People-centred judgement in school leaders’ appraisal

Dr Kerry Earl Rinehart, University of Waikato

The people matter. In my doctoral study here in Aotearoa NZ, I asked, how does the appraisal of a school principal’s work:

  • reflect the purposes and practices of quality assessment,
  • recognise the complexity of formal and informal expectations in school settings, and
  • consider the human being undertaking this work? 

What I found was that, more than processes and procedures, it is the ‘people’ aspects of presence, interaction, and trust that matter most in the principals’ experience of being judged.

I use the word judgement deliberately to encapsulate process and outcomes. That is, the act of judging by the person in the role of judge, and/or the action on the person being judged. When I use the term appraisal I mean to draw ‘softer’ humanistic connotations (prais[e] is part of appraisal; cf. Eisner’s connoisseurship and educational criticism, 1976). Being judged and making judgements are common in human experience (see Garside who unpacks the word judgement and other terms related linguistically: assessment, evaluation, and appraisal).

In New Zealand, school boards of trustees are required to see that principals’ work is judged formally through a mandated annual appraisal process (included in Primary Principals’ Collective agreements). Parents and community members also make judgements about the school principal—and principals judge themselves. These informal judgements often feed into the formal appraisal of a principal’s work through parent surveys conducted by the contracted appraiser and processes of self-review, while continuing to influence principal work day to day.

My approach

Although formal appraisal of principals is a form of assessment and evaluation, I assumed that because the process serves dual purposes of accountability and development, it is also about growth and acknowledges principals as learners of professional practice. I utilised research in the area of educational assessment—specifically research on classroom-based formative assessment—to (re)consider aspects of appraisal through the experiences of six school principals in small rural primary schools. I wondered in what ways appraisal was a rich formative experience as well as a summative, evaluative process.

For the purposes of this study, the special nature of principalship in rural settings made more visible these principals’ experience of being judged. Rural principals have the same regulatory responsibilities as other principals but few staff; therefore, they have close regular contact with students and parents. So, the size and location of schools, as aspects of a ‘rural’ school, came to determine which principals were invited to participate in the study.

Evidence was gathered from three interviews with each of the six principals. Other material included field notes, research journals, policy documents, and copies of appraisal reports these principals shared with me. I used publicly available information on schools such as Education Review Office reports to increase my familiarity with the specific school setting of each principal’s work.

Re-presenting evidence

To represent, and present, the richness of experiences shared by the six principals and to reveal my actions as interpreter and craftsperson, I used different literary forms in my report. To show I could report in traditional ways I used quotations for the section reporting on formal appraisal. To engage my reader and connect with their own experiences of being judged I used stories to illustrate the principals’ experience of informal appraisal—being judged by parents and community members in their work. I also crafted research poems using individual principals’ words with the intention of connecting the reader to the more personal and individual experiences of principal self-appraisal.

How does the appraisal of a school principal’s work reflect the purposes and practices of quality assessment?

My study indicated that three factors of quality assessment—clarity of criteria, manageability, and consistency—are problematic in formal appraisal of principals. It was not the criteria, the workload involved in the process nor the fairness of judgements across different principals that those in my study talked about. Instead, it was the credibility of the appraiser and their interaction that mattered.

Issues with clarity of assessment criteria

These principals felt that any professional standards or criteria would only ever be a partial sample of what they do, making ‘clarity of criteria’ hard. Nor were finite criteria likely to capture what is important in their daily work.

Issues with manageability of assessment

If formal appraisal of principals is mandated by educational authorities—and in some countries it is not—then appraisal design matters because any process requires resources, not least the principal’s time and effort. If there are too many items to report against and/or too many types of evidence to gather, compliance with the process of appraisal becomes significant additional work for school principals. Both process and outcomes of appraisal of principal work impact on the principal, the school, and by extension, the education system in a number of ways.

Issues with consistency of assessment judgements

Given the diverse nature of principals, schools, communities and appraiser, consistency of appraisal judgements will prove difficult. Such consistency across diverse settings, according to some of the literature I reviewed, would also be undesirable. For example, Harry Torrance explains the negatives of ‘criteria compliance‘ and Richard Bolden and colleagues suggest that prescription in appraisal criteria leads to prescription in leader development.

How does appraisal of a school principal’s work reflect the complexity of school settings?

Primary school principals seek feedback from appraisers, and feedback from parents. Judgement of principals is not confined to formal appraisal but is ongoing and integral to principals’ daily work. Staff, parents, community members and students are constantly making informal judgements about the principal’s performance in a range of areas. People’s judgements made at this informal level highlight the significance of the community in which the principal works and their ability to ‘keep things on track’.  Attention to these informal judgements provides some evidence on how powerful the expectations and relationships of the community are in the perception of any individual principal’s success.

How does the appraisal of a school principal’s work consider the human being undertaking this work? 

Trust matters

My study indicated that the trust between appraiser and principal matters a great deal. A trusted appraiser provides principals with an opportunity to talk confidentially, ask for help and be supported. The principals in my study indicated that these opportunities for honest conversations between appraiser and principal matter more to them than the nature of evidence gathered. Interaction with a trusted other—whether through appraisal or personal or professional networks—was valued by the principals for developing self-knowledge, professional growth, and for sustaining resilience. In these ways, formal appraisal is serving a formative purpose, and is connected to principal self-appraisal and wellbeing.

Appraisal outcomes

The appraisal stories shared by the principals in this study suggested that the nature of interaction and reporting, along with any outcome in ‘recognition’, has an influence on principal agency in decision-making through the available levels of trust and support. A trusted principal will have more time to gather advice and decide on an appropriate action in resolving any issue that arises, and a supported principal will be more likely to be informed in a timely manner about any concerns. There are also implications for the principal’s commitment to her or his work and ongoing learning. The principals in this study, however, indicated that there is limited praise for school leaders and no significant recognition of an individual principal’s ‘success’ from school boards or the Ministry of Education: both the school board and the ministry function as a principal’s ‘boss’ (supervisor and employer) in terms of employment relations, reporting, and accountability. Another consequence of other people’s judgements (formally and informally) can be impact on principals’ reputations and the degree to which the principal (and school) are viewed as ‘effective and successful’.

Ways forward for appraisal of principals

Using intelligence in judgement and accountability

Appraisal clearly cannot be reduced to criteria and processes. My study highlighted the importance of personal, interpersonal and contextual factors associated with principals’ formal and informal appraisal processes. A more nuanced approach to principal appraisal could involve ‘intelligent judgement’, a term I use that deliberately draws on Terry Crooks’ work on intelligent accountability. Intelligent judgement of principals’ work would take account of the ways in which any judgement depends on the setting and circumstances. Intelligent judgement would consider the limitations, and the potential harm, of monitoring and control mechanisms.  Intelligent judgement would also recognise the principal’s human need for involvement, for connection, and for a sense of self-worth through agency and validation. In other words, intelligent accountability would involve  a people-centred approach to intelligent judgement.


On the basis of this study I suggest several recommendations:

  • Future appraisal policy makers should consider the significant value of principal-appraiser interaction. The nature of this interaction and relationship between appraiser and principal is a significant influence on formative benefits for the principal and the principal’s professional growth. This has implications for the selection of appraisers by school boards and the funding of opportunities for this interaction to occur.
  • Principal preparation and professional development programmes could specifically address the importance of school-specific daily interactions and decision-making on informal judgements of principalship. This could be done using scenario examples of the kinds of situations principals deal with.
  • Finally, more research is needed exploring the nature and influence of school communities on the judgement of principals’ work.

Kerry square (1).jpgKerry Earl Rinehart is a senior lecturer in Te Kura Toi Tangata Faculty of Education at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, Aotearoa New Zealand. Her research interests are in principals’ and teachers’ experience of the implementation of policy; educational uses of digital technologies; personal and professional judgement; and assessment. She is the General Editor of the online open access journal, Teachers and Curriculum, a publication of the Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research.

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