The right stuff

the right stuff

Michael Madrid

An effective principal selection procedure should include an assessment of a candidate’s ability to handle situations that will be encountered on the job.

When school district personnel try to fill a vacant principal position, they frequently find themselves trawling for viable candidates in rather shallow talent pools. Undoubtedly, keeping a competent principal is difficult, but “there’s the rub” in finding a good one in the first place. That is, school districts need a process for selecting candidates that will be successful on the job.

Most selection procedures are adequate in terms of assessing a candidate’s ability to withstand the rigors of an interview, but an interview is not a job. “But she was so good in the interview,” seems to be the typical lament uttered by dismayed superintendents and personnel administrators who discover the apparent weak correlation between interview performance and job performance.

The interview is not the job, but the selection process should gauge a candidate’s ability (or, at a minimum, one’s potential) to perform well. That is, an effective selection procedure should include an assessment of a candidate’s ability to deal with situations that likely will be encountered on the job. Little Lake City School District has such a selection procedure.

The Little Lake selection process

The Little Lake process for selecting school principals includes a variety of steps or elements. The steps consist of the application, a writing exercise, a portfolio presentation, a staff development presentation, a “traditional” interview and a final interview with the superintendent. The majority of the steps in the selection process require the candidate to address problems and situations she presumably will encounter if selected for the position.

When an applicant submits a completed application, she also submits a response to a writing prompt. As an illustration, a new vacancy recently occurred at an elementary school whose reading comprehension scores were less than satisfactory, and candidates were required to respond to the following:

“Standardized test data indicate that student achievement in the area of reading comprehension in grades one through three has declined significantly during the past three years. Describe the action or steps you would take to improve … reading comprehension, thereby improving test scores.”

The quality of the writing prompt response coupled with the individual’s qualifications determine whether or not the applicant is invited to interview for the position. The interview experience is a two-day event. The first day finds the candidate making the portfolio and staff development presentations. The second day’s activity consists of the traditional interview. At this stage of the selection process, confidential rating forms are mailed to the individuals whom the candidate has listed as references.

Showcasing achievements

The portfolio presentation provides a forum in which the candidate is able to “showcase” her achievements and noteworthy accomplishments. Although candidates may use any portfolio format they desire, Little Lake does recommend a specific method for organizing portfolio content. Candidates are advised to employ a portfolio format recommended by Curtis L. Guaglianone and Diane M. Yerkes, who penned “The Administrative Portfolio,” an article that appeared in this magazine (May/June 1998).

Guaglianone and Yerkes suggest a portfolio configuration consisting of the following topics or chapters:

* individual development;

* competencies and experiences in administration;

* professional development; and

* service to education and community.

The portfolio presentations are made to a panel that usually comprises a central office administrator, a principal, a teacher and an instructional assistant.

As in the writing exercise, during the staff development presentation the candidate is required to deal with an issue she likely will encounter on the job. For example, recent principal candidates were required to address the following staff development problem:

“As you prepare for the presentation, bear in mind the … district … requires … a literacy program that will: (a) make every child a successful reader; (b) enable each child to read at grade level; (c) provide coordinated interventions; (d) incorporate the assistance of … staff, parents and community … The objective of your presentation is to provide a rationale as well as a `safety net strategy’ that, if implemented, will improve and strengthen the student’s ability to comprehend what he or she reads.”

In addition to the staff development problem statement, candidates are given information regarding the length of the presentation, materials they may bring and the general composition of the panel that will be rating the presentation.

Panel members rate the effectiveness of the presentation according to a staff development presentation scoring rubric. The panel usually includes a central office administrator, a principal, a teacher, a literacy specialist and an instructional assistant.

Traditional interview questions

The candidate experiences the traditional interview the second day of the interview process. As one might infer, the traditional interview requires the candidate to field a variety of questions dealing with an array of topics. Some of the questions are posed in terms of hypothetical situations ranging from student discipline to helping first year teachers. Other questions deal with relevant instructional matters, managerial techniques and staff and community relations.

The traditional interview questions are revised each time a new principal position becomes available. The revisions ensure the candidates address contemporary, relevant issues that characterize the true nature of the assignment.

Portfolio presentations and staff development presentations are rated according to rubric criteria. A rubric-based rating system was developed because it tends to strengthen the reliability of the panel members’ ratings and it discourages the influence of “outside” factors during the rating process. Outside factors include behaviors or characteristics that tend to taint or influence a rater’s perception, e.g., voice, professional appearance, sense of humor and personality. That is not to say that voice, professional appearance, sense of humor and personality are not relevant to leadership in general, but they are not pertinent the rubric criteria.

Rubric criteria are organized in terms of four rating classifications. That is, a candidate can be deemed “highly qualified,” “qualified,” “qualified with reservation” or “unqualified.” A “highly qualified” description is indicative of a nearly ideal candidate or a nearly ideal presentation. For example, some of the characteristics of a “highly qualified” staff development presentation include a link to a school curricular goal, content that is based upon sound and current educational research, materials and props that facilitate understanding, subject matter that correlate to accepted district practice and philosophy, and a staff development evaluation component.

During the traditional interview, panel members rate candidates’ responses according to criteria that constitute “highly qualified” answers or explanations. Again, the “highly qualified” response criteria are based upon the district’s needs and expectations.

As an illustration, during the traditional interview a candidate is asked, “How would you ensure your mathematics program is meeting the needs of the students?” A candidate would receive a “highly qualified” rating if she stated she would do the following: conduct a systematic needs assessment; develop program objectives that complement state and district goals and standards; allocate resources and funds to support the program; develop a relevant staff development plan; and implement a program evaluation system that uses multiple criteria such as standardized test data, student work and teacher assessments.

Interviews with the finalists

At the conclusion of the traditional interview the panelists determine a group of finalists — usually three. A finalist is an individual whom the panel has determined to be worthy of the position. It is the superintendent’s responsibility to determine which finalist is the best person for the job.

Each finalist undergoes a comprehensive interview with the superintendent. The interview may last a couple of hours. During the interview, the superintendent poses a variety of questions. Many of the questions are developed from information the superintendent has gleaned from meetings with staff and community members that were held prior to the selection and interview process. A number of questions deal with the finalist’s philosophy and experience with respect to supervision of instruction, community relations, interpersonal skills, management skills, long range and strategic planning, professional growth and staff development.

The purpose of the superintendent’s barrage of questions is not only to confirm the finalist’s qualifications, but also to ensure that the candidate is the “best fit” for the administrative team.

Before the superintendent makes a recommendation for employment to the board, she conducts another round of reference checks. The checks are conducted via the telephone. The reference checks enable the superintendent to obtain in-depth information in addition to that which was entered on the written references. Another purpose of the reference checks is to determine how successful the candidate has been in previous assignments. Past performance is a good predictor of success.

One could easily surmise that the Little Lake principal selection process is rather complex and labor intensive. It is, but predicting job success requires effort and time. Today’s principals face myriad problems and issues, and it is essential that school districts have a means of ascertaining a candidate’s ability not only to face real problems and real issues, but to resolve them in a competent and satisfactory manner.

In the current era of high stakes accountability, the adoption of a process that leads to the selection of successful principals is imperative. To do anything less is foolish.

Michael Madrid is interim superintendent of Little Lake City School District.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Association of California School Administrators

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group