Hiring and Evaluating Principals: Identifying Strong Leaders in Chicago Public Schools

A Human Emergence Group Case Study

We received a call from Executive Director of FRAC (Financial Resource and Advisory Committee), part of Chicago’s Civic Committee. They were developing new initiatives to improve the quality of school leadership in the Chicago Public Schools.

The Civic Committee of Chicago is an organization comprised of the top executives of the largest businesses in the city. It is respected as the voice of business in the greater Chicago area. These leaders know how to hire for business success, but the education system was a different beast for them.

At the time, the hiring for CPS principals was handled by a panel of parents, principals, and community leaders, called the LSC (Local School Council). 95% of principals were previously the assistant principal in their school. In other words, if a principal position was open, the assistant principal was selected by default to take on the role of principal. This shallow pool narrowed the potential for new thought and emerging leaders.

Identifying the problem, FRAC put out a proposal for two initiatives:  One to select a search firm to find candidates for principals who were not in the Chicago Public School system. The second to develop an assessment center to evaluate principal candidates.

We realized that they were missing a critical piece, however: do the Local School Council members have the knowledge, skills, and process to pick the best candidate for principal?

“The problem isn’t that you can’t tackle both your initiatives successfully,” we said, “but that you’re relying on untrained parents and community members to make the decision. Our assessment readily revealed what we suspected, that they didn’t have the background or process to choose the best principal candidate. We watched parents argue for 20 minutes about which candidate was better for their head of school and nobody’s position changed, because they had no criteria for assessing principal candidates.”

Her response was, “Yes, we’ve been concerned about that.”

As a result of our conversation, FRAC issued a third RFP (Request for Proposal): to create and implement a principal evaluation and selection process for CPS. We responded and won the proposal. Our work had just begun.

Developing a Set of Principal Competencies

The first step was to develop a standardized, structured assessment tool for the LSC to assess principal candidates. This required working through some difficult dynamics between the stakeholders simply to bring them together. Scheduling, location, and internal friction were significant factors. It took considerable influence and backing from the Chicago business community to organize a meeting of the committee itself.

Education language favors the term standards to the term competency, so our goal was to create a set of principal standards for candidate evaluation. To develop these standards, we had several participants from each stakeholder group meet. This core committee included the most highly regarded principals in Chicago, a number of LSC members from throughout the city, and educational leaders from CPS central administration.

When assessing the standards, it was important to realize that principals wear many hats. They aren’t only the educational leaders of the school, but leaders within the community they serve. They are executives who manage multi-million-dollar budgets and a team of teachers. And they are the top cop and crisis manager.

To develop the standards, we identified sixteen principals within the CPS system who were considered to be outstanding principals. These principals were interviewed, and the data were assessed using positive deviance research. Positive deviance research is an approach of looking at a community and identifying the people who are most successful: the outliers who are several standard deviations above the norm. These outliers are interviewed and assessed to determine their outstanding behavior and how it differs from most of the community. The data collected is then used to determine strategies to reinforce and perpetuate the positive behaviors in the rest of the population.

We identified outstanding and inspirational leadership qualities in these sixteen principals—stories of going above and well-beyond the call of duty. For example, in an overflow school, where parents picketed because they didn’t want their kids to attend, the principal vowed one day parents would fight for their children to enroll in her school. Several years later, she hosted President Clinton at her school when he came to give a national address on education.

From meeting with these excellent leaders and discussions among the stakeholders at committee meetings, we created a series of ten standards for principals and a series of behaviors for each standard demonstrating proficiency. We then developed a competency assessment form with interview questions and a rating methodology for the LSC to use when evaluating candidates.

We walked the parent community of CPS through the hiring process, conducting public meetings, presenting one of the top sixteen principals as a speaker and sharing the standards we planned to work toward. This helped solidify parent buy-in for the process.

Training the LSC meant we needed to imbue the members with HR skills. We tapped into our network and solicited top HR professionals from the business community to moonlight with the LSC. The HR professionals worked for a nominal hourly rate and enjoyed the opportunity to give back to their community. The HR professionals were educated in the ten principal standards, the competency assessment tool we’d developed, and how to facilitate and support LSCs in their selection process.

The initiative was successful. Local school councils had a more workable process for selecting principal candidates, and through the process they learned more about the role of principals and the requirements for success on the job.

Setting the Standard Principal Evaluation

After our success in creating standard competencies for the LSC, it became clear to FRAC, as well as those stakeholders involved in the project, that the standards we developed could be used to evaluate principals on an annual basis. The standards covered the key functions of a principal for their key duties as a leader within the school and community.

Another RFP was announced, and our proposal won. Using a similar process, we brought together the stakeholder communities again and once again created a tool to measure and evaluate how current principals performed.

There was an additional wrinkle this time, however. In the preceding principal evaluation process, principals were measured on statistics such as change in student attendance, turnover rates, and test scores. The drawback of these statistics is, they are greatly affected by outside factors: school location, demographics and more. For example, improving the attendance record of a school currently at 60% by two percent is enormously easier than it is to do so in a school with 98% attendance.

To address and resolve this issue, we brought in experts from the Education Department at the University of Chicago. They assisted in implementing scalable tools based on current measurements. No matter where the leader is, success is based on improvement and maintenance from their current position.  This was implemented as part of the principal evaluation process.

While the successful assessment program we developed has evolved with time, it’s still the core program used by CPS after 15 years.