The Second Lever of Success for Superintendents


I recently wrote an article arguing that superintendents have three key levers for improving the quality of schools and increasing student achievement:

  1. Define a clear theory of action for school improvement by defining a discrete number of “non-negotiables” for all schools
  2. Support schools by leveraging the district’s principal supervisors to enhance principals’ instructional leadership and hold principals accountable for continuous improvement
  3. Manage performance of schools, by defining and tracking valid measures of implementation of defined non-negotiables

I, then, discussed Lever 1—defining a clear theory of action—noting the importance of clearly articulating the district’s place on the spectrum of school management approaches from centrally managed to school-based management.​

Once the superintendent and leadership team have articulated the district’s theory of action, the superintendent faces myriad questions. Key ones include:

  • Given our theory of action, what should we require from our schools? Another way to frame this question: What do we “hold tight” or what are our non-negotiables (more on this next issue). 
  • In what areas do we want to encourage innovation?  Another way to frame this question: What do we “hold loose” or where do we provide schools with autonomy?
  • How can we best structure the central office to ensure support and accountability for schools?
  • How do we ensure that schools are continuously improving the instruction and supports delivered to students, especially those most at risk of school failure?

Answering these questions carefully is critical, and, in my opinion, requires a central office position responsible for supporting and evaluating principals. Of course, many if not most districts have a role defined as the principal supervisor. Frequently, however, the potential impact of this role is not realized for at least three reasons. 

First, in smaller districts, the person or people who play this role typically have other responsibilities — including being superintendent. In many districts, large and small, the position is not clearly defined and the people serving as principal supervisors find themselves “fighting fires,” responding to community or parent concerns, or serving as a conduit between the schools and the rest of the central office.

A second challenge to districts leveraging principal supervisors effectively is that, while individuals serving as principal supervisors were likely excellent principals and/or outstanding leaders in schools or the central office, many new principal supervisors need support themselves to become effective in this role. Although there is debate as to whether principal supervisors should served in the principalship, two common challenges emerge. Supervisors who were principals themselves often want to “take over” struggling schools. The problem with this is that principal supervisors don’t have the time to manage all schools in their portfolio, and the takeover strategy fails to build capacity of the actual principal leading the school. The second challenge is that principal supervisors who were not principals themselves often face a credibility gap: How can you, principal supervisor, know what I’m going through and how to help me if you were never in my shoes? The reality is that there are outstanding principal supervisors who have never been principals themselves, but they had to overcome the skepticism of their supervisees.

The third challenge to districts leveraging the principal supervision position has to do with structure of and personalities within the central office. What department is responsible for principal induction and professional development? Who supports principals with special education compliance issues and angry parents? What happens when a principal struggles to develop and manage a budget? The answer to these and similar questions depend on the specific district context and the way in which the principal supervision position is structured.

There are a number of ways to structure this role, but there are seven lessons I have learned from working with principal supervisors in districts as diverse as Hawaii; Omaha, Nebraska and Hillsborough County, Florida.

  1. Principal supervisors need to have a reasonable number of schools — probably not much more than 20 — for which they are responsible.
  2. Principal supervisors need not be on the superintendent’s cabinet, but they must have a voice on the cabinet to ensure principals’ needs are well understood and supervisors are able to communicate the district vision effectively.
  3. Principal supervisors should be held accountable for student outcomes and principal development in the schools they are supervising.
  4. Cabinet members must have a clear understanding of what principal supervisors are held accountable for and what their responsibilities do and do not entail.  Cabinet members must also understand how their own role dovetails with that of the principal supervisor.
  5. Principal supervisors should spend at least half their time in schools. Principal supervisors and other central office leaders must work extremely hard to protect this time.
  6. Principal supervisors’ focus should be on helping principals grow as instructional leaders. This requires a clear definition of instructional leadership.
  7. Other central office departments such as HR, budget, curriculum, etc., should be organized to help principal supervisors focus predominantly on principals’ instructional leadership.

The role of principal supervisor will and should look different in every district. But every district should work carefully and strategically not only to define the position but to support it as well. We encourage all districts to set aside resources and time to enable the individuals to grow and evolve in the critical position of principal supervisor.

Scott Joftus is president of the education policy consulting firm Cross & Joftus, LLC. Joftus brings important knowledge of evaluation and significant technical assistance experience. He was the primary developer and is now the director of The Learning Network, a partnership approach to school and school system improvement, which is being implemented statewide in Kansas. He is also the senior strategic advisor and technical assistance provider of the Race to the Top Technical Assistance Network, a $43 million initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education to help states implement major reforms and achieve dramatic improvements in student outcomes. Joftus also serves as an adjunct professor at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, where he teaches leadership, program evaluation, and education policy.

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