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Principals Say Coaching, Not Compliance, Is What They Need From Central Office

By Denisa R. Superville — July 10, 2018 7 min read
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In six districts that changed the role of the administrators who oversee principals, those supervisors are spending more time in schools—coaching principals and helping them become better instructional leaders.

Seventy-six percent of principals in those districts said that their bosses usually or always provided them with “actionable feedback,” as a result of the time spent in their schools.

Those districts also started programs to train current and future principal supervisors. They also largely made changes in their central offices so that principal supervisors could focus much more on instructional leadership and less on operations and compliance. And, on average, those districts reduced the number of principals that supervisors were tasked with overseeing, from an average of 17 to 12 over a period of three years.

Those are some of the findings from a Vanderbilt University and Mathematica Policy Research study on the implementation of the first three years of a four-year, $24 million principal supervisor initiative in six urban school systems that is funded by the Wallace Foundation.

The six districts in the initiative are Broward County, Fla., Baltimore city schools, Cleveland, Des Moines, Long Beach, Calif., and Minneapolis.

The report, based on interviews and surveys with central office staffers, principals, and principal supervisors, is the first of three on the initiative. A second, due next July, will look at the impact of the initiative on principal effectiveness.

“I see this as a good news story about district reform and change,” said Ellen Goldring, the report’s lead author and a professor of educational leadership and policy at Vanderbilt University.

While there were variations among the districts—they all started in different places—Goldring said that focusing on the principal supervisor role led to structural and cultural shifts in the central office and ultimately in the districts. In redefining the role of the principal supervisors, districts had to rethink how resources were allocated to schools, how schools were supported, and how schools were grouped.

“This is not just a role change, and everything else in the district stays the same,” she said. “If there is not holistic support to changing the role of the supervisor, there won’t be real change.”

When the New York City-based Wallace Foundation launched the program in 2014, principal supervisor was a catch-all term that meant different things in different districts.

Principal supervisors spent the bulk of their time ensuring that principals complied with district rules and regulations and less time on evaluating and coaching them and helping them become better at their jobs. They were in charge of too many principals—the average “span” (the number of schools a supervisor oversaw) was 25, according to a 2013 report by the organization that represents the nation’s urban school districts, the Council of the Great City Schools. And across districts, there was very little uniformity in what principal supervisors were expected to do and who did the job.

Reshuffling the Central Office

Part of the initiative involved coming up with a clear job description of what supervisors should do. The role was supposed to focus on instructional leadership. The other areas of focus included reducing the number of principals that supervisors oversaw, training supervisors to better support principals; creating systems to spot and develop future supervisors; and changing the central office to support supervisors and principals.

The Wallace Foundation expected the changes in the central office to occur later, as the program progressed, but realized as early as a year into the initiative that districts were already reshuffling the central office to support principal supervisors in their newly-defined roles, said Jody Spiro, the foundation’s director of education leadership.

It made sense. If supervisors were no longer generally in charge of compliance or were doing less of it, someone else had to pick up those responsibilities.

“It’s a lesson we learned,” Spiro said. “It can’t be done after four years. As you change the principal supervisor position, you automatically have to make changes in your central office.”

All six districts created new positions or tinkered with existing roles to take on some of the non-instructional responsibilities that principal supervisors previously had on their plates. And some districts created support teams (which included representatives from other departments) and liaisons to help both principals and principal supervisors. Districts also worked to streamline communications between central office and schools.

Minneapolis, for example, created the position of a deputy superintendent for operations in 2015, and Baltimore added a building manager to deal with issues related to operations and maintenance.

Did it help?

Supervisors are now spending most of their time—63 percent—in schools or with principals, according to the report.

The percentage of principal supervisors who felt that the central office structure interfered with their work fell from 51 percent in 2016 to 36 percent in 2017, the report said.

Still, some principals still did not know who to contact when an issue arose in their schools, and in 2017, only 44 percent said they thought central office was organized to support principals, according to the report. (That was an improvement from 35 percent the previous year.)

Sixty-three percent said they thought improving teaching and learning was an important focus of the central office, though a majority also said they lost time focusing on teaching and learning because of central office requests.

Another notable finding, according to Spiro, was that principals said they trusted their supervisors to be both evaluators and coaches.

Principal supervisors are also now leading professional learning communities. Before the supervisor initiative, meetings with principals were primarily about sharing information, according to the report. Those meetings are now geared toward learning and include things like school walk throughs and professional development for principals in some cases, according to the report.

Districts have also developed training systems to prepare future principal supervisors. Three districts—Cleveland, Broward and Long Beach—developed apprenticeship programs to recruit and train the next crop of principal supervisors. Completing the apprenticeship program, however, is not a requirement for being hired in those districts as a principal supervisor.

In those districts, principal supervisors have become an additional step on the career ladder for educators, Goldring said.

Striking a Balance

But there were also some challenges. Districts are still struggling with finding the right balance between how much time supervisors should spend with principals and how much time they should devote to operations and central office duties. Supervisors in some cases are struggling to distinguish between instructional leadership and high-quality instruction, and differentiating supports for principals based on school needs and context remains a challenge. Supervisor turnover and assignment changes were also problems in some of the districts. Districts also need to develop high-quality principal evaluations, according to the report.

Among the recommendations: Districts should work on creating high-quality training and collaborative time for supervisors. They should also develop a shared definition of instructional leadership. Districts should continue to work on finding and training future principal supervisors, as well as think about how the initiative will continue beyond the grant period.

Goldring also has questions she’d like answered in the future, including whether principal supervisors who were not part of the program will have the same focus and commitment to the initiative and how district leadership changes will affect the work going forward.

Changing the role of the principal supervisor can have a ripple effect in districts, Spiro said. Other districts can use the experience of the participants in the principal supervisor initiative as a guide, she said.

“This initiative all began because we were looking at central office redesign for years. And it’s a really heavy lift. And the notion that we are testing out is, by virtue of changing the principal supervisor position, can that be the catalyst that lead to both changes for schools and changes in central office?”

The answer, she said, is yes.

It also doesn’t take a lot of resources to do so, Goldring said.

“Everyone talks about capacity and will,” she said. “This is more about will.”

You can read the full report, A New Role Emerges for Principal Supervisors: Evidence From Six Districts in the Principal Supervisor Initiative, here.

Images: A New Role Emerges for Principal Supervisors: Evidence From Six Districts in the Principal Supervisor Initiative.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.