An earlier version of this essay appears in the Summer 2009 issue of educational Horizons.

Do Schools Really Need Curriculum Supervisors?
Confusing Role with Function

by Edward G. Rozycki, Ed.D.

edited 1/22/12

What is "Supervision?"

What is the difference between a teacher supervisor and, say, a teacher watcher? Any visitor to the classroom could be a teacher watcher. Certainly, you reply, a supervisor should be able to do more than just watch. A "real" supervisor can tell a teacher what to do.

But a student can, and not infrequently presumes to, tell a teacher what to do; as, also, do parents and TV pundits and politicians. Yes, you say, but they haven't -- or shouldn't have -- any authority over what the teacher does, at least not with respect to that teacher's professional conduct. But what about the principal who orders a teacher to complete a monthly attendance form? Is she being a curriculum supervisor in so doing?

No, because that has nothing to do, you can see, with helping the teacher to improve his subject matter teaching. But what about the politician who advises teachers to "demand excellence"? Is his concern not with improving teaching? Yes, but he is unlikely competent to give advice with respect to that end -- as one can well tell from the phrase, an almost vacuous slogan, "demand excellence." [1]

It seems, then, that supervision requires competence on the part of the supervisor to direct teachers to the improvement of their teaching, together with the authority to impose such direction

How does a teacher supervisor differ from a teacher evaluator or a teacher advisor? To evaluate is not necessarily to direct to change; nor is advice necessarily a directive. The critical criterion seems to be: authority.[2]

Authority of Rank vs Authority of Knowledge

Let us consider two kinds of authority: the authority of knowledge and the authority of rank. The authority of knowledge rests upon the acknowledgement of someone as knowledgeable and upon the moral commitment to act in accordance with that knowledge. If a teacher either does not believe that a supervisor is appropriately knowledgable; or, if the teacher believes that supervisor's directives not to rest on knowledge, then that supervisor's authority will not be perceived by the teacher as the authority of knowledge.

If the teacher does not have an active moral commitment to inform his practice with knowledge, then supervision of the most knowledgeable kind will have to rely on coercion. By "active moral commitment" I mean a moral commitment of high enough priority that it normally comes into play in the teaching situation.

The authority of rank rests on coercion, i.e. the existence of sanctions available to those with such authority which they may visit on whoever fails to follow their directives. Coercion may be used to get a person to reorder his priorities. But coercion, at best, transforms what may be a moral commitment of low priority into a prudential concern of higher priority. On the surface the behavior may look the same, but it seldom persists. Not even in education can moral intents be coerced.

There is a tendency in organizations to confuse rank with knowledge. This comes from the need of superiors to justify the coercion which enables them to obtain obedience from their subordinates. The realities of power are disguised in the trappings of knowledge ostensibly being used to inform the actions of moral inferiors lacking commitment to the goals of their supposedly more knowledgeable bosses.[3]

Where knowledge exists, collegiality suffices. Only where the immorality of the perversely ignorant requires it, need the knowledgeable be coercive. In cultures where coercion must be justified, the presumption of perversion works nicely to that end.

Role vs. function

The distinction between role and function is very clear in some contexts. A man might function as a father to a child without being, actually, the father of the child. In organizations such functioning is indicated by the prefixed "acting ..." as in "acting department head", or "acting principal."

That one can function as a principal indicates, however, that principal is a role, not a function; otherwise functioning as a principal would be indistinguishable from being a principal. Roles are differentia which may have functions typically associated with them or not, as is often the case ; and which relate hierarchically to other roles in terms of rank; that is, in terms of the sanctions available to the role-players to enforce their directives on their subordinates.[4]

Every experienced teacher in K-12 knows that as one gets to "know" one's students, one learns how best to teach them. There are no cookbooks that can substitute for knowledge of the individual. Supervisors, who visit only intermittently, can hardly be expected to acquire the knowledge of individual student motivation that lays the foundation for instruction effectiveness.

To the extent that knowledge about the relationships of a specific teacher's behavior to the educational outcomes for a specific group of children is lacking, to that extent can supervisor only designate a role, not a function. The supervisor's authority must rest on rank.

What about "acting supervisors"? Doesn't this commonly used locution indicate that it is possible to function as a supervisor? No. It merely indicates a second dimension to the distinction between role and function, i.e. between those incumbents who enjoy a certain kind of tenure and those who say, for lack of proper credentials or experience, do not. Our general conclusion holds. Supervisor is a role not a function. Consequently, its authority is that of rank, not of knowledge. Functions are exercised through knowledge; roles, through rank. The existence of supervisors indicates the existence of unjustified coercion or the presumption of perversion, or both.

In an organization where values and knowledge are shared, there is no need for supervision.

Supervision: some realities

In the some states supervisory certificates are awarded on the recommendation of schools with approved programs leading to such certificates. The reality that supervision is a role, not a function, is evident here. Since there does not exist knowledge that practically relates teaching practice to the many teaching contexts that exist in the schools and the many outcomes thought desirably pursued, supervision cannot rest on the authority of knowledge. At best, insight and experience, along with an ability to pass it on to one's colleagues, might help teachers in improving their teaching. But certificates do not require insight; they do not specify what experience is appropriate: how can they, given our state of knowledge?

Nor do roles generally require would be supervisors to demonstrate an ability to teach teachers. Supervisors are not infrequently used to intimidate staff into exhibiting that behavior which can be interpreted as conformity to the latest, faddish directives of top administration. Supervisors "check for compliance and implementation" of back-to-basics, individualization, higher level thinking, standardized curriculum, schedules of reinforcement, personalized instruction, cognitive style curriculum adaptation, process method, directive, nondirective, time-on-task, convergent, nonconvergent thinking, audiolingual, structured, phonetic, whole-word approach, nonsexist, content area specific and generalized curriculum, et cetera, ad nauseum.

In many school districts good supervisors are so rare they are famed and spoken of openly with appreciation. In general, however, no bones are made about the "real" role of ordinary, run-of-the-mill supervisors: to get the teacher to do something he or she would not otherwise do. Nor is it believed this coerced change will be either permanent or educationally of value.

The Supervisor: an ideal

Ideally, teacher supervision should be nonexistent. There seems to be two reasons why it exists. The first is that people are very often put into teaching situations they are not up to. Therefore, supervisors are sent out to check for deviations greater than will be tolerated in the local school district. Such deviations have nothing to do, generally, with whether or not one is an effective teacher; but, rather, with whether one conforms to norms of sobriety and non-notoriety as these are conceived by local powers.

The second reason supervisors exist is to reinforce the impotence of educators, to maintain the factory model which denies them the autonomy to make educational decisions based on their knowledge and experience. In the name of Democracy, school boards can censor textbooks. In the name of Efficiency, they can stultify experience and learning. In the interests of Status Quo, they can quash that potential for social change that inheres in any true educational encounter. In the real world, what can those of us who are or will be supervisors do?

For the sake of justice, we can become knowledgeable as much as we can so that we direct with the authority of knowledge. We must know our subject matter.

For the sake of improving instruction we must know how to reach learners at their own level, how to provide them with representations of concepts that articulate with the concepts they possess and how to lead them beyond them.

For the sake of collegiality, we must be able to teach our fellow teachers; our special skills must be pedagogical. And our special attitude must be a willingness to learn from those we would teach.

For the sake of professionality, we must resist degenerating into mere tools for our employers. We are not empty conduits for topical political expediencies. We are possessors of and searchers for knowledge. We must resist attempts to diminish the educational process. [5]


[1] On slogans about excellence see Gary K. Clabaugh & Edward G. Rozycki (1999) "Slogans in Education" at

[2] For a brief discription of the difference between authority and power see E. G. Rozycki (1999) "Is Virtue a Learning Outcome? Can Virtue Be Taught?" at

For an exercise in distinguishing the two concepts see Edward G. Rozycki (2006) "Power & Authority: their relationship to actors, actions and roles" at

[3] For an interesting introduction into the distinction between rank-based vs. peer based organizations see Jeffrey Nielsen, "Transforming Rank-Based Into Peer-Based Organizations" at

[4] For more on role and its relation to rank and function see G.K. Clabaugh & E. G. Rozycki (1990) "The School as an Organization" at

[5] See Edward G. Rozycki (2007) "Leadership as Usurpation. The Grand Inquisitor Syndrome and Morality in Rank-Based Organizations" at