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Wallace Launches $24-Million Initiative for Districts to Strengthen Supervisors of School Principals in Effort to Improve Student Learning

Wallace Launches $24-Million Initiative for Districts to Strengthen Supervisors of School Principals in Effort to Improve Student Learning
February 4, 2014
The Wallace Foundation


Jessica Schwartz

Megan Cotten 

Five-year project will test whether better trained and supported principal supervisors, with fewer principals to oversee, can improve principal effectiveness

New York (Feb. 4, 2014) – The Wallace Foundation is launching a new, $24-million initiative to help school districts step up support for principals’ supervisors that will enable them to better support principals to improve teaching and learning.

The five-year project, announced by the foundation today, will finance more training and support for principal supervisors in up to six large urban school districts serving low-income children. The initiative also will allow districts to reduce the number of principals these managers oversee. The work aims to enable supervisors to better train and support principals to get what they need in order to improve teaching and learning in their schools.

Wallace will also support an independent, $2.5-million study to examine the effort and help answer questions including whether and how boosting the supervisor post leads to more effective principals.

“Strong schools need strong principals, and strong principals need strong support from the people they report to in the districts’ central offices,” said Will Miller, president of Wallace. “Principal supervisors can help principals create high-quality schools by providing them with the individualized support and personal development that makes them more effective leaders. Yet, these supervisors often are unprepared for this work and oversee 24 principals on average, raising questions about whether they have the time to focus on anything other than compliance.”

“While district-level principal supervisors could play a big role in improving the principalship,” said Jody Spiro, Wallace’s director of education leadership, “there’s no consistency across districts about these 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.”

Wallace hopes 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 has invited 23 school districts – already selected by Wallace as having the willingness and potential to change their principal supervisor positions – to compete to be chosen for the initiative. Up to six districts, which will then receive grants averaging up to $3 million per district over the life of the initiative, will be announced in early September. The funding will help the districts develop job descriptions, hiring criteria, training and other support for principal supervisors. The grants also will enable them to hire new supervisors or reassign staff members to reduce the number of principals each supervisor oversees. Wallace will subsidize the costs of the new supervisors when they are hired, but gradually phase out support so that districts cover all costs by the grant’s end. Districts also will have to contribute at least one-third of the expenses for the project.

The new initiative grew out of Wallace’s 14 years of work to improve school leaders. Currently, Wallace is in the midst of a separate $75-million effort, the principal pipeline initiative, which is helping six other districts create a large corps of “instructional leaders” – principals who specialize in improving teaching and learning. Research has shown that leadership is second only to teaching among school-related factors as an influence on learning. It also shows that the quality of the principal is the number one reason for a teacher’s decision about whether to teach in a low-performing school.

Through its work with the pipeline districts, the foundation became concerned that principal supervisors often lacked the right training and support – and that this could jeopardize principal effectiveness. “We began to suspect that gains in schools might not be sustainable without support from another position – the principal’s supervisor in the central office,” said Spiro.

The 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 also found that districts tend to match schools with principal supervisors based on what makes for convenient school visits rather than what kind of oversight is called for. Moreover, 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. This lack of experience is complicated by the short tenures – typically, three years – of principal supervisors in urban districts.

In addition, the initiative will help districts create a system to ensure a flow of new supervisors to step into the jobs as needed. It will also enable districts to develop plans to make sure principal supervisors have the time and support to do their jobs well, a change that may require district central offices to rethink how they structure jobs and responsibilities.

Other major aspects of the initiative include the establishment of a “professional learning community” in which participating districts meet together and with experts periodically to learn from one another.

The foundation will select independent researchers to provide evidence on how the principal supervisor initiative is carried out in the participating 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 the Universities of Vanderbilt and Pennsylvania.

Those who will evaluate the initiative plan to 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.

One district that already has revamped its approach to the principal supervisor job is Denver Public Schools. For middle and high schools and the lowest-performing elementary schools, for example, Denver put in place eight instructional superintendents, each overseeing about seven to nine schools. Some 70 percent of their time is spent in those buildings. They visit classrooms, review student test score data and coach principals’ through difficult decisions and follow up to see how those decisions worked out. Denver used a federal grant to help begin overhauling its system. A Wallace account, “Make Room for the Principal Supervisors,” details how the district accomplished it.


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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