Special Report
School & District Management

Districts Redefine Role of Principal Supervisors

By Denisa R. Superville — January 21, 2015 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 9 min read

Corrected: This story has been updated to clarify the experience of the executive directors who oversee principals in the Omaha, Neb., school district.

Until last summer, the superintendent of schools in Omaha, Neb., was theoretically responsible for supervising, coaching, and evaluating the district’s 87 principals and school leaders.

The reality was different. In any given year, principal evaluations could be conducted by the assistant superintendent of curriculum, one in charge of finance, or another in charge of human resources.

“You just distributed principals to other district leaders, but there was no coordinated focus and aligned effort not only on evaluation but on how you supported them,” said Superintendent Mark A. Evans, who has been at the helm of the 51,000-student district for two years.

To address the ad hoc way in which the district was managing its principals, Mr. Evans last year hired four executive directors to be their dedicated supervisors—to guide, evaluate, and coach the school leaders. Their most pressing responsibility was to focus on improving principals’ instructional practices.

The executive directors, all former principals who had led successful schools, were each charged with overseeing between 21 and 26 principals. They were also required to spend at least half their time in the schools. And while the number of principals each was responsible for remained higher than recommended—10 is often cited as a good number—Mr. Evans said that the steps taken in Omaha put the district on a forward-moving path.

School districts like those in Omaha; Tulsa, Okla.; the District of Columbia; and New York City are working to retool the job descriptions and responsibilities of so-called principal supervisors, who have traditionally been charged with making sure principals—and the schools they run—comply with rules and regulations.

As the varied demands on principals increase and as districts ramp up the role they play in implementing key initiatives—including college- and career-readiness standards, common-core-aligned assessments, and new teacher- and principal-evaluation systems, district leaders say who principals’ bosses are, and what they do in that job, is critical.

Scant Attention

The position received scant attention before. But a 2013 report by the Council of the Great City Schools, the Washington-based organization that represents 67 of the nation’s largest districts, and the Wallace Foundation, the New York City-based philanthropy focused on improving learning in disadvantaged communities, put a spotlight on the lack of coherence and clarity in the principal-supervisor role. The report highlighted the degree to which the job varied from district to district and the disparity in the number of principals that supervisors oversee.

In New York City, for example, supervisors were responsible for 67 principals.

Pamela J. Cohn, who oversees 26 school leaders, observes a 7th grade science class at Alfonza W. Davis Middle School in Omaha.

The report recommended reducing the number of charges and clarifying responsibilities, increasing professional development and training, and developing accountability measures for supervisors.

Building on that work, the Council of Chief State School officers will release this year the first-ever national standards outlining what principal supervisors should know and be able to do. Those standards will be similar to ones that already exist for principals.

According to a draft of those standards, supervisors are expected to dedicate their time helping principals grow as instructional leaders, including assisting them in devising systems that promote teaching and learning, and engaging in regular on-site observations in schools. Supervisors should use adult-learning theories and school-site data to help principals create instructional visions for their schools. They should set up professional learning opportunities for principals; tailor support and feedback based on individual principals’ needs; and act as brokers between the principals and the central office.

One standard centers on the need for continuous professional development for principal supervisors and the responsibility they have to keep abreast of laws and regulations that affect their job.

“This is first-generation work,” said David Volrath, who heads the principal- and teacher-evaluation section at the Maryland education department and is the co-chairman of the committee that drafted the supervisor standards. “But I think it’s really critical to helping those people who supervise principals at least understand the components of the principal’s job [and] how to evaluate them in terms of instructional leadership.”

The bulk of the research and practical work on principal supervisors has been spearheaded by the Wallace Foundation, which is also underwriting the development of the standards and providing grants to select school districts to refine the principal supervisor role. (The Wallace Foundation supports coverage of leadership, arts education, and extended- and expanded-learning time in Education Week.)

Jody Spiro, the foundation’s director of educational leadership, said the new attention on the position has moved the focus beyond Wallace-supported districts, and that school systems nationwide are recognizing how important principal supervisors are in ensuring that schools improve.

Deeper Trust

Among the districts forging ahead is the 125,000-student Duval County school system in Jacksonville, Fla. In 2013, it started to overhaul the principal-supervisor role to one focused on instructional leadership, and it aligned the supervisors’ work with the district’s achievement goals, said Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti.

Last year, the district cut the supervisor-to-principal ratio to 1-to-20, from 1-to-40. Mr. Vitti hopes to reduce it even further. Supervisors are expected to spend 80 percent of their time in the schools. To ensure that’s the case, no districtwide meetings are scheduled before 1 p.m. Supervisors are also now assigned primarily by school levels—by elementary, middle, and high schools—and not by geography. Grouping supervisors by grade levels fosters deeper collaboration, learning, and problem-solving among principals in similar environments who face similar challenges. It also makes it easier to coordinate meaningful professional development.

Duval County also created the Four Pillars of Instructional Leadership, which defines the hallmarks of good instructional practices for principals and supervisors. It then teamed up with TNTP, formerly The New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit that trains teachers for posts in low-income schools, and the University of Florida Lastinger Center for Learning, to offer professional development on the new standards and instructional coaching for both principals and supervisors.

At minimum, communication between the district and principals about district goals and initiatives has improved. That has led to deeper trust and greater ownership at the school building level, Mr. Vitti said.

“You have to focus on principals, regarding instructional improvement,” Mr. Vitti said. “There is no question that you have to work with your teachers and build their capacity, but if that is not echoed, and driven, and owned at the school level by the principals, then you likely will be seeing very little return on investment because it’s not being implemented with fidelity on the school level.”

In Denver, which is part of the Wallace Principal Pipeline Initiative—a $75 million project to help build effective urban school leaders—supervisors oversee only eight or nine principals. In the city’s lowest-performing schools that are undergoing major improvement efforts, the ratio of supervisor-to-principal is 1-to-4.

When the district reduced the number of principals that managers had to oversee from 15 to eight three years ago, officials were responding to the research, feedback from principals on their needs for professional development and support, and the ability of the supervisors to effectively coach and lead teams, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

“It’s to allow for more time for coaching and feedback in an extraordinarily difficult and complex job; it really was that simple,” he said.

Mr. Boasberg said the program is working. Since focusing on the principal pipeline, Denver students have shown the highest year-to-year growth of the 20 largest districts in Colorado, he said.

While the improvement cannot be attributed solely to changes to the principal-supervisor role—a host of other initiatives were simultaneously at play—Mr. Boasberg said that he does not doubt the emphasis on principal managers has had an impact. Teachers have been awarding principals higher marks in the district’s annual perception surveys in recent years, he said. Principals have been doing the same for their supervisors, and principal turnover is also down, Mr. Boasberg said.

Last year, 90 percent of teachers who responded to the survey said they had a “moderately effective” to an “extremely effective” principal, up from 85 percent in 2013.

Districts hoping to transform the principal-supervisor role may face funding challenges. They either have to find the money to pay for those positions in existing allocations or pursue grant funding. While the new Omaha positions were included in the school system’s budget, the district received about $700,000 from the Sherwood Foundation and Lozier Foundation to help with professional development for the supervisors.

Building a trusting relationship between the principal and the supervisor can also be tricky, but districts must be clear about goals and expectations and emphasize that supervisors are at the schools to work with principals, not to hand out edicts, superintendents said.

‘Candid Conversations’

Dan Bartels, the principal of Alfonza W. Davis Middle School in Omaha, had no such problems with his supervisor, Pamela J. Cohn, a retired principal who had hired him as a teacher when he first started in the district.

But even before Ms. Cohn and her colleagues got to the business of supervising their charges, they met informally with the principals to discuss goals and expectations.

For Mr. Bartels, that meeting was followed at the beginning of the school year with a goal-setting session, during which he and Ms. Cohn discussed his target for the year (increasing student engagement), how he planned to achieve it, and the measures he intended to use. The two also discussed the school’s strengths and weaknesses, the changes that needed to occur to correct those weaknesses, and how they would gauge progress.

Mr. Bartels said he appreciates the daily interactions with his supervisor—by telephone and email—that go beyond the one-on-one sit-downs or troubleshooting. Ms. Cohn also facilitates monthly principals’ meetings and peer-coaching sessions, he said.

“My executive supervisor and I can have some candid conversations about where I am [and] where I need to be,” Mr. Bartels said. “And it’s refreshing to have that personal relationship with one person.”

Ms. Cohn said she tries to visit three to five classrooms in her school visits, during which she observes not just teachers in the classrooms but how engaged students are in the lessons. Those observation sessions are followed by a 20- to 45-minute debriefing session with the principal and a summary email to the principal reiterating the points covered earlier in the day.

Ms. Cohn said she thinks the supervisors are already making a difference, but she would recommend adding coaches to the team and further reducing the number of principals they oversee—something with which Mr. Evans already agrees.

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Redefining the Role of Principal Supervisors


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