Date Published: July 2021

Jones, E., Bergin, C., Murphy, M. (2021). Principals may inflate teacher evaluation scores to achieve important goals. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability.


NEE researchers recently explored the motivating factors that influence principal leniency in relation to classroom observation ratings. The following is a brief summary of the research, findings, and implications. Read the full study by clicking the blue “source” button on the right side of this page.

Purpose of the study

The purpose of the study is to explore motivating factors behind principals’ leniency in scoring classroom observations within an authentic teacher evaluation system.

Background of the study

Classroom observations are a widely used component of teacher evaluation systems, but their usefulness depends on principals’ accuracy in describing a teacher’s effective use of teaching practices. Research suggests that classroom observation ratings may have substantial bias, and principals, as a whole, tend to rate teachers on the higher end of rating scales.

While systemic leniency is well-documented, the motivation behind principals’ leniency is little understood. Accuracy of classroom observations may not be principals’ most important goal. Their other goals may include positive self-evaluation, competence in mastering a task, and social goals.

The research

Researchers utilized a mixed-method design using focus groups (qualitative strand) and a state-wide survey (quantitative strand).

Principals who used the Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) teacher evaluation system during the 2017-2018 school year were asked to participate in the study. Fifty principals who had used the NEE classroom observation rubrics for at least two years were invited to participate in the focus group, and 15 (30%) accepted. All 1316 principals who used the NEE classroom observation rubrics in 2017-2018 were invited to complete the online survey, and 364 (28%) responded.


Upon integration of data from both the qualitative and quantitative strands, six goals emerged that may influence principal leniency:

  • providing accurate ratings and feedback
  • keeping teachers open to growth-promoting feedback
  • supporting teachers’ morale and fostering positive relationships
  • avoiding difficult conversations
  • maintaining self-efficacy as an instructional leader
  • managing limited time wisely


When rating teachers, principals have varied goals that may compete with their goal of providing accurate ratings. These goals are often positive and worthwhile. For instance, principals may tweak their ratings upward to promote positive principal-teacher relationships, which research shows affect student learning and engagement. It’s an important goal, yet nonetheless may interfere with accuracy.

The results suggest that in the context of a well-designed teacher evaluation system, accuracy in ratings and achieving other goals that may lead to improved outcomes for students are strong motivators for principals. If teacher morale and growth is a top priority, then “close enough” evaluations may be acceptable over the lofty goal of absolute accuracy. However, accuracy is also important because accurate feedback informs teachers, schools, and districts about which teaching practices need improvement and allows tracking of teacher improvement.

An implication of the study is that policy makers need to have a frank discussion about priorities among goals. If accuracy is the top priority, then future research should explore solutions to the systemic leniency bias. Still, the current research study shows that in contexts similar to NEE, competing goals could be beneficial for teachers and for schools.