Supervision of Instruction

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Supervision, as a field of educational practice with clearly delineated roles and responsibilities, did not fall from the sky fully formed. Rather, supervision emerged slowly as a distinct practice, always in relation to the institutional, academic, cultural, and professional dynamics that have historically generated the complex agenda of schooling.

The History of Supervision

In colonial New England, supervision of instruction began as a process of external inspection: one or more local citizens were appointed to inspect both what the teachers were teaching and what the students were learning. The inspection theme was to remain firmly embedded in the practice of supervision.

The history of supervision as a formal activity exercised by educational administrators within a system of schools did not begin until the formation of the common school in the late 1830s. During the first half of the nineteenth century, population growth in the major cities of the United States necessitated the formation of city school systems. While superintendents initially inspected schools to see that teachers were following the prescribed curriculum and that students were able to recite their lessons, the multiplication of schools soon made this an impossible task for superintendents and the job was delegated to the school principal. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the movement toward scientific management in both industrial and public administration had an influence on schools. At much the same time, child-centered and experienced-based curriculum theories of European educators such as Friedrich Froebel, Johann Pestalozzi, and Johann Herbart, as well as the prominent American philosopher John Dewey, were also affecting the schools. Thus, school supervisors often found themselves caught between the demand to evaluate teachers scientifically and the simultaneous need to transform teaching from a mechanistic repetition of teaching protocols to a diverse repertory of instructional responses to students' natural curiosity and diverse levels of readiness. This tension between supervision as a uniform, scientific approach to teaching and supervision as a flexible, dialogic process between teacher and supervisor involving the shared, professional discretion of both was to continue throughout the century.

In the second half of the century the field of supervision became closely identified with various forms of clinical supervision. Initially developed by Harvard professors Morris Cogan and Robert Anderson and their graduate students, many of whom subsequently became professors of supervision in other universities, clinical supervision blended elements of "objective" and "scientific" classroom observation with aspects of collegial coaching, rational planning, and a flexible, inquiry-based concern with student learning. In 1969 Robert Goldhammer proposed the following five-stage process in clinical supervision: (1) a pre-observation conference between supervisor and teacher concerning elements of the lesson to be observed; (2) classroom observation; (3) a supervisor's analysis of notes from the observation, and planning for the post-observation conference;(4) a post-observation conference between supervisor and teacher; and (5) a supervisor's analysis of the post-observation conference. For many practitioners, these stages were reduced to three: the pre-observation conference, the observation, and the post-observation conference. Cogan insisted on a collegial relationship focused on the teacher's interest in improving student learning, and on a nonjudgmental observation and inquiry process.

The initial practice of clinical supervision, however, soon had to accommodate perspectives coming out of the post-Sputnik curriculum reforms of the 1960s that focused on the structures of the academic disciplines. Shortly thereafter, perspectives generated by research on effective schools and effective classrooms that purported to have discovered the basic steps to effective teaching colonized the clinical supervision process. It was during this period that noted educator Madeline Hunter adapted research findings from the psychology of learning and introduced what was also to become a very popular, quasi-scientific approach to effective teaching in the 1970s and 1980s. These various understandings of curriculum and teaching were frequently superimposed on the three-to five-stage process of clinical supervision and became normative for supervisors' work with teachers. Nevertheless, in many academic circles the original dialogic and reflective process of Cogan and Goldhammer continued as the preferred process of supervision. This original process of supervision has been subsequently embraced by advocates of peer supervision and collegial-teacher leadership through action research in classrooms. Despite the obvious appeal of clinical supervision in its various forms, it is time-consuming and labor-intensive, rendering it impossible to use on any regular basis given the large number of teachers that supervisors are expected to supervise (in addition to their other administrative responsibilities).

Recognizing the time restraints of practicing supervisors, and wanting to honor the need to promote the growth of teachers, Thomas Sergiovanni and Robert Starratt suggested, in 1998, the creation of a supervisory system with multiple processes of supervision, including summative evaluation. Such a system would not require the direct involvement of a formal supervisor for every teacher every year. The supervisory system might cycle teachers with professional status through a three-to five-year period, during which they would receive a formal evaluation once and a variety of other evaluative processes during the other years (e.g., self-evaluation, peer supervision, curriculum development, action research on new teaching strategies, involvement in a school renewal project). The once-a-cycle formal evaluation would require evidence of professional growth. Sergiovanni and Starratt also attempted to open the work of supervision to intentional involvement with the schoolwide renewal agenda, thus placing all stimuli toward professional growthincluding the supervisory systemwithin that larger context.

Roles and Responsibilities of Supervisors

Since supervision is an activity that is part of so many different roles, a few distinctions are in order. First, there are university-based supervisors of undergraduate students in teacher education programs who supervise the activities of novice teachers. Next, a principal or assistant principal may be said to conduct general supervisionas distinct from the more specific, subject-matter supervision conducted by a high school department chair. Other professional personnel involved in supervisory roles include cluster coordinators, lead teachers, mentors, peer coaches and peer supervisors, curriculum specialists, project directors, trainers, program evaluators, and district office administrators. Unfortunately, these professionals, more often than not, carry on their supervisory work without having any professional preparation for it, finding by trial and error what seems to work for them.

Principals not only supervise teachers, but also monitor the work of counselors, librarians, health personnel, secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, and other staff who work in or around the school. This work requires as much diplomacy, sensitivity, and humanity as the supervision of teachers, although it tends to be neglected entirely in the literature. In their everyday contact with students, all of these support personnel may teach multiple, important lessons about the integrity of various kinds of work, about civility and etiquette, and about basic social behavior.

Principals and assistant principals also supervise the work and the behavior of students in the school. As the relationships between students become more governed by legal restrictionsincluding definitions of racial, ethnic, and sexual harassment, of due process, of privacy and free speech rightsand as the incidents of physical violence, bullying, carrying of weapons to school, and the extreme cases of students killing other students increase, this aspect of supervision becomes increasingly complex. Many system and local school administrators have developed a comprehensive system of low visibility, and restrained, security-oriented supervision that anticipates various responses to inappropriate behavior. Unfortunately, many have not attended to the corresponding need to build a nurturing system of pastoral supervision that sets guidelines for the adults in the school in order for them to build sensitive relationships of trust, care, support, and compassion with the students. This more pastoral approach to student supervision will lessen, though not eliminate, the need for other security-conscious types of supervision.

Supervisors usually wear two or three other hats, but their specific responsibilities tend to include some or all of the following arranged in ascending order of scope or reach:

  1. Mentoring or providing for mentoring of beginning teachers to facilitate a supportive induction into the profession.
  2. Bringing individual teachers up to minimum standards of effective teaching (quality assurance and maintenance functions of supervision).
  3. Improving individual teachers' competencies, no matter how proficient they are deemed to be.
  4. Working with groups of teachers in a collaborative effort to improve student learning.
  5. Working with groups of teachers to adapt the local curriculum to the needs and abilities of diverse groups of students, while at the same time bringing the local curriculum in line with state and national standards.
  6. Relating teachers' efforts to improve their teaching to the larger goals of schoolwide improvement in the service of quality learning for all children.

With the involvement of state departments of education in monitoring school improvement efforts, supervisory responsibilities have increasingly encompassed the tasks at the higher end of this list. In turn, these responsibilities involve supervisors in much more complex, collaborative, and develop-mental efforts with teachers, rather than with the more strictly inspectorial responsibilities of an earlier time.

Trends, Issues, and Controversies

A variety of trends can be seen in the field of supervision, all of which mutually influence one another (both positively and negatively) in a dynamic school environment. One trend indicates that teachers will be "supervised" by test results. With teachers being held accountable for increasing their students' scores, the results of these tests are being scrutinized by district and in-house administrators and judgments being made about the competency of individual teachersand, in the case of consistently low-performing schools, about all the teachers in the school. In some districts, these judgments have led to serious efforts at professional development. Unfortunately, in many districts test results have led to an almost vitriolic public blaming of teachers.

Another trend has been toward a significant involvement of teachers in peer supervision and program development. In the literature, these developments are often included in the larger theme of teacher leadership. Along with this trend comes an increasing differentiation in the available options by which teacher supervision may be conducted, thus leaving the more formal assessment for experienced teachers to once every four or five years. Whatever form supervision takes, it has been substantially influenced by the focus on student learning (and on the test performances that demonstrate this learning), and by the need to make sure that attention is given to the learning of all students. Thus, the supervisory episode tends to focus more on an analysis of teaching activity only in relation to, rather than independent of, evidence of student learning.

This focus on student learning in supervision is further influenced by the trend to highlight the learning of previously underserved students, namely those with special needs and consistently low-performing students. Supervisors and teachers are expected to take responsibility for high quality learning for all students, a responsibility that necessarily changes how they approach their work together. Finally, all of these trends are combined in the large trend of focusing on schoolwide renewal. This means attending not only to instructional and curriculum issues, but also to structural and cultural issues that impede student learning.

There are a variety of issues in the field of supervision that need resolutionor at least significant attention. To confront the large agenda of school renewal (in which schools are required to respond to state-imposed curriculum standards or guidelines), systems of supervision at the state level, the district level, and the school level need to coordinate goals and priorities. The politics of school renewal tend to lend a punitive, judgmental edge to supervision at the state level, and to some degree at the district level, and that impression poisons supervision at the school level. Test-driven accountability policies, and the one-dimensional rhetoric with which they are expressed, need to take into account the extraordinarily complex realities of classrooms and neighborhood communities, as well as the traditionally underresourced support systems that are needed to develop the in-school capacity to carry out the renewal agenda. If state and district policies call for quality learning for all students, then schools have to provide adequate opportunities for all students to learn the curriculum on which they will be tested. Supervisors are caught in a crossfire. On the one hand, parents and teachers complain that a variety of enriched learning opportunities for children who have not had an opportunity to learn the curriculum are not available; on the other, district and state administrators complain about poor achievement scores on high-stakes tests, while ignoring the resources needed to bring the schools into compliance with reform policies.

Another issue needing attention is the divide between those supervisors who accept a functionalist, decontextualized, and oversimplified realist view of knowledge as something to be delivered, and those who approach knowledge as something to be actively constructed and performed by learners in realistic contextsand as something whose integrity implies a moral as well as a cognitive appropriation. Assumptions about the nature of knowledge and its appropriation, often unspoken, substantially affect how supervisors and teachers approach student learning and teaching protocols. This is an issue about which all players in the drama of schooling will only gradually reach some kind of consensus. A related issue concerns the degree to which schools and classrooms will accommodate cultural, class, gender, racial, and intellectual diversity. Supervisors cannot ignore the implications of these necessary accommodations for the work of teaching and curriculum development.

Perhaps the biggest controversy in the field is whether supervision as a field of professional and academic inquiry and of relatively unified normative principles will continue to exist as a discernable field. More than a few scholars and practitioners have suggested that supervisory roles and responsibilities should be subsumed under various other administrative and professional roles. For example, principals, acting as "instructional leaders," could simply include a concern for quality learning and teaching under the rubric of instructional leadership and eliminate the use of the word supervision from their vocabulary. Similarly, teacher leaders could engage in collegial inquiry or action research focused on improving student learning and teaching strategies, and similarly eliminate the use of the word supervision from their vocabularyterms like mentoring, coaching, professional development, and curriculum development could instead be used.

Many professors whose academic specialization has been devoted to research and publication in the field of supervision oppose this relinquishing of the concept of supervision, not only because of the vitality of its history, but also because of the fact that the legal and bureaucratic requirements for supervision will surely remain in place. Having a discernible, professional field of supervision, they contend, will prevent the bureaucratic and legal practice of supervision from becoming a formalistic, evaluative ritual. Keeping the professional growth and development aspect of supervision in dynamic tension with the evaluative side of supervision can best be served, they maintain, by retaining a discernible and robust field of scholarship that attends to this balance.

These trends, issues, and controversies will likely keep the field of supervision in a state of dynamic development. However, a lack of attention to the implications of these issues will most certainly cause the field to atrophy and drift to the irrelevant fringes of the schooling enterprise.

See also: Mentoring; Principal, School; School Reform; Teacher Evaluation, subentries on Methods, Overview.


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Robert J. Starratt