The Superintendent's Evaluation: Bridging the Gap from Theory to Practice

By António L. Borba, Ed.D.

 April 2010AntonioBorba215px


Borba is associate professor of school administration in the Department of Advanced Studies at California State University, Stanislaus.

Recently, I worked with the superintendent and school board of a fairly large school district to facilitate the superintendent’s performance evaluation and develop a new evaluation instrument and process. The superintendent was new to the district, replacing a superintendent who had been in the district for a number of years.

As the board and superintendent developed governance norms and a strategic plan during the first year of the superintendent’s employment with the district, they agreed that the superintendent would be evaluated using the same instrument used to assess the former superintendent. The instrument was highly subjective and focused heavily on personality traits.

As the superintendent’s first-year evaluation approached, he recommended to the school board that they use an outside facilitator to help with the evaluation process. They agreed and requested proposals from three individuals, including me. I was selected to assist the school board and superintendent with the process because I had been a superintendent for 18 years, had a professional working relationship with the superintendent, and was known by several of the board members.

Except for the use of the outside facilitator, the evaluation process the board used was similar to those implemented by many school boards. After board members completed the evaluation form, the superintendent’s administrative assistant compiled their ratings and comments and shared them with me. Based on this information, I developed a document that included summary statements about the superintendent’s strengths and areas needing improvement.

The next step was a closed-session meeting between the school board and the superintendent, which I facilitated. The purpose of this meeting was to reach board consensus about the superintendent’s strengths and areas in need of improvement and to provide him with clear feedback about his performance. During the meeting, we reviewed the summary document, sought additional feedback from individual board members and reached agreement on the superintendent’s strengths and areas needing further attention. The final document was signed by the board president and placed in the superintendent’s personnel file as his official evaluation.

In retrospect, I believe the process would have been more effective if, before meeting with the superintendent, the school board held a closed session meeting to develop consensus on the superintendent's performance, as recommended by the California School Boards Association (2006). The board would have been better prepared to speak with one voice and provide clear direction to the superintendent.

During the superintendent’s evaluation meeting, the board established a sub-ommittee composed of three board members (from a seven-member board) and the deputy superintendent for human resources to revise the superintendent’s evaluation form for the following year. The superintendent requested that the new evaluation instrument be performance-based.

The evaluation sub-committee met twice and communicated through e-mail to develop the new evaluation instrument and process. As facilitator, I gathered examples of evaluation forms from other districts and met with the deputy superintendent to select the instruments we believed were consistent with the district’s goals. Based on the work from the first meeting, I developed a draft instrument, which the sub-committee members reviewed. Additionally, I met with the superintendent to keep him informed about the progress and to ensure he was satisfied with the direction of the sub-committee.

During the second meeting of the sub-committee, members revised the first draft. The second draft, which included these revisions, was sent to the sub-committee members for review. Once the sub-committee was satisfied with the instrument and process, it was presented to the entire school board for approval. The board unanimously approved the evaluation instrument for use during the subsequent school year.

The superintendent performance evaluation instrument developed for this district relies heavily on the goals established during the strategic plan process initiated and completed by the new superintendent and on his desire to be evaluated based on performance indicators. Mayo and McCartney (2004) suggest that “superintendents are serious about their jobs during this time of reform and do not object to being held accountable. In fact, they prefer regular, objective, oral, written, and privately conveyed evaluations, based on results, not personality traits" (p. 32).

Unfortunately, the literature suggests that the superintendent's performance evaluation has not caught up with the current era of school accountability (Banks & Maloney, 2007; DiPaola, 2007; Mayo & McCartney, 2004). Furthermore, many issues make the superintendent’s performance evaluation a difficult undertaking for most school board members.

A Challenging Task!

As well-intentioned and conscientious as most board members are, it can be difficult to assess accurately the superintendent’s performance. As I was working with a school board on the superintendent’s evaluation, a board member asked, “How do I know what the superintendent does? I only see him a few times a month and, with the exception of board meetings, I have very few opportunities to observe him in action.” This sentiment is probably common among many school board members charged with evaluating a superintendent.

The job of the superintendent is complex and consequently difficult to assess. Mayo and McCartney (2004) point out that the superintendent's job is dominated by meetings and myriad short interactions with board members, employees and community members. Many of these activities are conducted behind closed doors, with little opportunity for observation by a board member or other evaluator.

DiPaola and Stronge (2003) state that the current era of accountability has prompted a strong focus on performance-based assessment for educators, including superintendents. However, other authors point out that the superintendent’s evaluation process has a long way to go before it meets the expectations and requirements of the current accountability movement. Banks and Maloney (2007) declare that “most evaluation forms are merely a collection of subjective checklists that catalog approved personality traits, attributes and behaviors” (p. 10). In many cases, criteria used to measure superintendents’ effectiveness continue to emphasize ambiguous personality traits, not results-based accountability (Candoli, Cullen & Stufflebeam, 1997; Mayo & McCartney, 2004).

Although approximately 90 percent of the superintendents reported being evaluated annually or semiannually (Glass & Franceschini, 2007), about a quarter of them stated that they did not receive a summary written document. Additionally, more than 60 percent of the superintendents responded that they “sometimes or rarely are evaluated against agreed-upon criteria” (p. 89). In their study of 1,125 superintendents across the nation, Mayo and McCartney (2004) found that only 19 percent of the superintendents indicated their evaluation criteria reflected results-based criteria.

In this time of accountability, one would expect student performance to be one of the essential criteria used to evaluate superintendents’ performance. However, a 2001 survey of superintendents in Illinois, Missouri and Texas found that student performance failed to make the list of the five most common evaluation criteria used for evaluating school superintendents (Matthews, 2001). Personality traits and process skills continue to be emphasized over results-based measures, diminishing the effectiveness of the superintendent’s evaluation (Mayo & McCartney, 2004). Furthermore, superintendent evaluations continue to be informal and subjective, based more on impressions than data (DiPaola, 2007; Weber, 2007).

Other factors contribute to making the superintendent’s evaluation a challenging task. As DiPaola (2007) points out, superintendents are the only school system employees not supervised or evaluated by another licensed professional. Moreover, the lack of board members’ training and knowledge about conducting the superintendent's evaluation threatens the effectiveness and fairness of the assessments (MacPhail-Wilcox & Forbes, 1990).

Mayo and McCartney (2004) state that almost three in four superintendents reported fewer than half of their board members had the knowledge and training to conduct evaluations, and almost 50 percent of the superintendent surveyed indicated that fewer than a quarter of their board members were prepared to conduct a fair evaluation.

School boards also are challenged by the type of informal feedback they receive about the superintendents they are charged with evaluating. Typically, the most vocal complainants voice their opinion about a specific action the superintendent took with which they disagreed. The informal feedback board members receive, therefore, is often based on isolated incidents rather than an overall impression of the superintendent and can be quite biased. Because superintendents’ evaluations are frequently informal and based more on impressions than real data, these complainants may unduly influence the board’s assessment of the superintendent (DiPaola & Stronge, 2003; Peterson, 1989).

Superintendents are evaluated by three, five, seven or nine members of the school board, so the resulting evaluation is likely to include conflicting perspectives in terms of expectations and performance. To come up with one evaluation, boards tend to reach general consensus or simply compile all of the ratings and comments of individual board members and present that information as the superintendent's evaluation. Neither option benefits the superintendent because in one case the feedback is too general and in the other it is too specific and may offer conflicting direction (DiPaola, 2007).

Another critical issue that affects the superintendent’s evaluation arises when board members are elected with specific agendas, including the firing the superintendent. If this is a campaign promise, reaching a fair and unbiased performance evaluation may be an impossible task.

How does a well-intentioned board measure the superintendent’s performance under such challenging conditions?

Overcoming the Challenges of the Superintendent’s Evaluation

Although school boards face numerous challenges in conducting a fair assessment of their superintendents, they can take steps to reduce the threat of unfair, biased evaluations.

A fair evaluation of the superintendent requires congruence among district goals, the evaluation instrument, and standards that guide the profession (DiPaola & Stronge, 2003). Boards and superintendents must carefully design and implement an instrument that is performance-based and aligned with the goals and priorities of the district.

Although many different instruments are recommended by school board associations and used by school districts, each school board must tailor its instrument to fit its needs and style. It is critical that the board and superintendent agree on the instrument and process (Mayo & McCartney, 2004). The instrument also must clearly define and delineate what data will be utilized and how it will be collected (Candoli et al., 1997). The process of jointly developing an instrument that satisfies the board and the superintendent and is based on a serious conversation about the priorities of the district is likely to increase the communication between the board and the superintendent, expanding the usefulness of the evaluation process.

After the district adopts an instrument consistent with its goals, school boards must ensure the superintendent’s evaluation is based on multiple sources of data reflecting performance in the many facets of the position. Evidence may include accomplishment of goals, self-assessment, informal observations, surveys and analysis of products developed under the superintendent’s leadership.A fair evaluation system must rely on tangible, objective information about how the superintendent is performing. If not, perceptions can be skewed by a few vocal advocates or complainants (DiPaola & Stronge, 2003; DiPaola, 2007).

The Superintendent’s Role in the Evaluation Process

Conversations with fellow superintendents and a review of the literature on superintendents’ performance evaluation reveal that a reluctance on the part of school boards to conduct the superintendent’s evaluation is not uncommon (Glass & Franceschini, 2007). Often, after board members complete a superintendent’s evaluation form, the chair of the board collects the forms and summarizes the information. The board discusses the results with the superintendent during a closed session meeting. Sometimes the group establishes goals for the coming year and the evaluation process is complete for another 12 months (Matthews, 2001).

Since school boards are composed of lay individuals who often are not trained in evaluating superintendents, the superintendent must assure the process is conducted on a regular basis and does not become superficial and meaningless. Superintendents must be ready and willing to help their boards develop an instrument that is aligned with district goals, is performance-based and relies on various sources of data.

Why an Outside Facilitator?

Superintendents typically manage the development of the board agenda, so they must make sure adequate time is allocated to conduct the evaluation properly. At the same time, superintendents must be careful not to influence the process so much that it loses credibility (DiPaola & Stronge, 2003). A viable alternative is for the school board to consider using an outside facilitator to assist with the process.

Some school boards and superintendents are reluctant to hire an outside facilitator to conduct a task they have performed for many years and believe they can continue to do without difficulty. This is particularly true when districts are facing financial crises. However, as I reflect on my performance evaluations as a superintendent for almost two decades, I am convinced that an outside facilitator would have helped me to have a more positive influence on student outcomes.

I was fortunate to work with board members who respected and trusted each other and did not let philosophical or practical differences affect their positive working relationships. However, most of the time, the evaluations conducted by the school board were more positive than I deserved. As I reviewed the written evaluations and as we discussed my performance, I looked carefully for feedback that was not overtly stated in the written report or in discussions with the board members. I believe an outside facilitator would have helped create an atmosphere in which the evaluation process was a more meaningful exercise designed to improve performance, not just provide positive comments.

The responsibility of managing the superintendent’s evaluation often falls on the shoulders of board presidents. However, in many cases these individuals do not have the expertise needed to perform this task effectively (Candoli et al., 1997). Also, when several individuals are evaluating the superintendent, the results are likely to include conflicting perspectives (DiPaola & Stronge, 2003). Therefore, it is critical to have a skillful and trained individual facilitating and summarizing the thoughts of the board into a document that accurately reflects the superintendent's performance.

The Role of an Outside Facilitator

A competent outside facilitator can play a critical role in helping the school board and the superintendent carry out a process that is fair and performance-based, and that respects the views of different board members, while providing the superintendent with clear direction about the school board’s expectations (Castallo, 2003).

The facilitator begins the process by meeting with the superintendent and the school board to determine their goals, their preferred process, and whether the current evaluation instrument meets the school board’s and superintendent’s needs. If they determine that a new instrument is needed, the facilitator has the resources to help the school board and superintendent develop an effective instrument. This process includes establishing specific guidelines regarding the timeline of the evaluation process, the data that will be gathered, how it will be gathered, and who will provide input for the superintendent’s performance evaluation.

Before engaging in the process, the role of the facilitator must be clearly delineated. Will the facilitator be involved throughout the year or simply at the time of the superintendent’s performance evaluation? Will the facilitator gather the information needed for the evaluation, or will he or she be involved only after the information is gathered by the board president or an administrative assistant?

At a minimum, the facilitator should be responsible for taking the information gathered by the board president or administrative assistant, meeting with the school board members to discuss their initial input and developing a document that reflects the school board’s consensus on the superintendent's performance. It is also the facilitator’s responsibility to facilitate the presentation of this information to the superintendent during a meeting with the board president and the superintendent.

Having an outside facilitator help with the superintendent’s performance evaluation frees the board president to participate fully in the discussion of the superintendent's performance. An outside facilitator also helps avoid the need for the board president to play referee. When several individuals are involved in the superintendent’s performance evaluation, their different views and personalities will affect the process. At times, board members will strongly disagree with each other and allow their personal agendas to affect how they work with their colleagues. A competent outside facilitator has the skills to ensure that when these situations arise, they are dealt with effectively. Although many board presidents are capable of dealing with explosive situations, their actions may be perceived as being biased or favorable to one board member over another, affecting the board’s working relationships.


Conducting a fair and comprehensive evaluation of the superintendent is one of the board's most important responsibilities. A fair, comprehensive, well-implemented superintendent evaluation can improve the quality of the schools and the success of the students. Therefore, it must be done with the same level of care used to employ the superintendent.

Most districts would not consider hiring a new superintendent without the assistance of an outside consultant. Taking into account the investment boards make in their superintendent, which includes the expenditures associated with the hiring process, salary and benefits, and the possible disruption caused by the transition in district leadership, the cost of an outside facilitator is well worth it to ensure the person filling the position can effectively lead the district toward its goals.


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