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Overlooked Until Now:

Principal Supervision


It may seem like common sense: Strong schools need strong principals, and strong principals need strong support from the people they report to in the districts’ central offices. But the reality is that even though principal supervisors have tremendous potential to help principals become better leaders, in many places this doesn’t happen.

In many districts, the principal supervisor is a position that simply hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. These supervisors often are unprepared and overworked. Typically, they have little training for this work and oversee far too many principals, 24 on average in some urban districts.

Having so many responsibilities and people to supervise leaves these managers with little time to focus on anything other than bureaucratic compliance with district procedures, instead of spending valuable time helping principals lead schools more effectively. That is a fact that likely won’t surprise superintendents in smaller districts, as many of them oversee principals directly.

An Ignored Role

At The Wallace Foundation, we have focused on education leadership for 14 years. We have learned many important lessons from both our partners in this work — the 28 urban school districts whose projects we have funded and the 33 states in which we have worked — and independent research, some of it commissioned by Wallace.

We’ve learned that leadership is linked to student performance; that there are no documented instances of failing schools turning around without powerful leadership; that among school-based influences on student learning, leadership is second only to teaching in importance; and that good principals help attract, cultivate and retain good teachers.

To help principals be more effective, however, we realize that they need more and better support. This has led us to realize the importance of the often-overlooked principal supervisor position. We believe superintendents should consider adjusting the role from one focused largely on compliance to one of support and development.

Our concern was heightened with research we commissioned from the Council of the Great City Schools, which last year released a report, “Rethinking Leadership: The Changing Role of Principal Supervisors.” Based partly on a survey of 43 large districts, the report found principal supervisors often oversee large numbers of principals while juggling extensive administrative duties. It also found districts tend to match schools with principal supervisors based on what makes for convenient school visits rather than what kind of oversight is needed.

In addition, the report concluded that many supervisors lack experience in human resources, operations or central-office instructional affairs and don’t have access to relevant professional development. This lack of experience is complicated by the short tenures — typically, three years — of principal supervisors in urban districts. On top of that, no consistency exists in the position across districts. Job definitions and titles vary with some known as zone supervisors, instructional coaches or area superintendents.

Some leading districts already are rethinking their approach to the principal supervisor job. Denver Public Schools has used a federal grant to help put in place more instructional superintendents and deputies, each overseeing an average of 12 schools and spending the bulk of their time in those buildings. They visit classrooms, review student test score data, coach principals through difficult decisions and follow up to see how those decisions worked out.

Some principals in Denver are reporting they welcome the extra support from their supervisors. One Denver administrator believes the new structure helped turn around several struggling schools. “Instructional superintendents are the most important link between district leadership and our schools,” says superintendent Tom Boasberg, who joined the district as chief operating officer in 2007 after a career in business and government. “You wouldn’t see other knowledge-based professions in the public or private sector with such wide spans of control.”

Shoring Up Support

For districts interested in revamping their principal supervisor positions, the University of Washington last year released tools created by education researchers to help school districts redesign their central offices in ways that help principal supervisors develop the instructional capabilities of the school leaders they oversee. These tools, which we funded, might be a good first step for districts. (See http://ow.ly/AJCo1.)

Over the next five years, Wallace will work with six school districts to step up support for principal supervisors to improve teaching and learning. The project will finance more training and support for supervisors and enable districts to reduce the number of principals these managers oversee.

We still have much to learn about principal supervision. We hope the initiative will provide an answer to this question: If principal supervisors in large, complex districts shift from overseeing compliance to sharpening principals’ instructional leadership capabilities, and if they are provided with the right training, support and number of principals to supervise, will this improve the effectiveness of the principals with whom they work?

We believe lessons from this initiative will offer important knowledge that will benefit all districts. We look forward to sharing these findings.

Will Miller is president of The Wallace Foundation in New York, N.Y. E-mail: wmiller@wallacefoundation.org. Twitter: @WallaceFdn

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