when three or four agree, it’s orange; and when five to seven members agree, it’s green. Superintendents don’t want to see green or even orange boxes in the unsatisfactory row.

When board members disagree about a rating, they have an opportunity to discuss the reasons for the rating disparities. Did some board members view the same data from different perspectives? Do the board members need more focused workshops or training in data analysis or the evaluation process? Does the relationship between the superintendent and the board need to be strengthened?

Based on these discussions, the board members collectively decide whether some or all board members should pursue specialized training offered by the Michigan Association of School Boards or whether the board should hire a local trainer or schedule a workshop so all board members and administrators can gain a more thorough understanding of a particular subject. They might even jointly evaluate the data about grades, curriculum and student achievement to make more effective decisions.

Usually the board president, vice president or secretary initiates the workshop or combines it with an administrator workshop so all key district administrators can examine a topic together.

The board chair and vice chair, or the board as a whole, depending on the board’s wishes or the content of the evaluation, meet with the superintendent in a post-evaluation conference to discuss the results of the annual assessment. In addition, the goals from the previous year are reviewed. As a result, the board and superintendent identify new goals or strategies to add to the superintendent’s list of performance goals. Finally, the board shares the compiled performance ratings at a public meeting.

The board members also complete a self-evaluation, answering questions about their effectiveness individually and as a board. But the board has gone one step further in an effort to form the best team possible with the superintendent: We have developed a school board evaluation instrument that district administrators and select staff complete.

The board uses the results of the board evaluation to develop strategies for improvement in the upcoming year. For example, past results indicated the board could improve in the areas of communications and community relations. Although we thought we were doing an effective job in these areas, we decided to redouble our efforts and added a couple of new electronic ways to reach the staff and the community.

Focus on Vision
I’ve participated in many superintendent evaluations during my almost-three-decade tenure as a board of education member, and I believe that with this restructured process, the school board members and the superintendent are more focused on what’s important to the success of the district and its students.

In addition, communication between the superintendent and the board has improved, and the board members have a better overall understanding of school district operations.

Further, because of the revision and alignment of all the personnel evaluations — administrator, teacher and support staff — overall district performance has improved. Because the evaluation criteria are linked to common goals and visions across the district, everyone is working together to achieve the same goals and vision.

Tom Owczarek, past president of the Fitzgerald, Mich., board of education, is director of facilities/environmental with Emhart Teknologies in Chesterfield, Mich. E-mail: tom.owczarek@bdk.com