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Wallace Invests $30 Million to Strengthen Supervisors Of School Principals to Improve Their Ability to Lead Schools

Wallace Invests $30 Million to Strengthen Supervisors Of School Principals to Improve Their Ability to Lead Schools
June 24, 2014
The Wallace Foundation




Jessica Schwartz 

Megan Cotten 

Effort Aims to Shift Supervisors’ Focus from Bureaucratic Compliance to Principals’ Performance

New York (June 24, 2014) – The Wallace Foundation is investing $30 million in a significant five-year effort to help 14 urban school districts improve the effectiveness of their principal supervisors so they can better work with principals to raise the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

“This overlooked supervisor position has emerged as central to improving principals’ performance,” said Wallace President Will Miller. “To strengthen this critical role, this new initiative will require districts to rethink how their central offices are organized to provide better support to principals in schools.”

“In many large school districts, principal supervisors oversee too many principals – 24 on average – and focus too much on bureaucratic compliance,” added Jody Spiro, Wallace’s director of education leadership. “This new initiative aims to help districts move principal supervisors’ focus to one of support, freeing them to better coach and develop principals to help them improve instruction.”

The initiative has four goals:

  • Changing the position description from compliance to one of support for principals;
  • Reducing the number of principals supervisors oversee and planning central-office redesigns;
  • Developing lessons about how to change central offices to support principal supervisors; and
  • Assessing the effectiveness and effects of these activities across the districts.

The initiative will finance training and support for principal supervisors in a core group of six districts and help them reduce the number of principals these supervisors oversee. These core districts – Long Beach (Calif.), Des Moines (Iowa), Broward County (Fla.), Minneapolis, Cleveland, and DeKalb County (Georgia) – will receive four-year grants averaging about $3 million each. They are among the nation’s most advanced districts in recognizing the importance of the principal supervisor position and will be part of an independent, $2.5-million evaluation that will help answer whether and how boosting the supervisor post leads to more effective principals.

The new initiative also will provide a total of $1.5 million to a smaller set of leading districts – Tulsa and Washington, D.C. – that already have taken steps to strengthen principal supervisors by reducing the number of principals they oversee, downplaying compliance and building supervisors’ skills. The grants – $700,000 for D.C. and $800,000 for Tulsa – will enable these districts to develop succession plans and to create new support positions to ease supervisors’ workloads and nurture new talent. The two leading districts will not be part of the evaluation.

Finally, the initiative will provide additional funding to the six districts that already are part of Wallace’s separate, $75-million Principal Pipeline Initiative, which began in 2011 and aims to help those districts develop a large corps of “instructional leaders” – principals who are well trained and supported to improve teaching and learning in their schools. Wallace will provide the Pipeline districts with grants ranging from $430,000 to $1 million per district, for a total of $4 million. The six Pipeline districts are: Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina), Denver, Gwinnett County (Georgia, near Atlanta), Hillsborough County (Fla., including Tampa), New York City, and Prince George’s County (Md., near Washington, D.C.). With this new funding, these districts will be able to offer additional support to principals, such as extra coaches under the guidance of the principal supervisor. Hillsborough County, for example, will double the support each principal receives through both a coach and a principal supervisor. The Pipeline districts will not be part of the evaluation of the core districts.

The new Principal Supervisor Initiative grew out of Wallace’s 14 years of work to improve school leaders. Feedback from the field to the foundation suggested that principal supervisors often lack the right training and support – and that this can jeopardize principal effectiveness. Nationwide, there’s no consistency across districts about principal supervisor positions. Job titles and definitions vary. Hiring criteria can be vague, and these supervisors rarely have the training to help principals improve instruction. Another problem is that most principal supervisors say their top task is ensuring bureaucratic compliance with district procedures, instead of spending valuable time helping principals lead schools more effectively.

That concern was heightened with research Wallace commissioned from the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation’s largest school districts, which released a report last fall, Rethinking Leadership: The Changing Role of Principal Supervisors. Based in part on a survey with responses from 43 large school districts, the report found that principal supervisors – whose job titles range from area superintendent to zone supervisor to instructional coach – often juggle overseeing large numbers of principals with handling extensive administrative responsibilities. It concluded that many supervisors lack experience as a human resources, operations or central-office instructional administrators and don’t have access to instructionally-focused professional development.

The foundation decided to launch the Principal Superivisor Initiative and conduct a study to answer this question: If principal supervisors in large, complex districts shift from overseeing compliance to sharpening principals’ instructional leadership capabilities, and if they are provided with the right training, support and number of principals to supervise, would this improve the effectiveness of the principals with whom they work?

Wallace chose the six core districts involved in the study after inviting 23 districts with a willingness and potential to change their principal supervisor positions to compete to be chosen for the initiative.

For the evaluation, the foundation will select independent researchers to gather evidence on how the Principal Supervisor Initiative is carried out in the six core districts. They will examine, among other things, whether the effort improved the performance of principals, as measured by VAL-ED, a leader assessment tool developed with Wallace funding by researchers at Vanderbilt University and the University of Pennsylvania.

The evaluators will issue two major reports: one assessing the early experiences of the districts and how they manage the process of changing principal supervision; and a final report assessing how the districts change the supervision of principals, how supervisors and principals respond to the new approach, and how the new principal supervisors affect the performance of the principals they supervise.

The Principal Supervisor Initiative also includes funding for:

  • Council on Chief State School Officers to lead the process of developing voluntary standards for principal supervisors.
  • University of Washington to develop a valid and reliable, 360-degree evaluation tool for principal supervisors.
  • New York City Leadership Academy to organize a “professional learning community” in which participating districts meet to learn from one another.
  • The Council of Great City Schools to help districts plan initiative work.
  • Several organizations – Bank Street College, New Leaders, and the American Association of School Administrators with assistance from Learning Forward – to help the districts.
  • Discovery Education to provide VAL-ED, the principal leader assessment tool, to the districts.


The Wallace Foundation is an independent,national foundation dedicated to supporting and sharing effective ideas and practices that expand learning and enrichment opportunities for children. The Foundation maintains an online library of lessons at about what it has learned, including knowledge from its current efforts aimed at: strengthening educational leadership to improve student achievement; helping disadvantaged students gain more time for learning through summer learning and through the effective use of additional learning time during the school day and year; enhancing out-of-school time opportunities; and building appreciation and demand for the arts.


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