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Principals Matter. So do their Supervisors. Just Ask the States.

A survey suggests state interest in a previously overlooked position
December 6, 2017 2 Min Read

It’s not the most colorful job title in an era awash with “chief cheerleaders,” “digital prophets” and even “VPs of misc. stuff.” (Thank you Forbes magazine for the moniker list.) Still, give “principal supervisor” its due. You know immediately what the person holding this title does: oversee school principals.

That would suggest the principal supervisor holds a pretty important job. After all, principals are key to improving schools.  Ideally, then, supervisors would spend their time supporting their principals in ways that improve teaching and learning.

For years, however, this hasn’t been the case, as principal supervisors are too often saddled with job descriptions that expect at least as much attention to handling operations and ensuring compliance with regulations as helping principals make classrooms hum. It’s a function, in part, of the number of people supervisors typically oversee: about 24 principals, when a job focused on principal support would, according to a management rule of thumb, be something like half that number.  

We’ve posted a report that offers a small bit of evidence that this may be starting to change, or, at least, that state policymakers are beginning to give the supervisor role a rethink.  The publication looks at the work of about two dozen states involved in an effort (run by the Council of Chief State School Officers and funded by The Wallace Foundation) to help boost school leadership. It details results of a survey of state officials who signed up for the effort, and while the findings are not representative of U.S. states as a whole, they offer insight into what a substantial number of states are thinking about and doing these days when it comes to school leadership.

The most common concern was boosting mentoring for principals, with 77 percent of respondents naming this a “current or emerging priority” for their states. But close behind, at 75 percent, came two other activities: professional development programs for new principals and—this is what caught our eye—“improving principal supervisor practices in the support and development of principals.” Moreover, the respondents made clear that this represented a big departure for them; only 6 percent labeled it an area of “past progress or accomplishment.”

The report also makes clear that some states have taken steps to help supervisors in their work with principals.  Kentucky’s optional evaluation system, for example, includes a framework for supervisors to work with each principal on an annual professional growth plan through site visits and formal reviews. In Connecticut, the state and its superintendent’s association provide an executive coaching program that includes a focus on support for principals in struggling schools. And Idaho trains superintendents and principal teams in how to carry out its principal evaluation system.

States have yet, however, to budge when it comes to the “principal supervisor” title.  Don’t expect “top school leadership evangelist” on business cards anytime soon. 

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