Rethinking Leadership: The Changing Role of Principal Supervisors

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Rethinking Leadership: The Changing Role of Principal Supervisors


In recent years, a growing understanding of the transformative power of school leadership has helped redefine the role and expectations of principals, as well as the way districts prepare, select, and evaluate principals. These widespread changes have also transformed the role of principal supervisors-those charged with overseeing, supporting, and evaluating this new generation of school leaders.

In the fall of 2012, the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) received a grant from The Wallace Foundation to further investigate the ways principal supervisors are selected, supported, and evaluated in major school districts across the country, looking specifically at the roles and responsibilities of staff in these positions. The Council is a coalition of 67 of the nation's largest urban public school systems. The organization conducts research and provides advocacy support and hands-on technical assistance to its members to help advance academic achievement, leadership, and operational management in urban districts.

The study commissioned by The Wallace Foundation was conducted in two parts. The first part involved a survey administered to member district staff serving as principal supervisors in the fall of 2012. The results from that survey were released in March 2013 in a report entitled Principal Evaluations and the Principal Supervisor: Survey Results from the Great City Schools.

The second part of the study involved visits to six districts participating in The Wallace Foundation's Principal Pipeline Initiative-a multi-year undertaking designed to improve training and support mechanisms for principals and to test the effect on student achievement. The six districts-Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Denver Public Schools, Gwinnett County Public Schools, Hillsborough County Public Schools, the New York City Department of Education, and Prince George's County Public Schools-are putting in place new processes to help develop a larger corps of effective school principals. The goal is to test the following: If an urban district, and its principal training programs, provide a large number of talented aspiring principals with the right pre-service training and on-the-job support, the result will be a pipeline of principals able to improve teacher quality and student achievement, especially in schools with the greatest needs.

The pipeline effort has highlighted the role of the people who manage principals-principal supervisors-and both the foundation and districts realized not much is known about this role. At Wallace's request, CGCS visited the six sites to learn more about the work of principal supervisors as it is played out on the ground.

This report provides a summary of findings from both the survey and the site visits.1 Part I begins by briefly describing the general features of the principal supervisory structures in each of the six site visit districts. This section then presents comparisons and common themes observed across districts in the areas of organizational structures and the roles, selection, deployment, staffing, professional development, and evaluation of principal supervisors, as well as the preparation, selection, support, and evaluation of principals. Part II provides a set of recommendations for building more effective principal supervisory systems-those practices observed across districts that appear best positioned to positively impact the work of supervisors and principals and, ultimately, to improve student achievement.


This study sought to answer four main research questions:

  1. How do districts select, prepare, and provide professional development to principal supervisors?
  2. To what extent are principal supervisors expected to assume an instructional leadership role within the district, and how are they supported in this role?
  3. What levels of operational/instructional support are provided to principals?
  4. How are principal supervisors and principals evaluated?

First, CGCS surveyed its 67 urban public school district members, along with two other school systems that are part of The Wallace Foundation's pipeline initiative but are not members of the Council-Gwinnett County Public Schools and Prince George's County Public Schools. The survey was sent to superintendents in each district and was conducted via Survey Monkey. Superintendents were asked to forward the survey to staff members who best fit the "principal supervisor" role. The instrument remained in the field between October 10 and November 26, 2012, and multiple reminders were sent to boost response rates.

Surveys with usable data were received from 135 individuals in 41 districts, including 39 of the 67 CGCS member districts and two non-member Wallace pipeline districts, for a response rate of nearly 60 percent. The survey asked for information about the characteristics and roles of principal supervisors, the professional development provided to them, and the perceived effectiveness of their principal evaluation systems. The survey also asked respondents to indicate how these roles and responsibilities had changed between 2010 and 2012. Otherwise, all results apply to the school year ending in June 2012. Apart from selected data on the numbers of principal supervisors, all other data are reported in the aggregate rather than by district.

Then, a team of CGCS instructional and research staff conducted site visits between November 2012 and March 2013 to the six districts participating in The Wallace Foundation's Principal Pipeline Initiative.2 , 3 The results reported in this study therefore apply to the district structures and policies that were in place during this time period and may have subsequently changed. Again, these districts were not chosen as exemplars of any particular principal supervisory structures or practices but because they were part of the principal pipeline project. The observed themes and variations therefore may not encompass the full range of systems and practices employed by districts nationwide.

These site visits typically lasted one day and involved both individual and group interviews with the superintendent, deputy superintendents, principal supervisors, principal coaches, curriculum and instruction directors and staff, research and accountability directors, human resources directors, Wallace principal pipeline project directors, and a focus group of principals. An interview rubric with tailored questions for each group was developed in advance of the visits to provide a common framework for these conversations.

In addition, the site visit team reviewed various documents provided by each district, including organizational charts, job descriptions, personnel evaluation forms, meeting agendas, classroom observation rubrics, school improvement plans, and other materials.

At the end of each visit, the team met to discuss the overall structure and specific features of each study district based on the interviews, materials, and survey responses.

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1 See Appendix A for the complete set of survey results.

2 Prince George's County participated in an earlier principal development site visit conducted by Break the Curve Consulting with support from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in June 2012. With the agreement of all parties, notes and transcripts from that visit were used in lieu of a second visit to the district.

3 See Appendix C for a list of the site visit team members.