Current education reform efforts are spread over many different points of emphasis. Prominent among these is the effort to improve teacher quality. By itself, improving teacher quality is a multifaceted, complex program of innovations, including attracting more high performers to the profession, increasing the rigor of teacher education programs, differentiating workplace roles, and varying compensation based on performance. A central pinch point in achieving these goals is teacher supervision. It is a pinch point because all the elements of improving teacher quality rely on teacher feedback that is relevant, accurate, credible and fair. Historically, delivering this kind of feedback has been difficult and largely unrealized.


In thinking about teacher supervision, let’s first consider context. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the average public elementary school in the United States serves about 500 students. At a student-teacher ratio of 30:1, about seventeen regular classroom teachers would staff a school this size. In addition, let’s assume that the school has no specialists other than one special education teacher for a total of eighteen professional staff. Let’s work with this configuration as our prototype as the same organizational principles related to teacher supervision scale up or down pretty well for larger or smaller schools. The same principles apply to secondary schools as well, though with more complications due to more differentiated staffing models.

Of the eighteen teachers in our prototypical school, three or four are likely to be master teachers, one or two are likely to be struggling, three or four are likely to be marginally effective, and three or four are relatively new to the teaching profession. Everyone else is meeting expectations pretty consistently. In this school, like most others, there are a variety of performers and a variety of needs for improvement. That’s life.


Now, remember that the goal is to provide each of these eighteen teachers with relevant, accurate, credible and fair feedback about their performance. What’s required to do this?

1) We need a clear description of our definition of effective teaching. Fortunately, as a profession, we have a pretty clear understanding of these components. A good example would be Charlotte Danielson’s framework for teaching. There are others. There is no need to re-invent this wheel. In these models, a component of instruction might be something like “engaging students during instruction.”

2) We need clear performance standards that differentiate various levels of performance. Generally, this manifests itself as four or five performance levels ranging from “not meeting” to “exceeding” the expectation for a component. Using engagement as our example, in the “not meets” category we might observe very few or no instances of effective engagement and in the “exceeds” category we might observe continuous, smooth, innovative forms of engagement. And just like with our definition of effective teaching, the performance standards have already been worked out in reasonable detail. No new wheel here either.

3) We need a plan for gathering information and a systematic approach for providing feedback in a helpful and supportive way. This includes determining the number and length of classroom observations (something like one per academic quarter), reviewing work products like lesson plans or assessments, a specific conferencing protocol and complete documentation of the supervision process to the extent that any subsequent process challenges can be effectively met.

4) We will need clear links to consequences such as targeted professional development, compensation changes, career ladder options, and even employment continuation. The discussion of the consequences, whether recognizing excellence or addressing performance concerns, needs thoughtful preparation and provision for sustained conversation as the situation dictates.

Considered in this way, teacher supervision is a thoughtful, iterative and time-consuming process that seeks to establish a real relationship between the supervisor and the teacher being supervised. In fact, this vision of supervision is very similar to the supervision processes in place in the best-managed private sector companies. Good supervision is pretty much the same in every workplace.


Given the requirements of our teacher supervision model, who should actually deliver the supervision? Historically, that responsibility has fallen to the school principal. And in most of the current efforts to reform supervision, principals are still seen as the central players. Is this realistic? The short answer is no. Even without the supervision component, principals already have full time jobs. Though we might find exceptional individuals who demonstrate strong supervision skills, these individuals do not represent the norm. And even if we could improve the supervision skills of most principals, severe time constraints will limit their practice. In short, if we burden principals with the new supervision expectations, the status quo will predictably continue.

A New Approach

To get quality supervision, more time and resources will be needed. There are no shortcuts. Remember the context of our prototypical school: eighteen teachers with varying needs and levels of expertise and one principal with a full-time job which presently includes only minimal supervision responsibilities. What’s the solution?

One new approach is to offload some of the principal’s responsibilities to a school “manager” who tends to the operational details (substitutes, hot lunches, plumbing problems, etc.) so that the principal can focus on instructional leadership (supervision). Of course this involves adding additional administrative resources and depends on the current principal workforce to deliver quality supervision, whether originally hired with that function as a priority or not. We should watch these test cases closely.

Teacher Ladders

I prefer an approach based on teacher career ladders. For lack of a better term, we should create a rung on the ladder called “instruction supervisor” which would be responsible for supervision (and other instruction-related tasks). Candidates for instruction supervisor would be experienced, effective teachers with a well-developed understanding of the art and science of instruction. In addition, they would already have shown leadership capabilities and have earned the trust and respect of their colleagues.

Once hired, the new instruction supervisor would receive intense professional development in the supervision system and begin actual supervision responsibilities only after meeting certification criteria. In our prototypical school we might employ two instruction supervisors, each responsible for supervising nine teachers. With perhaps 75 percent of their time devoted to supervision of nine people and with excellent supervision training, we should expect to see great improvements in the quality of supervision and a commensurate improvement in the quality of the overall teacher workforce over time.


However, what I am suggesting is not without its challenges. First, new positions require new resources or the reallocation of existing system-wide resources. Second, since supervision is generally regarded as a management prerogative, the status of a teacher filling the instruction supervisor role would need to be “discussed” until a workable arrangement could be established. But these seem like problems that can be overcome, especially given the potential positive benefits of quality supervision.

If you are interested in a more thoroughly developed example of this approach, please see my monograph entitled, Social Organization of the Teacher Workplace, on my Website:, under the Education tab.

Our education reform ambitions will likely be frustrated without a solid system of teacher supervision. And a system of teacher supervision is only as good as its supervisors and the system of support that they implement. Fresh thinking and new arrangements will be needed to develop the supervision system that teachers deserve.


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4 Responses to “Reforming Teacher Supervision”

  1. Steve Buel says:

    Ron, thanks for the article, you really make a lot of good points. I really like the Danielson stuff. But I think you missed the point somewhat in that teacher supervision is not the same as making sure each teacher is progressing in some manner or watching them to make sure they are doing fine. It should be a process which frees them up to reach their potential — not in supervisory point making, but in teaching. Performance is not necessarily a result of doing all the right things only, but it also includes having the best possible attitude and making a maximum effort. The best “supervisor” I ever had, a wonderful principal who headed up a fabulous school, maybe the best I have ever seen in elementary school, had a simple mantra: “I want to keep you teaching as well as you are.” He spent a half hour every morning just going around the school and shooting the bull with his staff. He knew my whole family, my hopes, my dreams, the names of my nephews and nieces, my hobbies, and also how I taught. He supported you when he saw you needed something. He would often take an off the cuff suggestion and make sure it happened even if it really inconvenienced him or his schedule. Teacher after teacher would kill for him. Teachers worked late, they were committed and they loved the school and their classrooms. Much of the best teaching I ever saw went on in that school. He did it by developing trust, intellectualism, and focussing on the children. He was open and honest. He put kids first and his teachers second.

    But the point is that he did none of what you suggest. He inspired you to teach well and created avenues and support for you to do your best. Now that is how to supervize.

    But who suggests that principals go out every morning for a half hour just to chat with their teachers? Who follows through with the psychological studies which show autonomy is the best way to bring out the best in your employees in jobs like teaching? Who truly allows teachers a real say in their work environment including initiating their learning experiences? Who supports teachers to the point that they will spend their time getting the teacher what the teacher says they need? Who allows for true independence in teacher collaboration? Who makes sure that teachers voices aren’t corrupted and muzzled? Who takes steps to allow teachers to truly trust them so that it is clear “we” are all in this together for what’s good for kids? Not the system you espouse — it pretty much does the opposite. It worries about who is good, who is bad, who wants to jump ahead. Nobody in my old school cared about jumping ahead — they cared about their students’ learnig. Just something to think about. Thanks again.

  2. Ron Smith says:

    Hi Steve – You’ve done a nice job of describing the best of the status quo – the cheerleader Principal. Makes every staff person feel good and then hopes for the best. Of course a positive, upbeat approach is desireable in any supervisor, but it is not a substitute for quality performance feedback. Quality performance feedback is the missing, yet essential, key to improving teacher quality. Every teacher deserves quality feedback and support to improve. The status quo Principal does not (at least consistently) deliver it.

    • Steve Buel says:

      Ron, the principal I described and worked for is the farthest thing from the status quo that I can almost describe. He wasn’t a cheerleader principal. He was a master at inspiring and getting the best out of his techers. Maybe you missed the part about the focus on kids and the intellectualism. The status quo principal is focussed on testing, control, PR, and his or her own status. All things which the center on feedback tends to support. The feedback approach is excellent. Just, feedback is only good if it is feedback on what is important — a well-rounded education for children — not the testing malaise we are now meshed in which the feedback model also supports. It also doesn’t respond to the idea of autonomy, nor ownership of the class’s learning.

      Also, it downgrades teaching by suggesting there are ladder steps which are above teaching and rewarding them monetarily. Actually, teaching should be the top of the ladder. While I don’t say this with a huge amount of conviction it is still a well-taken point which is not addressed by most plans.

      Another problem with the ladder approach is that measurement is based on quantifiable traits. What was it that made Michaelangelo a better artist than almost any other? Sure, you can quantify it to some degree and I am sure a good art critic could give you a reasonable explanation. But, could you then take the average person and using those traits create another Michaelangelo?

      Teaching is somewhat like art. People are not actually better teachers in general. They are better or worse in various traits and abilities and personality and inspiration and on and on and on.

      One teacher might be good for one type of student, or even an individual student, but not for others, or for a particular student. Evaluate that. I believe this is pretty much a fact, not an opinion. One teacher may be a great U.S. history teacher, but only ordinary or worse not very good as a third grade teacher. Excellent in art, but terrible in PE. Outstanding for kids who are behind, but poor for kids who are ahead. And the variables never stop. The most important thing in creating a good teacher is probably getting them into the correct spot and with the correct type of kids. That type of critically important stuff is not taken into account in most evaluation systems.

      I can go on for weeks maybe in this vein, but the point is that using test scores of kids (which are historically invalid) and setting up cookie cutter systems for evaluation don’t give you the best teaching. And hence, not the best education.

  3. Steve Buel says:

    Ron, sorry I missed something. You make the case for quality feedback. Nobody is a bigger fan of quality feedback than me. But when you mix feedback into the evaluation system it colors the entire equation. I believe that the two should be totally separated and unless that is the case you need to drop the word \quality\ from in front of feedback. This would create evaluation systems which actually evaluate and give judgements. This is not necessary for all teachers and most should never be evaluated at all. However, setting up systems with quality feedback makes a lot of sense and should be done with the full support and initiation of the teacher himself or herself. This creates a totally different approach to the teaching profession, a professional one. The typical approach of the reform movement makes teaching nonprofessional.

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