Sharing Craft Knowledge: The Soul of Principal Peer Assessment
DR. JAMES E. ABBOTT, Principal 153rd Street School Los Angeles, Calif.. Two school principals sat in the corner of a school library on a late November eve, engaged in a passionate conversation about improving their professional leadership skills. This dialogue opportunity, duplicated by several other principal teams participating in a Principal Peer Assessment model, was the outgrowth of a concept I originally presented during the summer of 1993 to Gabriel Cortina, then Region Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). My motivation for a different process was that the district-mandated evaluation system (Stull process) did not encourage the professional growth of principals. The Stull Evaluation process was both mindless and meaningless to anyone who desired to achieve true professional growth. I wanted to create a vehicle to tap the bank of collegial talent present in our administrative leadership community. To do so would require reinvention of the existing assessment mechanism and visionary, top-level district leadership. School principals deserve a forum to promote the sharing of the priceless, qualitative, reflective knowledge they possess about their craft. Intelligent study of how to improve the principalship within our ranks can unleash a megacommunication that allows participants to explore vast new territories of professional development. The thrust of this megacommunication is to promote optimization of the learning process. The creative approach of peer assessment offers some hope for the contemporary beleaguered principal. Some success with teacher peer-assessment ventures has been well documented. Why couldn't it work with school principals? Blueprints for a New Ark Dr. William Ouchi, formerly of the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and Robert E. Wycoff, Chair of the LEARN (Los Angeles Educational Alliance to Restructure Now) initiative and President Emeritus of ARCO (the oil co.), introduced the original concept of a New Skills Profile for school principals as co-chairpersons of a LEARN sub-committee in the spring of 1993. They produced a written skills profile that was, to the best of my knowledge, never seriously considered for implementation by anyone in our school district. This excellent document sat nestled on a printed page in a LEARN manual doomed to utter obscurity, until I chanced upon it. I was intrigued by the idea of employing many of these skills as learning tools for an unprecedented peer-assessment process for school principals. Properly inspired, I augmented the original profile items with some ideas of my own and conceived of a framework for implementation aligned to Total Quality Management (TQM) practices. A team of principals was formed to establish parameters for activation. The agreed-upon procedures were then presented to Cortina and the initial steps for peer-assessment procedures were initiated for the 1993-94 academic year. The main emphasis was for principals to construct some personal meaning for their professional development for the year. Now enjoying its fourth year of operation, over 50 school principals have participated in this basic model in our school district. Climbing Aboard the Ark The revised New Skills Profile areas of craft knowledge are charted below. These were deemed as essential skills by my "development team" for principalship in the 21st Century: Principal New Skills Profile Knowledge of Best Teaching Methods Leadership Budgetary Competence Networking Skills Technological Literacy Teaching Communication Application of Best Leadership Practices Conflict Resolution Skills Diversity Skills Systems Thinking Disciplines Total Quality Management Principles With the able assistance and stewardship of Cortina, exemplary principal practitioners (Master Practitioners) were nominated and incorporated in the first cohort. The initial cadre of volunteers willing to enhance their professional skills with the new assessment practice numbered 18. They were asked to identify one to three skill areas that they wanted to improve during the school year. From a list, they also selected Master Practitioners, who had expertise in selected skill areas, to work with during the year. These principals, working in teams of two to four, made a Learning Family. A unique collegial personality emerged during that first year. From the beginning, it was understood that sincerity and trust would be the underpinnings of a successful model. This venture was definitely a voyage into uncharted territory. It would add a new and fuzzy dimension to the professional and personal associations colleagues had developed and maintained over prior years. It would take all of the collective energy, mutual respect and enthusiasm of the team for this newly designed enterprise to work. Indeed, in retrospect, it was fervor for the project that kept the embers burning and the process constantly moving forward. A unique collegial personality emerged during that first year; interconnectedness and associations were both sought out and valued. The collegial alchemy that developed was the end product of an innate electricity born from working collaboratively. The opportunity to dialogue about how to improve practice, explore impasses, identify resources and build shared meaning resulted in transformational change for the entire community of participants. A View from the Ark Pre-assessment conferences were held to establish growth expectations and determine how support would be most effectively provided. Quality indicators were agreed upon to measure improvement. Some of the methods chosen for confirmation of successful realization of goals were: 1.Establishment of a Working Portfolio 2.Empirical Observations 3.Self-Reflective Journals 4.Peer-Coaching Opportunities 5.Written Pre- and Post-Assessments By mutual agreement, a post-assessment conference would be held at the conclusion of the academic year with Master Practitioners offering feedback on the progress achieved by the volunteer principals. A written essay, composed by each volunteer principal, would be subsequently filed with the Region Superintendent to comply with state mandates. The Voyage The complete process was aligned with practices first conceived by Total Quality Management (TQM) forefathers W. Edwards Deming and Walter Shewhart, in their ingenious PLAN-DO-STUDY-ACT cycle. This would be the framework for the peer-assessment operation: PLAN The initial "plan" phase for peer assessment was a direct result of principals expressing dissatisfaction with the existing evaluation process. LAUSD principals heard the rhetoric of reform, but seldom noticed meaningful results. In this instance, they decided to stop following a dance routine that was going round in circles and to take a venturesome leap onto a new paradigm path of self discovery. DO Eighteen principals volunteered for the initial process. In this "do phase" they engaged in collegial sharing. Several principals thought this was the most valuable aspect of the operation. One noted, "I increased my commitment to reach my goals because of the absolute commitment I perceived on the part of my team members." Another principal stated, "The freedom to explore new dimensions of leadership was great. I found out that it was o.k. not to know everything, because the Master Practitioners I worked with told me they had areas that they wanted to improve upon also." STUDY This component of the cycle encouraged clarification of goals and processes by the teams. To become reflective practitioners, principals had to have the opportunity to share their craft and access important feedback from colleagues. Team conversations offered the context for inquiry, sharing and learning. The glue that bound the principals together into powerful learning teams was the relationships that were nurtured during their sharing of craft practice. The volunteer principal's application of new knowledge was reinforced during these dialogue sessions. By openly conversing about problems and successes, trust among all participants slowly evolved. This transferring of "concept to practice" was pioneered and cultivated in extensive dialogue sessions, which occurred on a regular basis. ACT The "act phase" of this quality learning system took place in a final, year-end meeting to which all Master Practitioners and volunteers were invited in June of 1994. (The act phase determines which format revisions or adoptions are to be made in the process for subsequent years.) A year-end survey was passed out at this meeting and dialogue ensued about the strengths and weaknesses of procedures. These recommendations were then cycled into the new framework for 1994-95. Our 1996-97 model is the result of three years of PLAN-DO-STUDY-ACT cycle refinement. The most prominent point of consensus about a weak point was the lack of time for participants to properly engage in face-to-face meetings. The other main point of contention was crystallized in the recommendation that future volunteers limit themselves to attempting to improve in only one skill area during the year. It was agreed that it was unrealistic for quality improvement to occur for those who had chosen two or three skill areas. The most favorable response was that all 18 principals wanted to do the process again, in the 1995-96 school year, when their next district-mandated evaluation would transpire. Other commendatory remarks included: "I enjoyed being able to take control of the process." Another stated, "The one-to-one relationship with a colleague enhanced my personal growth to a level I thought to be impossible." One 14-year veteran stated, "I worked harder on this and got more out of it than any endeavor I ever participated in as a school principal." Still another declared, "It was great to go through the process -- to develop quality indicators to validate ourselves as professionals. I am a better principal now than when I started because of this process." The bonding, in a safe and trusting environment, was an added plus that lent to the venture's success. The Soul of Transformational Change By searching for personal self-mastery, participants clarified how to improve practice and broadened their visions of new possibilities of professional development. Organizations can learn only if individuals in them are engaged in profound learning opportunities. And the very soul of learning lives in the renaissance experience of self discovery. The peer-review process proves that intrinsic motivation is the most important aspect of transformational change in any organization. The collective enthusiasm and desire of the participating principals to improve the process, and their unanimous commitment to volunteer for the assessment model again in two years, was a testament to the enterprise's value. Dr. Gordon A. Donaldson, co-founder of the Maine Academy for School Leaders, has incorporated aspects of my PLAN-DO-STUDY-ACT conversational framework cycle in his future academies. He was intrigued by the alliance of principals in intelligent study that expedited the transfer of craft knowledge. Donaldson sees the transfer-to-practice aspect of sharing craft knowledge "as the toughest nut to crack." Craft Knowledge is a concept brilliantly coined and developed by Dr. Roland Barth, Professor Emeritus of Harvard University. He thinks that because the sharing takes place in dialogue or conversational situations, without the benefit of producing "hard science" data, many people in the education community do not think these engagements deserve legitimacy. But Barth believes the sharing of craft knowledge among educators is among the most important interactions available for those who desire to move themselves into new dimensions of discovery. For me, the pledge to self-learning linked all of us to a higher, intuitive desire to achieve some measure of professional growth. It was truly exciting to see how individuals gained new insights and assumed ownership of the process. The loftier link to another level of professional growth even caused "disequilibrium" within the principal culture outside our district. We may see an expansion of the original concept to principals who are members of the Harvard University International Network of Principals' Centers. In the near future, we may see an expansion of the original concept to principals who are members of the Harvard University International Network of Principals' Centers. Dr. J'e Richardson, who coordinates many activities at the Harvard center, has enthusiastically endorsed the concept of linking Master Practitioners across the nation so that they can share the wealth of talent they possess. The beginnings of profound change have begun with conversations between school principals in the Los Angeles Unified School District, but new opportunities await around the corner. Think of the possibilities of being able to access the immense principal colleague bank of talent via e-mail over the Internet. In time, all of this and much more will come to pass. Setting Sail, Again The 1996-97 school year is the fourth year of the Principal Peer Assessment process. Cluster Administrators Carol Ogawa and Stuart Bernstein have supported the process because they see true value in people taking control over life-long learning encounters. The underlying strength of the project has been the exuberant devotion to the operation by volunteers and Master Practitioners. For those attempting to rise above the district's rhetoric of systemic change, the voyage has been compelling. The Stull system of evaluation is archaic, brutally bleak and uninspiring. It needs to be gutted and thoroughly reinvented. As in nature, organizations must constantly evolve in order to grow and prosper. In nature, when organisms stop growing, they die. By stretching our opportunities for meaningful professional development, we become valued participants in life-long learning; better able to understand our interconnectedness with our colleagues and our organization. As an outgrowth of experiencing new learning we become better leaders. It is as though when one person advances, the entire culture moves ahead. A Comment About Quality Since the premise of the framework for the assessment process is immersed in TQM principles, it is important to make a comment about the quality of the venture. Principals have been invited to recommit their considerable talents and energies to a process that has personal meaning for them. They have chosen to set sail on a missionary voyage to "reframe" the context of their learning. To do so, they relinquished the relative safety of the tried-and-true traditions of a bi-annual district evaluation mechanism that was unproductive, static and stale. Most U.S. school districts are stymied with inertia because there are not enough risk takers. Indeed, most U.S. school districts are stymied with inertia because there are not enough risk takers. Superintendents and board members are not paragons of change. They need safety nets at all times. They cannot lead where they are afraid to go. By understanding that we, as a group of principals, were the ones who would define the quality of our experience, we moved to personal levels of accomplishment heretofore not fathomed. It was not only arriving at our destination that was important, it was the voyage that was most gratifying. The conversations were a vehicle for growth and profound self reflection. Our field of vision of the possible widened immensely. The Ninth Wave There is a classic superstition, passed on through the ages by sailors, that -- in time -- one enormous wave will cross the seas. It is known as the Ninth Wave, the most powerful force known to humans. The ultimate goal of each mariner is to catch the Ninth Wave at its crest, to harness its power and ride it safely to shore. This requires great skill, ingenuity and daring. Such a wave exists in the future of education, and specifically for school leaders. To catch the Ninth Wave, we must reaffirm our desires to become high-level risktakers and be ready, so that when the wave approaches its peak we may be able to catch it and ride it all the way to shore -- to our destiny. The Principal Peer Assessment model moves us, as an educational culture of life-long learners, closer to catching the elusive Ninth Wave. It is both hazardous and exciting at the same time. The seas of change are chaotic and treacherous. However our vision for self growth may be so profound that we are compelled to advance forward. The Principal Peer Assessment enterprise may cause some leaders in other school districts to hoist up the sails of their ship of discovery in a sea of change. The Ninth Wave is fast approaching. James Abbott is a principal in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He is the author of professional journal articles and books on school reform. His latest book, Managing at the Speed of Light: The ABC's of TQM for Schools, is being published for a January 1997 release by American Press in Boston. He is the current Chairperson of the UCLA Principals' Center and a regional representative to the Harvard University International Network of Principals' Centers. His current research is on applications of TQM and Learning Organization theory to schools. References: 1.Walden, Elizabeth & DeRose, Mimi (1993), "The Power of Peer Appraisals," Educational Leadership, October, pp. 32-34. 2.Abbott, James E. (1995), "Extended Conversations," The Total Quality Review, Volume 6, Nov/Dec., pp. 43-47. This article offers a more extensive study on the benefits of a prototype conversation process initiated at a school where I served as principal. 3.Abbott, James E. (1994), "The Renaissance Principal: Leading the Movement to Transform Education," The Executive Educator, Volume 8, September, p.54. 4.Personal correspondence with Gordon Donaldson, Professor, University of Maine and co-founder of the Maine Academy for School Leaders (MASL), author of Becoming Better Leaders, Corwin Press, 1995. 5.Barth, Roland (1990), Improving Schools From Within, San Francisco: CA, Jossey-Bass, p.78. 6.Abbott, James E. (1996), "Measuring Quality with Fuzzy Logic," The TQM Magazine, 8(4), pp. 37-38. Abbott, James E. (1994), "Guerrilla Quality Management," Education, 114(4), p.554.
This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.