Professional Development Opinion

New Report Highlights the Importance of the Role of Principal Supervisors

By Learning Forward & Frederick Brown — September 13, 2018 4 min read
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Frederick Brown

A new report about The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Supervisor Initiative (PSI) offers insight into the types of professional learning that are most effective for helping principal supervisors develop the instructional leadership capacity of principals.

Among their findings, researchers noted that principal supervisors in PSI districts were able to reduce the number of principals they supervised and, as a result, engage in more productive relationships with those building leaders. According to the report, by year three of the initiative, principal supervisors were spending well over half their time either in schools or in groups meeting with principals. Given their increased time with principals, it becomes even more important that principal supervisors have the knowledge and skills to make the best use of that time.

The report, A New Role Emerges for Principal Supervisors: Evidence from Six Districts in the Principal Supervisor Initiative, highlights The Wallace Foundation’s efforts to redefine principal supervision in six urban districts. Building on the notion that the building leader plays a critical role in increasing results for students, this initiative seeks to leverage the principal supervisor to improve the effectiveness of principals.

The initiative focuses on five core components:

  1. Revise the principal supervisors’ job description to focus on instructional leadership.
  2. Reduce principal supervisors’ span of control and change how supervisors are assigned to those principals.
  3. Train supervisors and develop their capacity to support principals.
  4. Develop systems to identify and train new supervisors (succession planning).
  5. Strengthen central office structures to support and sustain changes in the principal supervisor’s role.

The third component -- Train supervisors and develop their capacity to support principals -- caught my attention because of its importance to Learning Forward’s mission to build the capacity of leaders to establish and sustain highly effective professional learning. Since the PSI initiative began, I had wondered how districts attended to the learning needs of those folks tasked with supporting school principals.

According to the report, participating districts offered limited professional learning for principal supervisors before the initiative began. In later years of the initiative, professional learning focused on helping principal supervisors develop the instructional leadership capacity of principals.

The five most emphasized content areas for principal supervisor professional learning included:

  • Observing classrooms to identify instructional quality;
  • Determining protocols and procedures for school walk-throughs;
  • Improving student growth and achievement;
  • Skills coaching for principals; and
  • Coaching principals and giving teachers actionable feedback.

The districts used several job-embedded approaches. For example, all of the systems reported one-on-one coaching of principal supervisors, including direct observation, feedback, and coaching on their work with principals. In some districts, principal supervisors observed one another and provided feedback to colleagues.

The report also noted professional learning areas for principal supervisors that were least emphasized by the districts. I was disappointed to see “developing principal professional learning communities” on that list. Standard 2 of the Model Principal Supervisor Professional Standards specifies “establishing and sustaining supportive learning communities that provide peer feedback and promote innovative thinking.”

For such a learning community to align its practices to Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning, it would also be committed to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and goal alignment. By not leveraging this form of professional learning for principal supervisors, districts may be missing an opportunity to help principals engage in communities of practice that have the potential to strengthen their instructional leadership.

In the June 2018 issue of The Learning Professional, Kay Psencik and I wrote about principal professional learning communities. As one principal in Clear Creek (Texas) ISD told us, “Being in a principal community of practice has connected me more deeply with elementary and intermediate principals. ... I have a larger perspective of effective leadership as a result.” Read the article online: “Learning to lead: Districts collaborate to strengthen principal practices.”

Whether your district has one or several dozen individuals whose responsibilities include supervising principals, I urge you to read this report. Given the critical importance of the principal’s role in school improvement, it’s equally important that districts have structures and processes to support those whose job it is to support building leaders.

Therefore, I would ask you to assess the breadth and depth of the professional learning your district provides to principal supervisors, consider the learning networks of which they are a part, and develop a system to monitor how their learning impacts their support of principals. Taking these important steps will ensure that the people charged with supporting principals have all the skills needed to the job.

* * * * *

Districts Participating in the Principal Supervisor Initiative

The six districts participating in the Principal Supervisor Initiative are:

  • Broward County, Florida
  • Baltimore, Maryland
  • Cleveland, Ohio
  • Des Moines, Iowa
  • Long Beach, California
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota

Find the report at https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/pages/a-new-role-emerges-for-principal-supervisors.aspx.

Frederick Brown
Deputy Executive Director, Learning Forward

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