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Principals' Bosses to Be Target of New Initiative in Six Districts

Do principals need great bosses to do their jobs better? And what should those bosses even do?

Those questions and their answers are at the heart of a new initiative that will sink millions of dollars into improving the conditions and the skill sets for principal supervisors in a half-dozen school districts.

The Wallace Foundation today unveils a $24 million effort to make the bosses of principals—administrators with titles ranging from instructional superintendent  to regional officer—better coaches and evaluators of school leaders. (The Wallace Foundation supports coverage of educational leadership, arts education, and extended- and expanded-learning time in Education Week.)

Wallace, a longtime funder of efforts to improve school leadership, sees supervisors as critical to the overall success of principals and schools, but largely neglected.

"We think that principals' supervisors matter a lot and what we are looking to test in this new initiative is if you have really effective supervisors who have manageable jobs with support from the district, does that lead to more effective principals?" said Jody Spiro, the director of educational leadership for the New York City-based foundation.

The foundation has identified 23 urban districts across the nation of varying sizes that are interested in the effort. Six will be chosen later this year, Spiro said. Among the changes that the winning districts must commit to is reducing the load of responsibilities and number of schools that such supervisors must manage. That means districts will be hiring additional people for these jobs. The average number of schools and principals that these central office administrators oversee is 24, a number that Spiro says makes meaningful mentoring and evaluation impossible.

The picture of who principal supervisors are and what their jobs entail is a jumbled one, judging from the results of a survey of more than 40 large-city districts done last fall by the Council of the Great City Schools. These administrators have all kinds of titles. Some may report directly to superintendents; others to a deputy superintendent. Most, however, are former principals themselves.

"The most common thing that principal supervisors do across all the systems that were surveyed is to ensure compliance with regulation," Spiro said."That's opposed to the rich potential of that job to be a coach, a mentor, and a provider of professional development."

In addition to lowering the number of principals and schools that supervisors must oversee,  Spiro said that districts that end up in the Wallace initiative will also:

• revise the job description of principal supervisors to reflect that the central responsiblity of the position is to support teaching and learning;

• provide more time and support to supervisors to spend coaching and mentoring principals;

• identify ways to spot potential principal supervisors and training to prepare them for the role; and

• plan a reorganization of their central offices in ways that most effectively support principal supervisors.

A related Wallace-funded effort will be the development of a set of professional standards for principal supervisors—similar to those created in the late 1990s for principals by a group of states known as the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, or ISLLC. Those ISLLC standards were updated in 2008, in a Wallace-funded effort.

Wallace is also heavily invested in a five-year $75 million venture to  strengthen cadres of would-be school leaders in six districts: Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Denver; Gwinnett County, Ga; Hillsborough County, Fla.; New York City, and Prince George's County, Md. 

The six districts it selects for the principal supervisors' effort will be different than those working on principal pipelines, Spiro said.

In 2010, the 86,000-student Denver district began its move to reduce the number of schools that principal supervisors were responsible for managing. When that effort began, the district's instructional superintendents had roughly 20 schools in their portfolios. Now, the number ranges from seven to nine. The district also reorganized the central office in such a way that key partners across departments are assigned to assist an instructional superintendent and the group of schools that he or she oversees.

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