If you were regional sales manager for, say, washing machines, auto parts or lawn fertilizer, you might insist on performance guarantees from your sales reps, perhaps with the promise of bonuses for superior performance. But suppose you were a school superintendent? What guarantees would be appropriate to demand from your principals?
I pose the question because some former principals in Washington, DC, recently shared their correspondence with former Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Here are two examples, one of which uses ‘safe harbor’–a gain of at least ten percentile points–as the target.
On September 27, 2007, Chancellor Rhee wrote Carol Barbour, principal of Rudolph Elementary School, “You are guaranteeing me that you will see a bump in test scores from 29.2% in English and 26.9% in math (proficient and advanced) to ‘safe harbor’ in the coming year. I plan to hold you accountable to these goals.”
One day later the Chancellor wrote Lucia Vega, principal of Powell Elementary School, “You are guaranteeing me that you will see a bump in test scores from 22.7% to 27.7% in English and 22.0% to 37.0% in math of students who are proficient and advanced. This is a substantial amount of progress to make in one year, and I plan to hold you accountable to meeting this goal.” 
Those one-on-one meetings were tense affairs, according to former Associate Superintendent Francisco Millet, who sat in on many of them. “In that 15-minute period she would ask each one of the principals, ‘When it comes to your test scores, what can you guarantee me?’ And she would write it down. And you could cut through the air with a knife, there was so much tension.”
As I read those emails, I found myself wondering what I would want school principals to guarantee in writing if I were their superintendent. Here’s my thinking: Because what we choose to measure reveals what we value, I would use performance guarantees to send a clear message to my principals about what matters:
Dear Principal Smith,
In our meeting we established the following eight goals for your school. Please understand that I am going to hold you accountable for achieving them, just as I expect you to hold me accountable for providing you with the resources you need to achieve them.
1. Daily recess of at least 30 minutes for every child;
2. Art and/or music at least three times a week for every student;
3. Detailed records of pupil and teacher absenteeism, including patterns and your strategies for dealing with problems;
4. At least one opportunity per week for every teacher to observe a colleague’s teaching;
5. At least four evening events involving parents and interested community members, such as a student talent show;
6. A maximum of one week of ‘test prep’ activities;
7. Evidence of ‘project-based learning’ and other group projects using technology to involve others schools, either in-district or out;
8. Reliable evidence of academic improvement, including student performance on our district’s standardized test.
John Merrow, Superintendent
Every one of these goals is measurable. Perhaps some should be more specific. Perhaps I have omitted goals that you would insist upon. Feel free to edit them.
I leave you with two big questions: “Is it reasonable for superintendents to enter into this bargain with their principals?” And “Could setting multiple and varied goals, such as the ones I chose, be a healthy giant step away from our current obsession with test scores?”
- 1. Principal Barbour ‘resigned under duress,’ according to a grievance she filed in August, 2008. Rudolph did not achieve the ‘safe harbor’ gains. It improved from 29.23% to 36.45% in reading but declined in math from 26.92% proficient to 16.82%.↵
- 2. Principal Vega made both goals. Her students went from 21.97% to 48.94% in math and from 22.7% to 34.04% in reading. However, she resigned under pressure in the spring of 2008–before the test results were announced. According to sources, about two dozen principals, including Ms. Vega, were offered a choice between resigning or being fired. Ms. Vega wrote in her undated letter to the Chancellor, “It is with great sorrow that I am hereby tendering my resignation to you effective July 15, 2008. Although there is much to say, I believe the reasons leading to this decision are known by you, and I will therefore leave them unsaid at this time.”↵
- 3. For more, see “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error”↵