Boardroom: Designing Assessments for Trustees and Boards

Spring 2024

By Ahmed Najm, Lauren Rogers

This article appeared as "Made to Measure" in the Spring 2024 issue of Independent School.

“We don’t [track board performance]. And, I would say that this is sorely needed. Because of their structure, boards only answer to themselves. ... The only other check on the board is when the head of school and the board chair have a really good relationship and the head of school can step up and say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re not quite doing what you need to do.’”

That’s what one head revealed in a 2023 study we led in partnership with NAIS and Vanderbilt University. After having many conversations with school leaders in which they emphasized the powerful role of an independent school trustee, we wanted to explore how boards and heads train and onboard their trustees and then how they measure their performance. 

As part of our work, we surveyed and interviewed more than 820 board members and heads of school using two sets of NAIS’s Principles of Good Practice (PGPs)—for trustees and boards of trustees. The PGPs define high standards and ethical behavior in key areas of school operations, including in governance, and survey respondents offered their views on whether their board measured up to these principles. While none of the principles were necessarily designed as tools for board assessment, in our study, we discovered that they can serve as useful criteria to analyze board performance. Whether schools have a robust practice of board assessment or are just thinking about starting one, there are some important considerations. 

Nuts and Bolts 

The 2019 NAIS/UPenn survey on “Factors Affecting Head of School Turnover” found that 33% of heads do not believe that their boards operate within the boundaries of their role. That statistic indicates that there’s a significant window for improvement. 

The PGPs, particularly as they relate to board service, help define the role of the trustee by outlining specific standards and codes of conduct that are recognized across independent school boards. As we explore the individual principles, they begin to give trustees a better understanding of where to draw the lines and how to focus their energy more effectively. And by incorporating the principles into an assessment, they can hold trustees and boards accountable. But, in order to design a board assessment, there are a few overarching decisions to be made. 

Who’s responsible? Boards must first determine who is responsible for measuring, monitoring, and making meaning from trustee performance assessments. Is it the head of school? Is it the trustee or the governance committee? Is it the board chair? While it could be any of these people, knowing who is leading the charge for trustee performance assessments is the first step.

Some schools hire consultants to do this work. The consultants meet with key stakeholders to learn about the priorities of the board and what they are hoping to achieve with the board assessment. The consultants might build a custom assessment based on the school’s expectations, and they might include a 360 evaluation system for the head of school and the board, soliciting feedback from multiple stakeholders.

What’s the culture? By choosing a point person and assigning this task, the board commits to encouraging an intentional culture of learning and assessment. Trustee job descriptions and onboarding and training documents should include expectations around board assessment and performance. What is the goal of measuring board performance and how will the results be shared and used to inform board work? 

One head of school we interviewed shared that the completion of the board survey is always included on the September meeting agenda. While trustees are sent digital invitations to complete the board assessment survey throughout the spring, they are not allowed to leave the May meeting until they have submitted a board assessment. 

Other boards may design assessments that are based on interviews or small-group meetings with a board member responsible for collecting and disseminating feedback and findings. 

Individual or collective? Boards can take several different approaches to designing the assessment, depending on the season in which it will be done and the constituencies on the board. Assessments can be based on individual goals that trustees develop at the beginning of the year, or they can be collective board goals based on the strategic plan or on goals the board generates as a group. Individual goals are more personalized and provide an opportunity for board members to grow and develop as trustees. This builds relationships and strengthens the trustees’ governance skill set. But if boards choose to prioritize a collective board identity, they might find it more helpful to build a group assessment that identifies the board’s strengths and weaknesses. 

What’s the frequency? Most boards conduct assessments on an annual basis in the spring, and the assessment results are then used to improve and refine board programming and expectations for the following year. This gives board members enough time and experience to offer meaningful feedback, and improvements can be made during the term of the trustees who have offered their perspectives. 

Board assessments can also be used as an offboarding process for board members at the end of their term. The benefit of doing this is that departing trustees may be more candid as they are leaving the board.

Boards can begin to build a sustainable process by adding board performance evaluation to the agenda. Some boards shorten the feedback loop that board assessments provide and offer exit tickets or a one-question survey after each board meeting. Another way to weave the evaluation of board performance into regular board expectations is to ask trustees to develop a personal goal during each year of service with regular checkpoints each quarter. This helps personalize a trustee’s interest and build feedback loops with those responsible for measuring board performance.

Guiding Principles

Once the general approach to board assessment has been determined, boards can dig into what needs to be measured and what they intend to do with this exercise. In our work with boards, we found the PGPs to be a very reliable measure, with great internal coherence and validity. 

In our own survey, we asked trustees to rate on a scale how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements crafted directly from the PGPs. So, for example, the first statement read: “Trustees actively support and promote the school’s mission, vision, strategic goals, and policy positions.” Another statement read: “Trustees are knowledgeable about the school’s mission and goals, representing them appropriately and accurately within the community.” 

It’s a trustee’s job to stay informed about operations and issues by regularly attending and participating in meetings. A trustee is responsible for helping set policy and focusing on long-range and strategic issues, without becoming directly involved in specific management, personnel, or curricular issues. Other important items to assess: A trustee must separate their interests of the school from specific needs of a child or community member, and they must keep board deliberations confidential. In using the PGPs as a measurement tool, boards can assess whether trustees understand their job description, the school’s mission, and the degree to which they are working to meet organizational goals.

Once the assessments are designed and administered, results must be shared, discussed, and analyzed. Nothing is more frustrating to survey respondents than when they never learn the results, themes, or findings. If trustees are doing the assessment, they will want to know who will read their responses, how their responses will be disseminated to the head of school and the board at large, and when these responses will be disclosed. Offering transparency, delivery of board assessment outcomes, and the timeline for this process is vital to creating an atmosphere that affirms the value and purpose of the board assessment. It’s also important to highlight how and why it will strengthen the work of the board.

Our research on NAIS boards revealed that trustees found board retreats and committee meetings to be where they developed the best understanding of their role as a trustee. But the success of more structured settings in building trustee commitment indicates that a formalized process of board assessment would also be well-received. It may be helpful to add to the job description that trustee participation in a performance evaluation is just as important as regular attendance at committee meetings.

Go Deeper

The NAIS Principles of Good Practice (PGPs) for member schools define high standards and ethical behavior in key areas of school operations, including governance. PGPs in the areas of trusteeship and independent school boards provide a common perspective on the responsibilities of individual members of independent school boards. Check out Principles of Good Practice: Independent School Trustees and Principles of Good Practice: Board of Trustees.

NAIS also offers a two-part confidential survey based on the Principles of Good Practice, along with individual trustee goals with recommended areas of focus. To learn more, visit

Ahmed Najm

Ahmed Najm is director of faculty & program development at The Brearley School in New York, New York.

Lauren Rogers

Lauren Rogers is head of upper school at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis, Tennessee.