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5 ways to truly help principals succeed

New $24 million study examines how principal supervisors can play a key role in principals' achievements

Principals and districts benefit when principal supervisors move beyond the role of administrator to coach and mentor, according to a new Vanderbilt University report.

It is the first of three studies of The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Supervisor Initiative, a four-year, $24 million effort studied by Vanderbilt and Mathematica Policy Research.

The report, “A New Role Emerges for Principal Supervisors: Evidence from Six Districts in the Principal Supervisor Initiative,” details the implementation of five key components to reshape the supervisor position in six large, urban school districts.

Each district changed the job descriptions and restructured central offices so that principal supervisors could step away from operational, administrative, and compliance tasks to coach, mentor and advise principals to be more effective as instructional leaders.

The six districts are: Broward County (FL) Public Schools, Baltimore City (MD) Public Schools, Cleveland (OH) Metropolitan School District, Des Moines (IA) Public Schools, Long Beach (CA) Unified School District, and Minneapolis (MN) Public Schools.

“Executive coaching is prevalent in high-performing organizations, but it’s not typically done in school districts,” says lead investigator Ellen Goldring, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development. “After three years, we saw substantial change in all districts. They came up with efficient and effective ways to position supervisors so they could fill the coaching and supporting gap.”
“This new study shows us that school districts participating in the initiative could transform the principal supervisor role into a source of support for principals in leading, teaching and learning,” says Jody Spiro, director of education leadership at The Wallace Foundation. “Principals felt better supported and district culture and central office changed for the better. Importantly, the study also makes clear what is needed to make this change happen.”

5 components for restructuring principal supervisor role

1. Revise supervisor’s job description to focus on instructional leadership: Districts worked with stakeholders to revise the supervisor job description to outline the new expectations for the supervisor role, which moved toward a focus on supporting and developing principals in schools and away from overseeing compliance.

“These components laid the groundwork for changes in principal supervisors’ day-to-day work with principals,” Goldring said. “Most principal supervisors reported they now spend the largest share of their time, 63 percent, working directly with principals, engaging in newly developed routines and practices, such as participating in classroom walk-throughs, coaching principals, leading collaborative learning and providing ongoing feedback.”

2. Reduce the number of principals supervisors oversee: The supervisors in the study were initially responsible for an average of 17 principals, though some oversaw as many as 21, making it nearly impossible to meaningfully engage with them all. That number was reduced to an average of 12, with districts hiring additional supervisors. The number of supervisors who reported that they oversaw too many principals declined in every district. Supervisors created networks of principals to facilitate collaboration and learning communities.

3. Provide dedicated professional development: Districts implemented dedicated training programs specifically designed to build supervisors’ capacity in coaching and principal support and development in instruction. For many of them, it was the first time they were provided professional instruction that was crafted to their role. In spring 2017, 80 percent reported participating in such opportunities.

4. Redefine the central office’s role and functions: The districts made substantial progress in restructuring central offices to better align with the revised role of supervisors. They streamlined departments, dismantled barriers that stifled communication and improved processes, resulting in better integration and collaboration across departments.

5. Develop and cultivate new supervisors: Three districts developed and implemented apprenticeship programs, serving as a key strategy for preparing school leaders for principal supervisor positions. These programs featured rigorous selection procedures and offered a mix of training sessions, individual coaching and performance feedback, mentoring from a current principal supervisor, and shadowing of central office leaders.

Facing future challenges

Other school districts can learn from this study both by seeing what is feasible—that the role can be changed—and what is challenging, Goldring believes.

“Reducing the span of control requires districts to shift spending, which was not an option for some. In addition, districts changing the supervisor’s job description necessitated that they also change other central office roles, especially to figure out how to deal with some of the administrative tasks removed from supervisors’ responsibility,” she said. “The process required the balancing of expectations, deepening and developing effective practices for supervisors, and differentiating supports for principals.”

“It’s a heavy lift,” Goldring adds, “but this study represents an incredibly positive example of the power of the supervisor role and a hopeful story about the power of district reform.”

The next report, to be published in July 2019, will measure the Principal Supervisor Initiative’s impact on principal effectiveness. The third report, to be released in December 2019, will compare principal supervision in the six districts in this study with peers in other urban districts.

The study was conducted by Vanderbilt’s Ellen B. Goldring, Jason A. Grissom, Mollie Rubin, Laura K. Rogers and Michael Neel; and Mathematica Policy Research’s Melissa A. Clark.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

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