Wallace Foundation Awards DMPS $3 Million to Strengthen School Leaders

support-principalsThe Wallace Foundation is investing about $3 million in a significant five-year effort to help Des Moines Public Schools improve the effectiveness of its principal supervisors so they can better work with principals to raise the quality of teaching and learning in schools. The local grant is part of Wallace’s new $30-million national Principal Supervisor Initiative involving 14 urban school districts across the country.

“This grant provides significant support to the work underway at Des Moines Public Schools to enhance and improve the support provided to our principals,” said Superintendent Tom Ahart. “The funding from the Wallace Foundation will help us ensure that every district administrator is actively contributing to student results in a systematic way while at the same time growing our own pool of leadership talent.”

This past year, Des Moines Public Schools created the Office of Schools, which in large part was designed to provide better and more direct support for principals. The Wallace grant will allow DMPS to get to the recommended number of principals that each principal supervisor supports. At DMPS, the initiative will finance training and support for principal supervisors and help them reduce the number of principals these supervisors oversee. DMPS currently has 4 principal supervisors, and each oversees on average 16 principals. Support from the Wallace Foundation will also help DMPS develop better principal supervisors, central office support systems, and establish a pipeline for principals and central office leadership.

Wallace launched the new initiative because it believes the overlooked supervisor position has emerged as central to improving principals’ performance. “In many large school districts, principal supervisors oversee too many principals – 24 on average – and focus too much on bureaucratic compliance,” said Jody Spiro, Wallace’s director of education leadership. “This new initiative aims to help districts move principal supervisors’ focus to one of support, freeing them to better coach and develop principals to help them improve instruction.”

Wallace chose DMPS and the five other core districts after inviting 23 districts with a willingness and potential to change their principal supervisor positions to compete to be chosen for the initiative. DMPS and the other five core districts are among the nation’s most advanced districts in recognizing the importance of the principal supervisor position. Besides DMPS, the five other districts are Long Beach (CA), Broward County (FL), Minneapolis, Cleveland, and DeKalb County (GA).

DMPS and the five other districts will be part of an independent, $2.5-million evaluation that will help answer whether and how boosting the supervisor post leads to more effective principals.

The new Principal Supervisor Initiative grew out of Wallace’s 14 years of work to improve school leaders. Feedback from the field to the foundation suggested that principal supervisors often lacked the right training and support – and that this can jeopardize principal effectiveness. Nationwide, there’s no consistency across districts about principal supervisor positions. Job titles and definitions vary. Hiring criteria can be vague, and these supervisors rarely have the training to help principals improve instruction. Another problem is that most principal supervisors say their top task is ensuring bureaucratic compliance with district procedures, instead of spending valuable time helping principals lead schools more effectively.

That concern was heightened with research Wallace commissioned from the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation’s largest school districts, which released a report last fall, Rethinking Leadership: The Changing Role of Principal Supervisors. Based in part on a survey with responses from 43 large school districts, the report found that principal supervisors – whose job titles range from area superintendent to zone supervisor to instructional coach – often juggle overseeing large numbers of principals with handling extensive administrative responsibilities. It concluded that many supervisors lack experience as a human resources, operations or central-office instructional administrators and don’t have access to instructionally-focused professional development.

The foundation decided to launch the Principal Superivisor Initiative and conduct a study to answer this question: If principal supervisors in large, complex districts shift from overseeing compliance to sharpening principals’ instructional leadership capabilities, and if they are provided with the right training, support and number of principals to supervise, would this improve the effectiveness of the principals with whom they work?

For the evaluation, the foundation will select independent researchers to provide evidence on how the Principal Supervisor Initiative is carried out in DMPS and the five other core districts. They will examine, among other things, whether the effort improved the performance of principals, as measured by VAL-ED, a leader assessment tool developed with Wallace funding by researchers at  Vanderbilt University and the University of Pennsylvania.

The evaluators plan to issue two major reports: one assessing the early experiences of the districts and how they manage the process of changing principal supervision; and a final report assessing how the districts change the supervision of principals, how supervisors and principals respond to the new approach, and how the new principal supervisors affect the performance of the principals they supervise.

Wallace’s overall national Principal Supervisor Initiative also involves eight other districts in various stages of strengthening their principal supervisor positions. But those districts will not be part of the study.


The Wallace Foundation is an independent,national foundation dedicated to supporting and sharing effective ideas and practices that expand learning and enrichment opportunities for children. The Foundation maintains an online library of lessons at www.wallacefoundation.org about what it has learned, including knowledge from its current efforts aimed at: strengthening educational leadership to improve student achievement; helping disadvantaged students gain more time for learning through summer learning and through the effective use of additional learning time during the school day and year; enhancing out-of-school time opportunities; and building appreciation and demand for the arts.

Superintendent Ahart Talks with DMPS-TV About Wallace Grant