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.
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: www.policyreviewonline.org, 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.