About drsteverobinson

President, Southern Association of Independent Schools

The Head Evaluation: Assessing Constructs

In its fiduciary role, the independent school board has as one of its primary responsibilities the hiring, nurturing, and evaluating of the head of school.  The evaluation is particularly important because, when done correctly, it provides good clarity between the head and board around the school’s strategic goals.  It ensures that agreement is reached on the goals and objectives for a given year and that appropriate assessments of these goals are put in place.

The board is responsible for the long-term sustainability of the school, which includes regularly undertaking strategic planning.  As the keeper of the mission, the board adopts the strategic plan and expects that the plan be implemented under the leadership of the head of school.  The head evaluation is a primary means by which the board assesses progress toward strategic goals.

The head of school evaluation process should be structured to intentionally focus only on areas relevant to the board’s expectations of the head.  Boards should resist using the evaluation process for individual trustees to voice complaints that are not pertinent to the work of the head.  It is important to remember that the evaluation process is not a popularity contest.  Often, well-liked individuals are ineffective as heads while less well-liked heads can at times be very effective.  The board should assess the head on effectiveness as the CEO of the school since the board’s sole focus as fiduciary for the school is to do that which is best for the school.

The evaluation of the head is solely the responsibility of the board and should never be relegated to stakeholders outside of the board.  Confusion often exists when stakeholder groups (i.e. parents, students, faculty) are asked to rate the head’s performance.  This tends to imply that individuals other than board members have an evaluative voice.  For example when a faculty member is asked to provide input into the head evaluation process, the impression is given that his or her input is a de facto vote in the evaluation.

This reality, however, should not be interpreted to mean that the attitudes of stakeholders are unimportant.  In fact a school’s sustainability is dependent on positive attitudes from stakeholders.  These attitudes should be assessed without implying to the stakeholders that their responses are part of the head evaluation.   Stakeholder input exists for the assessment of given constructs that help the board understand whether or not goals are being met, not as direct input in the head evaluation.

A construct is a conceptual understanding of a set of more complex ideas.  It is an explanatory variable that is not directly observable such as intelligence or motivation.  Several constructs are imbedded in virtually every school’s mission and therefore are important to assess to determine if the mission is being accomplished. Life-long-learner, civic responsibility, and academic excellence are examples of a few constructs regularly found in independent school missions.

Furthermore, it is appropriate for the board to evaluate the head on various other constructs such as community relations and parent satisfaction if determined that they are important to mission fulfillment.  However, the assessment of these constructs is a process that should remain separate from the head’s evaluation even when their results contribute to the head’s evaluation.  For example, if the board agrees that faculty morale is important to fulfilling the school’s mission, this construct could be included as one of the criteria on which the head is evaluated.  However, an assessment of faculty morale should be undertaken separately from the head’s evaluation process.

Common constructs that can influence the head’s evaluation and are measured outside of the evaluation process are:

  • All mission based constructs (i.e. academic excellence, life-long-learner)
  • Leadership
  • Faculty morale
  • Parent satisfaction
  • Student satisfaction
  • Community relationship
  • Advancement of the school

Along with defined expectations, there are industry expectations that should influence the annual evaluation or in certain extreme cases provide cause for a mid-year evaluation.  The head of school is expected to act legally and ethically.  Additionally, the head is expected to know and adhere to policies established by the board, including areas such as budgetary, admissions, and financial aid policies.

Important key understandings for the evaluation of the head are:

  • The annual head evaluation is the responsibility of the board only.  It is appropriate to assess key constructs for which the head might be held responsible; however, these assessments should be undertaken with an understanding that no one outside of the board has a vote in the evaluation.
  • Boards should take special care in identifying the goals, objectives, and constructs that should be used in the evaluation process.  Upon defining these items, a plan to assess them in a reliable and valid manner is important.
  • Clearly stated goals and areas of evaluation should be defined prior to the year for which the head will be evaluated.  As much as possible the goals should be developed jointly by the board and the head; however, the head evaluation should be conducted on areas that have been defined in advance.
  • It is expected that the head act in a legal and ethical manner. It also is expected that the head of school adhere to board policies regarding the administration of all school business.

Assessing Constructs

Once the constructs to be assessed are identified, it is important for the board to agree on an operational definition for each.  This operational definition provides the basis for measuring the construct.  For example, a construct of Parent Satisfaction could be defined as the degree to which current families would make the decision to enroll in your school if they had it to do over, feel proud to be members of the school community, and encourage other families to send their children to your school.  Obviously, the assessment should be designed around the operational definition; therefore, if a commercial assessment is used, it will necessarily dictate the operational definition.

Once the construct is described, there are a variety of methods to assess them.  The school administration rather than the board itself will manage most of these assessments; however, there may be certain assessments that are more appropriately administered by the board.

Listed below are some methods of assessing constructs:

  • Surveys are commonly used which can be commercially developed or self-developed.  The surveys should be both reliable and valid so care should be taken to choose a good survey.  See (white paper on survey design) [https://drsteverobinson.wordpress.com/2011/04/12/asking-the-right-questions-tips-on-collecting-constituent-data/] and [http://www.sais.org/associations/5007/files/The Well Informed School Data collection tips.pdf]
  • Focus groups are also a good way to assess certain constructs.  To ensure the process is reliable, it is important that the facilitator be trained in focus group methodologies.
  • Personal interviews of individuals from the target demographic can also be very effective.  If interviews are conducted, it is important to create a safe environment for those interviewed to ensure the most honest responses.  It is advisable to use one interviewer; however, if it is necessary to use multiple interviewers, a highly structured process should be implemented to create a high degree of inter-rater reliability.  This addresses the degree to which each of the interviewers provides an identical or consistent experience for those interviewed.
  • School data already exists on many levels.  Data on academic achievement such as AP, SAT, ACT, or ERB scores currently exists.  Development data includes dollar amounts generated by the Annual Fund or Capital Campaign.
  • Qualitative assessment from individual trustees is, on some issues, the most appropriate measure.  It is impossible to quantify every facet of the evaluation and there are areas in which trustees should be asked to make a judgment on the head’s performance.  This should occur through a survey to board members, on which they are asked to make a judgment on the head’s performance in areas previously identified as a part of the evaluation process.  Care should be taken to ensure that the judgments are made only on areas appropriate to the evaluation and that it does not provide a forum for trivial complaints or nit picking which is irrelevant to the head’s role.

Evaluation Strategy

The appropriate evaluation strategy and preparation by the board to undertake an annual evaluation of the head of school is:

  1. Review, as a board, the school’s mission and determine what expectations are appropriate to ensure that the mission is being implemented to the fullest degree.  This could include things such as the admission of mission appropriate students, adherence to school policies, management of the board-approved budget.
  2. Review, as a board, the importance of other constructs on the sustainability of the school.  This should be a comprehensive discussion that honestly recognizes how these constructs interact with a variety of other factors.  For example, how faculty morale might be impacted by a board mandated reduction in faculty or reduction in budgets.
  3. In collaboration with the head of school, establish goals and objectives for the upcoming school year.  These goals and objectives should be central to fulfilling the school’s mission and should be measurable, either by quantitative or qualitative methods.
  4. In collaboration with the head of school, decide what data should be collected, how it will be reported, and the process of assessing the goals and objectives.
  5. Use the data to inform the head evaluation as well as the strategic initiatives of the school.

Board Evaluation Survey

Surveys are often administered to trustees seeking individual ratings for the head’s performance on several items.  This survey should be conducted after the trustees have read the head’s self-evaluation.  The areas that should be represented on the trustee survey pertain to the head’s performance and effectiveness on goals, expectations, and the generally understood areas of performance.  The board survey should likely include the following areas for the trustees to evaluate:

  • Board relationship
  • Representative of the school
  • Overall Leadership
  • Objectives and goals as agreed upon prior to the beginning of the year
  • Additional comments

Sample Head of School Evaluation Survey for
Independent School Board Members

Please respond to the following items regarding the effectiveness of the head of school on the following items:

Not at all Effective

Less Effective


Highly Effective

Extremely Effective

Working with the Board:
Participates meaningfully in board discussions

Communicates well with the board

Informs the board of independent school best practices

Generates meaningful ideas for board consideration

Provides appropriate support to the board in Strategic Planning

Representing the School:
Appearance is appropriately professional

Is appropriately visible at school functions

Is appropriately visible in the non-school community

Maintains an appropriately positive attitude

Communicates well with the school community

Is mission focused

Administers board policies

Executes the duties of Head of School ethically

Displays stewardship with school resources

Provides leadership for academic programs

Provides leadership for co-curricular programs

Provides leadership for fund raising activities

Provides leadership for campus operations

Accomplishing established goals and objectives:
<Goal 1>

<Goal 2>


Please provide additional comments related to the head’s effectiveness during the past year:

Sample Evaluation Timeline

Prior to the start of the year:  Establish jointly with the board and the head of school goals, objectives, and expectations for the year.

Prior to the start of year: Identify additional constructs or areas to be evaluated.

Throughout year:  Commission an assessment of additional constructs identified to influence the board’s evaluation.

Bi-monthly:  Board chair and head discuss progress toward goals, objectives, and expectations at regular intervals throughout the school year.

Late spring:  Request of the head of school a self-evaluation related to goals for the year.

Late spring:  Request of the head proposed goals for the following year.

Late spring:  Administer the head evaluation survey to all trustees

End of school year:  Convene board or evaluation committee to discuss the head’s self-evaluations and trustee evaluations.

Prior to start of next year:  Draft evaluation report for approval by the board.

Prior to start of next year:  Present evaluation report to head of school and establish goals for the following year.

Following presentation of the evaluation to the head:  Identify any areas in which the head would benefit from a specific professional development opportunity.

Screen Shot 2013-02-13 at 11.28.03 AM

Note This sample evaluation timeline is intended to represent the type of yearly cycle that is important in the evaluation process, not to suggest that all schools should adhere strictly to this model.  Additionally, most heads of school are on multi-year contracts and during times of contract negotiations the timeline could be altered to accommodate the negotiations. 

Growing Administrative Talent: A Case for an Increase in Internal Successions to Head of School

The ratio of external placements to internal placements in the hiring of new heads of school is drastically out of proportion.  Instead of a majority of schools hiring the new head from outside of its community, it is my belief that the majority of new head hires should come from within the school.  Indeed the search consultants, with whom I am acquainted, appear to have noble intentions in their service to schools and they appear to approach their task as true professionals.  However, it is the belief of many independent school leaders, as it is my personal belief that the proportion of new independent school heads hired from external searches is out of balance.

When an independent school undergoes a change in head of school, there is immense pressure on the board to conduct a national search.  The head search industry, as it exists today, is benefitted by national searches and short-term placements.  There is an implicit, if not explicit, message conveyed that a school only maintains respect in the independent school world if a national search is undertaken.  Boards are often left with the impression that their school will be slighted if they do not conduct an external search.

Boards are encouraged to believe that the perfect candidate for the position is somewhere outside of the school; a grass is always greener mentality.  This is not only erroneous, it could imply that the school has not considered its full range of options for succession planning and has not appropriately engaged in developing the talent of its own administrators.  For this reason, independent school boards should seek advice from a wide array of sources and listen to voices, in addition to search consultants, when determining whether or not a national search is in order for their school.

Large corporations routinely have leaders within the ranks of the management team that could assume the reigns of executive leadership, if necessary, without a drastic change or disruption to the organization.  Over sixty-percent of Fortune 1,000 companies CEOs were hired from within the organization and this percentage is perceived by many in the corporate world to be lower than desirable.(1)  Likewise, having a talent-deep administrative team, from which the new head of school might come, provides confidence to the school community and will convey that the board is concerned about the continuity of mission and long-term sustainability of the school.

The interview and search process should be handled differently when an internal candidate is being considered.  Prior to undertaking a national search, the board should first conduct a thorough review of any internal candidates and make a decision of whether or not the candidate will be offered the position.  A consultant can help guide the evaluation and review of the internal candidate; however, this consultant should agree not to undertake the external search in the event that the internal candidate is not hired.  This agreement will eliminate a major conflict of interest for the consultant since a contract for a national search is not possible if the internal candidate is not hired.  The consultant retained for the purpose of evaluating the readiness of an internal candidate should be solely focused on that task.

It also is important not to engage in just one search process when an internal candidate competes with external candidates.  When a strong internal candidate is included in the candidate pool of a national search, it poses at least three problems.  First, there is an inherent difficulty with maintaining a similar and impartial process for internal and external candidates.  The internal candidate is already known by and knows the community and therefore shouldn’t be vetted using the same methods appropriate for unknown external candidates.

The second problem occurs from the tendency of good external candidates to be more hesitant to apply for a position when they know that an internal candidate is in the pool.  The perception by potential external candidates is frequently an assumption that an internal candidate has a distinct advantage and the search is merely an exercise of due diligence

A third problem arises when an internal candidate is included in the same search pool as external candidates in that it creates a greater potential for the internal candidate to be embarrassed or humiliated if not offered the job.  Additionally, this process often strains the relationship between the new head and the internal candidate that often leads to the internal candidate moving to another school; thus, the loss of one who is often a valuable asset to the school.   Although a separate process does not guarantee that an internal candidate will remain at the school, it does provide more opportunity to “save face” if not publicly or specifically rejected in a head-to-head competition.

The current state of independent school head searches in some ways undermines our goals as independent schools.  The way searches are handled places too little value on continuity of leadership and cultural fit and perpetuates the message to strong administrators that they will need to move out to move up.  Independent schools have an opportunity to grow talent from within and should view talent development for administrators and teachers as one of the primary methods to sustain and perpetuate the mission of the school.  We lose an opportunity to foster the intense loyalty to the school that is usually developed with long-term tenure.

Without a doubt, there are times when a new head should come from outside of the school community. When the board seeks to change directions or undertake a drastic overhaul of the school or when the school needs to recover and heal from a disruptive head or traumatic event, it is often useful for the new head to bring to the school a fresh perspective.  Also, when a potential successor exists within school, there will be times when it is clear that person is not sufficiently prepared to become the next head of school.  Yet when this is the case the determination can and should take place outside of and prior to a national search.

Although to some this may seem like a radical idea.  However, when considering the value of a highly qualified administrative team and leadership that is steeped in the culture and mores of the school, it is not radical at all.  It is my hope that schools will be more intentional in the professional development of its administrative team and that more strong candidates for head of school positions will come from within. It is also my hope that in the future the first question asked by a board of trustees is which of our talented administrative team should be considered for the head position, rather than the first question being which search firm do we hire for a national search.  National searches will still be an important activity within the independent school community but it is my belief that there should be considerably fewer than presently occur.

Perhaps a new model of search consultant will emerge to supplement the current industry; those who specialize in assisting schools with the assessment of internal candidates while not undertaking national searches.  Consultants whose success is measured not in how many placements they have done or in how many candidates they have in their stable, but rather in how long each placement has thrived.

Additional steps to consider:

The first step in any succession-planning endeavor is a full examination of the cultural values of the school, the congruence of mission with all aspects of school life, and tone and tenor of the school community.  It is important that boards engage in a regular process to assess the opinions and input of stakeholders in reliable and meaningful ways so that the board is able to listen to many voices and not just the loud voices.  This is both a best practice and a basic tenet of good governance.  Understanding the culture and values of the school will allow the board to build a profile of desired characteristics, personal traits, and professional credentials for its next head of school.

The second step is for the board and the community is to understand the direction it is headed.  What are the strategic visions for the school in the next 5-15 years that will help the school continue to fulfill its mission with the next generation of stakeholders?  Understanding the strategic visions for the school will allow the board to build a profile of desired competencies and skill sets for its next head of school.

All too often searches focus more narrowly on finding the right person for the second step rather than someone who is the right person for the culture and the community of the school.  Too often boards incorrectly assume that the second is the more important of the two.

When boards are inclusive of the entire school community, then they have successfully answered the questions and they have built a snapshot of the next head of school.  This snapshot includes characteristics, personal traits, professional credentials, competencies, and skill sets.  Now, as a board charged with the continuity of mission and succession planning, they are ready to search.


1.  Charan, R. (February, 2005).  Ending the CEO Succession Crisis.  Harvard Business Review.

Independent School Students and Class Rank

The overwhelming majority of independent schools refuse to provide a class rank for students. In a recent poll of SAIS heads, 94% responded that their school does not provide a class rank on the student’s official transcript. This is a long-standing position embraced by independent schools for a variety reasons. The primary rationale is that independent school students are disadvantaged in the college admission process by being ranked within a group of students that are more selective than the overall population of students.

Colleges use rank as a variable to determine how students performed relative to other students in their school. This variable is highly predictive when the student populations are similar and adequate variance in academic ability exists. In the United States, public schools make up almost 88% of the student population. Typically, a public school student body represents a larger variance in academic ability than does a normal independent school student body. This is largely true because public schools are designed to educate all students within their district. Even when public schools have specialized programs to serve the academic high-achievers, the overall student population will provide good variance in ability, if not a normal distribution.

While non-public schools make up approximately 10% of the overall student population in the US, independent schools comprise a very small portion (1.8%). However, the independent school admission process results in a more homogenous student body on academic ability. This is an important characteristic of a mission driven school that is expected to admit only students for whom they have a reasonable expectation to serve. As a result, the range of academic ability is drastically restricted in independent schools, causing student ranks to be far less useful for predicting academic success in college.

Independent schools focus on a specific mission that is ‘owned’ by the school. Missions are not prescribed to independent schools but rather schools are free to adopt a mission to address the needs of a specific population of students. Some independent schools serve only the academic elite, some serve only students who embrace a particular faith perspective yet with a slightly broader variance in academic ability, and some serve only students with particular learning styles. This homogeneity on learning style or ability, allows schools to be more specific when educating students. Even in the schools that admit students primarily on characteristics other than academic ability, rarely is academic ability as varied as the overall population of US students.

Ranking students in independent schools will only be relevant if the distribution of academic ability among the independent school student body is similar to that found among public schools. For example, if an independent school admits only students in the 95th percentile on academic ability, it is unreasonable to assume that this population of students will distribute in a fashion similar to the larger population of all US students.

Class rank is identified in many studies as the most predictive of all variables in forecasting academic success in college, accounting for up to twice as much variance when predicting college academic success, than is accounted for by SAT or ACT scores. However, this is true only for an applicant pool of students who matriculated within a similar population of high school classmates: a population with similar range and variance. This is much easier to assume with public school students yet rarely possible for independent school graduates, given that 88% of all US students attend public schools. Even if factoring in a higher dropout rate in public schools than in other types of school, it is safe to assume that approximately 80% of those completing high school in the United States graduate from a public school.

Since class rank is often a variable in college admissions and scholarships, it is an entirely unjust representation of the student’s ability to be successful in college for independent school students when comingled with the overall pool of applicants. In reality the least ranked students in a highly selective school will regularly represent a higher probability of college success than the mid ranked students of the overall population of high school graduates. This is a matter of dissimilar populations, not a disparaging commentary on the larger public school graduate pool. Indeed many outstanding graduates matriculate from public schools; it is simply a matter of range and variance of academic ability within the populations.

Independent school college counseling staff members often believe that colleges demand a student rank to be considered for admission. Colleges do indeed prefer a class rank on the student’s transcript; however, an independent school student is more likely to be disadvantaged by a class ranking than advantaged when one is provided. Independent school students continue to gain acceptance to the top universities in the world without being assigned a class rank. Universities are accustomed to the fact that most independent schools do not provide a class rank of students and college counselors should not fear that failure to provide class rank would disadvantage their students. There is no reasonable argument for the ranking of independent schools students other than celebrating the very top ranked students – a recognition that often creates a de facto shaming of those ranked in the lower portions of the class.

When an independent school weighs the value of assigning a class rank to students the following questions should be asked.
• Is the school’s student population representative of the overall US student population?
• Does the variance in academic ability of the school’s student body reflect that of the overall US student population?
• Do the students admitted to the school look similar in academic ability to the overall US student population?
• Are the educational outcomes of the school’s academic program similar to the overall educational outcomes of all US high schools?
• Does the school believe that the last ranked student in its graduation class is similarly prepared for college as the last ranked student in the average US high school?

If the answers to any of these questions is no, the decision on whether to rank students should also be no. There is reason to believe that students who attend independent schools are not representative of the overall US student population on academic attainment or readiness for college. Likewise, there is reason to believe that the selectivity and academic quality of independent schools are not representative of all US schools.

If their students are not representative of the overall US student population then there is no reason to believe that independent schools should ever rank students. In turn, if there is no benefit for schools to rank students, the question must be asked why would an independent school put a large portion of its students at a disadvantage by rank ordering them according to academic performance. The mission driven independent school has the opportunity to sing the successes of every one of its graduates and colleges and universities have a duty to listen.