School supervision course offerings: Developing supervisory capacity

Martha Ovando

School supervision has been the focus of much discussion and debate regarding its function, identity, authority, purpose and contributions to school effectiveness (Firth & Pajak, 1998, Glickman,1992, Glanz & Neville, 1997, Glanz &Behar-Horestein, 2000,Waite, 2000). However, most recently, the Handbook of Research on School Supervision, edited by Gerald Firth and Edward Pajak (1998) has illuminated the richness of this field and how it lends support to the achievement of excellence and equity in practices and research have influenced schooling at all levels. It also documents the need for further inquiry to expand our understanding of the aim and contributions of school supervision. It has been suggested that scholars use alternative research methodologies with a multidisciplinary approach, and that we expand the scope of school supervision inquiry.

One way to explore school supervision is to explore how the teaching of school supervision in graduate programs contributes to the development of supervisory capacity of aspiring school leaders. According to Badiali (1998), the historical evolution and the various views of school supervision influence the way this field is actually taught. Few have inquired whether courses focus on historical developments, or perspectives of the field of school supervision. A content analysis of supervision textbooks suggests that “most supervision textbooks used broad definitions to describe supervision and, thus, encompassed a wide range of topics” (Reitzug, 1997, 326). However, little is known about how supervision is actually taught. How do school supervision course offerings foster the effective development of supervisory capacity? What is the nature of school supervision courses offered by different preparation programs? What competencies do these courses promote? Addressing these and other related questions may illuminate how university preparation programs attempt to address the capacity needs of those who perform instructional supervision roles. As Waite (2000, p. 283) affirms, university preparation programs tend to “meet the professional needs of teachers who had received varying professional preparation, concerned primarily with so-called in-service supervision-supervision of practicing teachers, as opposed to supervision of student teachers. Consequently, university preparation programs are in a position to develop supervisory capacity and to influence instructional supervisors philosophy, practices, and actions.


Concerns associated with the performance of school personnel including teachers, principals and supervisors, have prompted many professional organizations to review the requirements and content of university preparation programs. New sets of standards of professional practice have been developed to bring about some degree of consensus regarding the most important competencies needed to perform school leadership functions, as well as the preparation of school leaders (National Policy Board of Educational Administration, 2002). For instance, the Interstate School leaders Licensure Consortium in the USA developed a set of standards for school leaders (1996) suggesting that a school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by:

  • Facilitating the development, articulation, implementation, and stewardship of vision of learning that is shared and supported by the school community.
  • Advocating, nurturing, and sustaining a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional growth.
  • Ensuring management and organizations, operations, and resources for a safe, efficient, and effective learning environment.
  • Collaborating with families and community members, responding to diverse community interests and needs, and mobilizing community resources.
  • Acting with integrity, fairness, and in an ethical manner.
  • Understanding, responding to, and influencing the larger political, social, economical, legal, and cultural context. Council of Chief of State School Officers-CCSSO, 1996, p. 10-21).

While these standards are meant to reflect “a common core knowledge, dispositions and performances that will help link leadership more forcefully to productive schools and enhanced educational outcomes” (CCSSO, 1996, p. 3), the standards do not directly address school supervision as a function separate from school leadership. As a result, researchers and professional organizations have begun conversations about standards that may serve as a guiding framework for school supervisors and also for aspiring school leaders’ supervisory capacity. “ A serious concern among scholars and practitioners of instructional supervision is that none of these national standards has seriously addressed standards for supervision and instructional leaders” (Allen, Fillion, Butters, Gordon and Bently, 2004, 1). As a result, advocates suggest that standards for supervision are important for supervision professional practice as well as for professional preparation of aspiring school leaders. For instance, supporting national standards, Firth suggests that:

  • District expectations and standards are ambiguous and erratic.
  • State standards are ambiguous and erratic.
  • Program specialization requires national standards.
  • Accreditation is best served by national standards.
  • Education associations accept national standards
  • Practitioners of instructional supervision advocate national standards.
  • Practitioners of other leadership specializations endorse national standards.
  • Established professions utilize national standards.
  • Professionalization of instructional supervision demands national standards. (Firth, 1997, pp. 176-183).

Advocates of school supervision standards claim that the development of national standards may provide a framework for the assessment, preparation and performance of school supervisors (Firth, 1997; Pajak, 2000). Further, both practitioners and researchers are engaged in professional discourse that may lead to consensus regarding the development of school supervision standards. However, in the absence of standards for school supervision, it is imperative to examine how school supervision courses promote the development of instructional supervisory capacity, which is what knowledge, skills and dispositions are the primary foci of school supervision courses?

Few scholars focus on how supervision is taught by providing some historical context and contemporary perspective (Baldiali, 1998, p. 957). The way supervision has been taught is nested in the milieu of history, including a thicket of concepts, some complementary, some competing, with regard to how one views the practice” (1998, p. 957). Scholars observe that university supervision programs of study sprung up at the beginning of the 20th century to meet the needs of teachers who received widely varying professional preparation (Waite, 2000, p. 283). Today programs need to address the challenges of aspiring school supervisors who work with teachers within an accountability context. Thus, there is a need to further examine how school supervision courses can inform the current debate. Such examination may further shed light on the scope, knowledge, skills and dispositions required to develop school supervisory capacity of aspiring school leaders who will serve in diverse school contexts.


Debates about school supervision continue to raise questions and concerns associated with school supervision standards, its focus, scope and functions. According to Glanz & Behar-Horestein (2000), the field of school supervision is witnessing a continued debate between modern and postmodern perspectives of supervision. Others assert that what teachers need, want and get from supervision may not necessarily reflect what we know about supervision (Zepeda & Ponticell, (1998). Similarly, others argue that a shift in supervisory approaches is needed and that “knowledge of pedagogical processes and content knowledge must be fused” (Nelson & Sassi, 200), p. 558). Consequently, it is imperative to focus our attention on the professional knowledge that is used in school supervision courses, and the strategies offered to develop aspiring school leaders’ supervisory capacity.

This exploratory study attempted to determine the nature and characteristics of school supervision courses in university preparation programs. The following questions guided the study:

  1. What are the overall purposes of school supervision courses?
  2. What competencies (conceptual, technical and humanistic) are developed by school supervision courses?
  3. What types of culminating activities do students in school supervisory courses complete?
  4. What school supervision texts serve as foundational references in school supervision courses?

A qualitative approach was used to capture the essence of school supervision courses reflected in university preparation programs. Data sources included course syllabi that fall within the category of documents and records known as “non human sources” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Course syllabi were selected according to Milstein, Borboff, & Restine (1991), using selection criteria for accessibility, relevance, accuracy, economy of resources, skill and time. The course syllabi included in this study were found to be a stable, rich and non-reactive source of information (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).

Course syllabi were collected from the membership of the Council of Professors of Instructional Supervision (COPIS). Members of COPIS were contacted, which was mailed to 47 COPIS members using the COPIS directory. A total of 35 documents were received. However, only 24 of these included information pertaining the focus of the study. Course syllabi were reviewed and analyzed following Krippendorff’s (1980) content analysis guidelines. Content analysis allowed the researcher to inductively organize the data according to the research questions.


Findings are presented in a summarized fashion within four main themes. These include purpose of supervisory courses, supervisory competencies, culminating experiences and references of school supervision courses.

Purpose of supervision courses

The content analysis of the course syllabi revealed that school supervision courses have a tri-dimensional foci that leads to an understanding of the field of school supervision. These are the function, knowledge and skills, and related disciplines. Thus, these suggest that the overall purpose of school supervision courses is:

  • To examine supervision as a school leadership function which facilitates the improvement of instruction through direct assistance to teachers, curriculum development, group development, staff development and action research.
  • To develop the knowledge skills and dispositions associated with the theoretical and research basis of school supervision.
  • To build a repertoire of various school supervision models (clinical, developmental, differentiated, collaborative, mentoring, cognitive coaching, and action research)
  • To gain an appreciation of related fields such as curriculum theory, curriculum development, staff development, processes of school change, group dynamics and others.

More specific course objectives emphasize school supervision skill development and their application in diverse school settings. Other objectives aim at personal reflection using a variety of tools such as the educational platform, problem solution and creativity, working with teachers in a collaborative way to enhance classroom instruction, use of multiple supervision models and strategies, as well as use of classroom-based data to enhance classroom instruction and student learning. It is apparent from these purposes and objectives that the main thrust of school supervision courses is on the improvement of classroom instruction, teacher instructional performance and student academic achievement.

Competencies developed by supervision courses

For the purpose of this study, competencies were defined as the set of conceptual, technical and humanistic knowledge and skills necessary to perform the role of school supervisor. The content analysis revealed that all courses aim at a balance in the development of competencies. The following themes emerged from the data:

The conceptual competencies related to the foundational knowledge that includes the scope of school supervision, historical development of school supervision, theories of school supervision, models or approaches of school supervision (clinical supervision, differentiated supervision, and developmental supervision), teacher evaluation -formative and summative, functions of school supervision and school supervisory roles. Also included was knowledge of related fields of study, such as philosophy of education, curriculum (design, implementation and evaluation), staff development (assessment, delivery and evaluation), school change (needs assessment, design, implementation and evaluation), school organization (structures, climate, authority, power, roles, etc.), organizational development, and group dynamics.

The technical competencies included the development of skills for instructional processes and teaching strategies, observation of classroom instruction, data collection and analysis, conferencing with teachers, modeling teaching, providing constructive feedback, problem solving, and questioning.

The humanistic competencies may be placed within the area of human relations. These competencies included the ability to communicate both in oral and written forms, develop collegiality, build trust, build teams, develop collaboration, and deliver constructive feedback.

Culminating activities

Culminating activities referred to those projects and-or-actions that students completed in order to demonstrate achievement of the course purposes and objectives and the satisfactory completion of course requirements. Data revealed that all course syllabi included a variety of culminating activities. However, four clusters emerged from the data.

Scholar orientation: Several of the culminating activities aimed at the study, critical inquiry, and examination of school supervision literature with the intent to discover and interpret school supervision literature. These included:

  • Research papers with a focus on different school supervision topics
  • Critical reviews of school supervision research
  • Critical reviews of school supervision books
  • Critical reaction papers of school supervision literature
  • Position papers on specific school supervision topics
  • Comparative analysis of theoretical position of school supervision scholars
  • Scholarly papers for publication in professional journals
  • Summaries of current school supervision research
  • Critiques of selected school supervision articles

Practice Orientation: Other culminating activities focused on the application of school supervision knowledge and the development of professional capacity by engaging in specific school supervision projects. These included:

  • Develop a school supervision model
  • Plan, conduct, and evaluate a complete instructional supervision cycle
  • Write a proposal for a staff development project
  • Develop a personal school supervision portfolio
  • Develop a personal educational platform
  • Create an interdisciplinary curriculum plan
  • Perform random acts of kindness
  • Observe and collect classroom-based data
  • Deliver constructive feedback using electronic media
  • Interview school supervisors at the campus level
  • Build collegial teacher teams

Reflective Orientation: Some culminating activities were aimed at creating opportunities for students to consciously ponder and meditate about their learning experiences, future school leader roles, beliefs and values, supervision preferences, and the like. These included:

  • Writing reflective learning journals (weekly, monthly)
  • Constructing case studies of school supervision
  • Writing reflection papers
  • Developing an educational platform

Academic Orientation: Culminating activities with an academic orientation were aimed at the demonstration of accumulated knowledge and theory rather than practice development. These also emphasized the use of professional terminology, and included:

  • Final essay examinations
  • Individual and team presentations of school supervision models
  • Written responses to specific open-ended questions
  • Self-assessment as final written reports
  • Reading and critiquing written reports
  • Integrative essays
  • School supervision research-based article critiques

The overall goals of all culminating activities appear to be the demonstration of a fund of knowledge, development of higher order thinking skills, and supervisory capacity needed for the professional practice of school supervision.

School supervision references

Most course syllabi included two sections of references, one was labeled as “required reading” and one was labeled as “additional readings” or “recommended readings.” However, this study focused only on the references under “required readings.” Findings suggest that the required textbooks used in school supervision courses form a continuum, from very comprehensive treatments of school supervision to very specific treatments of single school supervision models.

A total of 31 references was found. From these, Acheson & Gall, and Sergiovanni & Starrat appear to be the most used books, followed by Glanz & Neville, and Glickman, Gordon, and Ross-Gordon. These references included: (1) Acheson, K., Gall, M. D. (1997) Techniques in the clinical supervision of teaching: preservice and inservice applications. (4th Ed.) New York, NY: Longman; (2) Glanz, J. & Neville, R. F. (1997). Educational supervision: Perspectives, issues, and controversies. Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon Publishers; (3) Glickman, C. D., Gordon, S. P. & Ross-Gordon, J. M. (1995, 2001) Supervision of instruction: A developmental approach. Needham Heights, M: Allyn and Bacon; (4) Sergiovanni, T. J. & Starrat, R. J. (2002, 1998). Supervision: A redefinition (6th and 7th Eds.) New York, NY: Mc Graw Hill.

Concluding Statement

This study focused on the nature and characteristics of school supervision courses offered in university school leadership and supervision preparation programs. It attempted to discover the overall purposes of school supervision courses, to identify the competencies developed, the types of culminating activities required, and the school supervision references used as conceptual and foundational readings. Data sources included supervision courses syllabi as a stable non-reactive source of information. A total of 24 course syllabi provided by COPIS members were included in the study. Data analysis used an inductive approach to address the questions of the study.

The results of this study suggest that most courses assume that aspiring school supervisors should develop a broad foundational knowledge, rather than base their professional supervisory capacity on a single supervisory theory or model. Nor should they focus on a single level of school supervision. This is congruent with perspective that there are alternative views on the scope of supervision that may include “school supervision, instructional supervision, classroom-based supervision and clinical supervision” (Allen, et. al., p. 2004, 23). Findings also suggest that the content, promoted by the different courses, reinforces the notion that school supervision is a comprehensive field, encompassing a wide range of functions. Furthermore, developing various competencies serves the purpose of building professional school supervisor capacity. However, the main thrust appears to be instructional improvement through work with teachers in a collaborative fashion.

Culminating activities reflect four orientations. These are scholar orientation, practice orientation, reflective orientation and academic orientation. The overall emphasis, however, is on the ability to establish a positive working relationship between the supervisor and the teacher for enhancing student academic success. Similarly, culminating activities reinforce the role of the school supervisor as one of support and facilitation.

Findings also revealed that a wide variety of school supervision references make up the required readings of the supervision courses. Most of them include extensive bibliography lists that address supervision theories, concepts, models, roles, relationships, areas or dimensions, related fields, and supervision trends. These are illustrations of the rich and extensive supervisory literature read in school supervision courses. As Allen et. al. (2004) affirm, school supervision references tend to range from broad conceptions of school supervision to very specific classroom based conceptions.

While findings suggest that a variety of supervisory courses exist. There is an apparent unity of purpose among them, that of instructional quality and student success. Most supervision courses aim at preparing aspiring school supervisors for assessing, planning, organizing, implementing and evaluating instructional improvement efforts. However, others aim at enhancing the teaching and learning process, through clinical supervision. This supports the assertion that clinical supervision is concerned with “the stages of the clinical cycle and the skills associated with clinical supervision, such as conferencing, planning, observation, and data analysis skills” (Allen et al., 2004, 22).

It can also be affirmed that supervision courses tend to reflect the varied instructors’ personal philosophies and beliefs associated with school supervision paradigms. This confirms the notion that, “how supervision is actually learned depends heavily on the learners’ as well as the teachers’ orientation, perspective, and philosophy of education itself. Everyone’s approach to supervision reflects his world view, how he perceives reality, what he values or deems, and what amount of knowledge and experience he has about the filed” (Badiali, 1998, p. 961). Thus, there are those who tend to emphasize the teacher-supervisor relationship as a key component of instructional improvement, while others tend to emphasize human relation skills, and yet others embrace a more comprehensive perspective by including organizational theory topics and other related disciplines. These may include but are not limited to curriculum development, staff development, teacher motivation, teacher evaluation and organizational development. Therefore, as Baldiali affirms (1998, p. 962), “the ideologies of instructors of supervision probably have implications for the content and processes used to prepare supervisors.”

Finally, it can be concluded that the goal of achieving success for all students is the unifying force that brings the different supervisory courses together. A major challenge that school leader preparation institutions must address is the need to embrace non-traditional and creative teaching paradigms that may lead to the achievement of equity and excellence for all students in the present millennium. As others affirm, “teaching supervision carries with it a special responsibility since the potential impact of preparing educational leaders is profound” (Baldiali, 1998, p. 964). Thus, there is a need to engage in further inquiry of innovative approaches to enhance supervisory capacity at all levels.


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