An open-records project by the Bluegrass Institute reveals superintendent evaluations by school boards in low-performing school districts in Kentucky exclude academic performance from the criteria and fail to hold top administrators accountable for poor student outcomes.
“Rewarding Failure: The Rubber-Stamping of Kentucky’s Superintendent Evaluations” highlighted four of the superintendent evaluations the organization sought through open-records requests from school districts that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law for at least two consecutive years.
Three of the evaluations were from districts failing to make AYP for at least eight consecutive years.
Academic Performance Missing
The report, released in January, published photo reproductions of the evaluations, which were taken from large and small districts across the state, including Jefferson County, home of Louisville and the state’s largest school district with 98,000 students. Often missing in the evaluations were references either to historical academic results or objective goals and detailed plans for future improvement.
The Jefferson County Board of Education’s 2008-09 evaluation of Superintendent Sheldon Berman’s performance included recommendations from Berman himself about how trustees should evaluate him. The performance evaluation made no reference to the district’s 41 schools that failed to make AYP in 2009, nor did the review note Kentucky’s Department of Education ranks Jefferson County among the state’s 13 persistently low-performing districts.
In its evaluation, the Jefferson County board praised Berman, whose annual salary is $260,000 plus benefits, for his talent as “an engaging public speaker” and in labor relations.
“Private sector job evaluations are usually based on measurable, quantifiable results,” said Logan Morford, the Bluegrass Institute’s vice president of transparency initiatives. “We aren’t seeing that in superintendent evaluations. What we do see are favorable evaluations in districts falling short of even the most basic standards year after year.”
Some of the evaluations were handwritten and included few comments.
The Knox County Board of Education’s assessment of the strengths of Superintendent Walter Hulett included incomplete, handwritten phrases, such as, “Good people skills, good organization, visionary, great work ethic.”
The only comment included under Hulett’s “weaknesses” was: “Too trusting.”
Knox County has been embroiled in a school-choice controversy with the higher-performing Corbin Independent Schools, the subject of ongoing litigation. Only 15 percent of the district’s high school juniors met ACT benchmark scores during the 2009-10 school year. Neither of those facts was mentioned in Hulett’s evaluation.
School Site Councils Criticized
A longtime educator says superintendents aren’t the only ones to blame for low-performing school districts. Members of the districts’ School-Based Decision-Making Councils (SBDM), Kentucky’s school-management bodies, also should be subject to greater accountability in light of their immense authority, says Richard Ratliff, a retired superintendent who spent 28 years in Kentucky’s schools.
“How can a superintendent be effectively evaluated now with this SBDM model?” asked Ratliff. “He doesn’t have sufficient authority in hiring the principals or the teachers—the people that do, in fact, affect a school’s instructional program the most.”
SBDM councils also have control over scheduling schemes, which puts superintendents at a big disadvantage, Ratliff explained.
“At the high-school level, the council’s persuasion is very important. They can go with block scheduling, which drops instruction time by 30 percent but is highly recommended by teachers unions,” he said. “It gives teachers more time for planning and consulting, but I think it’s too much time.”
Ignoring Academic Performance
A follow-up project by the institute suggests academic performance isn’t high on the list of SBDM councils’ agendas in low-performing districts.
For example, a review of last year’s meeting minutes of the council in charge of Heritage Elementary School in the Carter County district in eastern Kentucky indicated meetings averaged 30 minutes, with the longest being 50 minutes. These documents also show most of the council’s discussions involved bake sales and other fundraisers, with no discussion of student achievement or curriculum.
Carter County Superintendent Darlene Gee’s 2009 evaluation indicated she “meets expectations,” without noting the district remains among the state’s 13 persistently lowest-performing districts.
Research included in a National School Boards Association report released in February suggests board members’ priorities may differ from assumptions of parents and communities.
The report, coauthored by Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, was based on survey responses from 900 school board members and 120 superintendents from 418 school districts. Despite “all the contemporary focus on college and workforce,” Hess and his team found 16 percent of the board members and superintendents ranked preparing students for college as the least important of six education goals, and about the same number ranked preparing students for the workforce as least important.
A challenge in using a site-based management approach is in “aligning authority and accountability,” Hess said.
“In a site-based council environment, where a committee of people are making decisions but ultimately are not accountable—or where accountability is not clearly indicated—then you have set the table for a dysfunctional environment,” he said.
Jim Waters ([email protected]) is vice president of policy and communications for the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Logan Morford: “Rewarding Failure: The Rubber-Stamping of Kentucky’s Superintendent Evaluations,” Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, 2011: http://www.heartland.org/schoolreform-news.org/Article/29613/
Frederick M. Hess, Ph.D., and Olivia Meeks, “School Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era,” National School Boards Association, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and the Iowa School Board Foundation, 2011: http://www.aei.org/docLib/HessFeb2011.pdf