School & District Management

Standards for Principal Supervisors Bring Sharper Focus to Role

By Denisa R. Superville — January 05, 2016 5 min read

School district leaders and other K-12 educators hope that new professional standards for the administrators who oversee principals will help guide them as they start to pay more attention to a group of middle-managers who’ve often been overlooked.

The eight standards, released in December, are the first-ever national guidelines to detail what knowledge and skills supervisors of principals should have and the things they need to do to be successful in the job.

In particular, the standards emphasize the supervisors’ role in helping the principals they oversee improve as instructional leaders; in serving as a liaison between schools and the central office; and the supervisor’s own responsibility to grow as a leader.

Principal supervisors are charged with evaluating and coaching principals and advocating on their behalf to the central office. But traditionally, the job has focused more on compliance with rules and less on the ways the administrators can support the principals they manage.

Districts have not made the principal supervisor’s role a priority, but that has been changing in recent years amid a growing body of research on the impact that strong principals can have on students’ learning.

That shift also follows a 2013 report by the Council of the Great City Schools that showed that the responsibilities of the job and the number of principals that supervisors oversee vary from district to district.

Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which oversaw the development of the new standards,said that they “will bring much-needed clarity” to the position.

The standards will “enable states and districts to elevate the role of supervisors so they can focus on helping principals improve instruction, learning, and ultimately, student achievement,” Minnich said in a statement last month.

Supporting School Leaders

The standards are voluntary, but they can help officials make decisions about how best to deploy people in the position, recruit talent, and plan professional development for those in a role that is still relatively new, according to the CCSSO.

The first standard addresses the supervisor’s role in helping principals become better instructional leaders; the second with assisting principals with coaching and professional development; and the third with using evidence to foster a positive learning environment.

The fourth standard addresses how supervisors should use the evaluation process to help principals improve. The fifth and sixth standards deal with the supervisor’s role as a liaison between schools and the central office to ensure, among other things, that schools have adequate resources to be culturally responsive to their students.

The seventh and eighth standards address the supervisor’s responsibility to lead change.

Pamela Cohn, a principal-supervisor in Omaha, Neb., said the standards align with the approach she and her colleagues use on the job.

“We are doing all of these things,” Cohn said of the new standards.

“It’s like they talked to us—but they didn’t. That’s not to say that we can’t do better, and that we can’t do some things at a higher level of implementation."Cohn is one of four executive directors hired last school year in the Omaha district to work with principals. Cohn and her fellow supervisors spend at least half their time in schools observing, coaching, and arranging professional learning for principals.

Omaha’s principal-supervisors also receive monthly training.

The district is now revamping its principal-evaluation system and expanding professional learning communities for its principals, Cohn said.

The supervisors will also spend more time working with principals in lower-performing schools and differentiate the support they provide based on the needs of individual principals and schools, said Cohn, who is in charge of 26 principals.

Omaha is among a small but growing number of districts paying more attention to supervisors.

In 2014, the Wallace Foundation launched a $30 million initiative to help 14 urban districts zero in on the role, including working on reducing the number of principals that supervisors oversee.

The foundation also helped pay for the development of the principal-supervisor standards. (The Wallace Foundation supports coverage of leadership, arts education, and extended- and expanded-learning time in Education Week.)

Rising Visibility

Last summer, supervisors from seven districts, including Albuquerque, N.M., and Cleveland, participated in a three-day training by the New York City Leadership Academy as part of a yearlong principal-supervisor training program.

And the first-ever principal-supervisor summit will be held in Florida in May.

Brenda Turnbull, a principal at Policy Studies Associates, a Washington-based firm that is evaluating the Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Initiative, said evaluators are seeing a shift in the districts’ expectations of their supervisors. Through surveys, principals are reporting that they are altering practices based on the feedback they receive from their supervisors, she said.

The focus on principal evaluation as a form of support is also a big help for principals, she said.

While empirical data on how focusing on supervisors affects student learning are still lacking, principals are reporting that they think their evaluations are more valuable and fairer because supervisors are more knowledgeable about the schools they are grading, said Jody Spiro, the director of education leadership at the Wallace Foundation.

A Linchpin Job

Spiro said the standards communicate the importance of a role that is not well understood and will help sustain the progress in districts already forging ahead.

On-the-ground experiences show that districts can see “dramatic effects” when the principal-supervisor position is redesigned to focus on teaching and learning—in the way that the standards envision, she said.

“We’ve been calling the principal-supervisor role a linchpin role because it is the connection between the schools and the central office,” Spiro said.

“If you get that position right—in terms of its ability to help principals with teaching and learning as opposed to monitoring and compliance with regulations, ... it’s beginning to become clear that it has quite a big effect, because the schools can’t do business as usual and the central office can’t do business as usual.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2016 edition of Education Week as Standards for Principals’ Bosses Sharpen Focus on Role

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