A new role for principal supervisors

In 2014, the Wallace Foundation launched a four-year, $24-million-dollar program called the Principal Supervisor Initiative (PSI). It was designed to help six urban districts transition from roles for principal supervisors that focused on administration, operations, and compliance to roles that focused on developing and supporting principals’ instructional leadership skills—which in turn could improve teacher instruction and student achievement.

The participating districts were Baltimore Public Schools, Broward County Public Schools, Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Des Moines Public Schools, Long Beach Unified School District, and Minneapolis Public Schools.

In July, the foundation published the first of three reports documenting implementation efforts and the effects of PSI. It examines efforts to implement PSI’s five core components from August 2014 through the spring of 2017 and is based on surveys of supervisors and principals, artifacts like job descriptions and training agendas, and data from semi-structured interviews with central office personnel, supervisors, and principals.   

The first component involved revising the job description of a principal supervisor to focus on supporting instructional leadership rather than compliance. Three districts—Baltimore, Broward, and Cleveland—had already begun significant revisions to the supervisor role prior to their involvement with PSI. The remaining districts started their revisions in conjunction with PSI. All six completed their revisions by the end of the program’s first year. Supervisors described their new roles as more proactive than reactive, and by 2017 they reported spending most of their time (63 percent) working directly with principals. However, districts found it challenging to reallocate administrative duties and to establish an appropriate balance for supervisors between central office responsibilities and time spent in schools.

Component two was reducing a supervisor’s span of control—the number of principals one was expected to oversee—so that they had more time to develop principals’ instructional leadership skills. Some districts achieved early reductions by hiring additional supervisors and changing how they were assigned to principals. Minneapolis, for instance, hired three new supervisors in year one and shifted from a regional assignment model to one based on grade level. By the third year of the program, districts averaged twelve principals per supervisor, compared to seventeen before PSI. Budgetary constraints remained a challenge in this area, as many supervisors were forced to serve multiple roles for financial reasons.  

The third component was about training supervisors to strengthen their capacity to support principals. Districts typically prioritized high quality instruction and developing instructional leadership. Training on the former helped supervisors readily recognize effective teaching in various content and grade levels based on their district’s adopted frameworks. Training on instructional leadership development, meanwhile, focused on helping supervisors effectively communicate with their principals through coaching and feedback. In both areas, districts offered non-job-embedded approaches (like conferences) and job-embedded approaches (like one-on-one coaching). Surveys indicate that supervisors participated in an increased amount of development specifically dedicated to their revised roles: 80 percent reported role-specific training in spring 2017, compared to only 61 percent in the fall of 2015. Additionally, PSI allocated funding for districts to hire external technical assistance providers. Supervisors reported that these providers added significant value to their training, and when providers reduced their involvement, the quality of trainings and coaching decreased.     

PSI’s fourth component called for districts to develop systems for identifying and training new supervisors. Three districts developed and implemented fully functioning development or apprenticeship programs: Cleveland’s Aspiring Network Leaders program, Broward’s Director Intern Program, and Long Beach’s Aspiring Directors Program. Each used rigorous selection and field experiences. District leaders reported that program completers were more prepared than new supervisors prior to the start of PSI. Unfortunately, time constraints were a significant challenge: In both Cleveland and Long Beach, apprentices completed their program while simultaneously serving as principals. The remaining three districts had not yet implemented an identification and training program.

The fifth and final component of PSI involved strengthening central office structures to support and sustain changes to the supervisor role. All six districts housed supervisors within a single central office department, and most supervisors reported to a cabinet-level officer. Minneapolis, Broward, and Baltimore created new central office positions to absorb supervisors’ non-instructional duties, while Des Moines, Cleveland, and Long Beach relied on existing positions. To improve communication and coordination between supervisors and other departments, districts either assigned supervisors to support teams made up of representatives from other departments, or assigned them to be liaisons to other departments. Unfortunately, principals, supervisors, and central office staff in all six districts reported that certain departments remained “ill equipped or less willing” to support PSI and supervisors’ changed roles.

Overall, the daily work of principal supervisors in each of the six districts has changed significantly since the start of PSI. Principals report more productive relationships with their supervisors, and PSI implementation has led to substantial changes in central office systems. Significant challenges still remain, however, including the ongoing question of how to invest all central office departments in implementation. Districts also have their work cut out for them in terms of sustaining change and maintaining quality. The Wallace Foundation’s next two reports, which will examine how districts addressed ongoing challenges and how changes to the supervisor role affected principal performance, should offer some key additional insights into the PSI.

SOURCE: Ellen B. Goldring et al., “A New Role Emerges for Principal Supervisors: Evidence from Six Districts in the Principal Supervisor Initiative,” Vanderbilt University, Peabody College and Mathematica Policy Research (July 2018).

 
 
Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.