$3M Grant to Help Principal Supervisors

The Wallace Foundation is investing about $3 million in a five-year effort to help the Long Beach Unified School District improve the effectiveness of its principal supervisors so they can better work with principals to raise the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

The local grant is part of Wallace’s new $30 million national Principal Supervisor Initiative involving 14 urban school districts across the country.

“We’re excited to receive this important and generous grant,” said LBUSD Superintendent Christopher J. Steinhauser. “These new resources will help us to build upon our professional development of principal supervisors. This work fits well with our ongoing training of principals and teachers, all of which is key to improving student achievement.”

Wallace launched the new initiative because it believes the overlooked supervisor position has emerged as central to improving principals’ performance.

“In many large school districts, principal supervisors oversee too many principals – 24 on average – and focus too much on bureaucratic compliance,” said 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.”

Wallace chose LBUSD and the five other districts after inviting 23 districts to compete to be chosen for the initiative. LBUSD and the other five districts are considered to be among the nation’s most advanced districts in recognizing the importance of the principal supervisor position. Besides LBUSD the five other districts are Des Moines (Iowa), Broward County (Fla.), Minneapolis, Cleveland and DeKalb County (Georgia).

LBUSD and the five other districts 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 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 lacked 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 oversee large numbers of principals while juggling extensive administrative responsibilities. The survey concluded that many supervisors lack access to instructionally focused professional development.

The foundation decided to launch the Principal Supervisor 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?

For the evaluation, the foundation will select independent researchers to provide evidence on how the Principal Supervisor Initiative is carried out in LBUSD and the five other 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 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.

Wallace’s national Principal Supervisor Initiative also involves eight other districts in various stages of strengthening their principal supervisor positions, but those districts will not be part of the study.