Can You Supervise Your Way to Better Teaching?

When I lead workshops on teacher evaluation, people always say “I want the process to help my teachers grow.”

It’s understandable: As growth-oriented educators, we want to help our teachers improve their skills.

But as I learn more and more about what leads to growth, I keep coming back to one thing that surely doesn’t: supervision.

supervision-photo

Now, supervision is essential—make no mistake. The principalship exists in part to make sure that all of our teachers are up to a certain standard of quality (hopefully a high one, though the national statistics make me wonder how high our standards are when 97% or more of our ratings are “good enough” or higher).

But does supervision help teachers improve?

Let’s step back from the question of principals supervising teachers for a minute. Does supervising, inspecting, evaluating, or otherwise observing and judging lead to improvement anywhere?

You might say yes, but if we narrow down where the improvement happens, it’s usually after the supervision has taken place, perhaps due to follow-up action like coaching or accessing a helpful resource.

I’d argue that supervision itself never causes growth. Why? Because supervision alone cannot improve people’s skills. To improve skill, you need deliberate practice with feedback. You need coaching.

What supervision can do is influence behavior. And it’s very good at this. When your staff knows what you want to see, they will do more of it, and they’ll do less of what you don’t want—if they believe you’ll notice and care.

When someone knows he’ll get fired if he doesn’t start showing up on time, he’ll start showing up on time.

When someone has decided not to follow the district pacing guide, supervision can change that behavior fast.

When someone is making snide remarks in staff meetings and bringing down the professional tone, you can set the expectation, monitor, and ultimately change the behavior.

So even though I don’t think supervision can lead to growth, I do think it can lead to improvement, because performance is a result not just of your skill, but of what you actually do.

In other words, even if you can’t use the supervision process to help every teacher grow, you can use it to lead to improved teaching and learning by promoting the right behaviors. Behaviors like being prepared every day, treating students respectfully, following through, sharing assessment results, and other actions that lead to better learning.

A lot of the behaviors we can supervise into improvement are negative behaviors—stop showing up late, stop yelling at kids, stop under-preparing, and so on—but a lot are positive, too. Before we can help people improve their skill, we need to make sure they’re doing the thing that we want them to get better at.

After all, improving an aspect of your practice can’t happen unless that aspect of practice is in your practice.

When my school began implementing a new writing curriculum, my focus was on coaching. But I quickly realized that people couldn’t be coached on something they weren’t doing. You can’t improve the clarity of your lesson’s teaching point if your lessons never have teaching points.

Before I could coach, I needed to supervise. I needed to set the expectation and follow through. Then—and only then—could I coach.

What behaviors do you want to see more (or less) of to improve student learning in your school?

What’s My Job?

Principals are instructional leaders, first and foremost.

Right?

Arrows

That’s what I was taught in my principal preparation program, and that’s the message I heard year after year as a principal. But how does that idealized vision of the principal’s work align with the daily reality?

Several studies have examined how principals spend their time; for example, Stanford researchers found that

Principals appear to devote the least total amount of time to instruction-related activities including Day-to-Day Instruction tasks (six percent) and more general Instructional Program responsibilities (seven percent).

Is what we spend 6-7% of our time on really our top priority?

In his classic book The Nature of Managerial Work, Henry Mintzberg identifies ten different roles that managers – from head nurses to principals to CEOs to superintendents – all play to varying extents.

I’ve you’ve been wondering why you have to deal with so much other than instructional leadership, take a look at Mintzberg’s list of managerial roles:

  • Figurehead
  • Liaison
  • Leader
  • Monitor
  • Disseminator
  • Spokesman
  • Entrepreneur
  • Disturbance Handler
  • Resource Allocator
  • Negotiator

As you read the word “manager,” I bet you have a somewhat negative reaction. Why don’t we like to be seen as managers?

I think the reason is that “manager” implies maintaining the status quo, whereas “leadership” implies leading change.

Indeed, this is at the heart of the definition of instructional leadership from the research literature. A recent Wallace Foundation study defines instructional leadership as:

intentional efforts at all levels of an educational system to guide, direct, or support teachers as they seek to increase their repertoire of skills, gain professional knowledge, and ultimately improve their students’ success. We thus subsume within this term much more than conventional images of instructional leadership that concentrate on individuals providing assistance or guidance to teachers, as in the school principal or literacy coach engaged in what amounts to “instructional coaching” or “clinical supervision.” Rather, we are concerned about the full range of activities, carried out by various educators, that offer teachers ideas, assistance, or moral support specifically directed at instruction and that urge or even compel teachers to try to improve. We further assume that instructional leadership is inherently distributed among different staff in the school building and across levels of the system—that is, more than one kind of individual or unit are influencing teachers’ work, whether or not they recognize and coordinate their respective efforts.

So there you have it. Our roles are broader than instructional leadership, and instructional leadership is distributed among many different people, not just the principal. We’ll explore these themes more in upcoming articles.

How did you react to the description of instructional leadership above, and the list of Mintzberg’s managerial roles?

ELR10: Mary Miller on School Improvement

Eduleadership RadioIn this episode of Eduleadership Radio, Mary Miller joins me to discuss how we can create systems to support struggling students. Drawing on her background as a school psychologist, Mary shared with me her approach to helping teachers and school address the needs of their students using data, the right assessments, and school-based processes, beyond simply referring struggling students for Special Education evaluations.

Mary is president and founder of Miller Guidance Solutions. She has worked in public schools for 34 years, and now supports schools through her work with teachers, principals, and district administrators as a school reform leader.

Miller Guidance Logo New

Listen Now:

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In Defense of Incremental Change

Cross-posted at LeaderTalk

If you can bring about rapid, radical change to accomplish something important, go ahead – why not? We need bold experimentation and exploration. We need people to try things no one else is doing in education.

I’m a big fan of pilot projects and trying new ideas, but we can’t rest only on bold new ideas as our reform strategy. Why? The opportunities for radical change are fairly limited.

In other words, radical doesn’t scale. A bold reform may make headlines in one district, but it won’t even be allowed on the table in others. In most settings, improvement is going to happen at a slower and more incremental pace.

This can be frustrating – it can seem like nothing is happening, and it can be hard to maintain focus on the improvement. However, the greatest opportunity for improvement lies in those areas that can be changed incrementally – because everything can be improved incrementally.

We like fast results. We like to take credit. We like to celebrate visible success.

But over the long term, the biggest gains are going to come from the quiet, incremental changes we build into our work every day. Curriculum is a great example – it’s the quality and refinement of the implementation, not the radical shift to something new, that most improves student learning.

Is Everyday Math better than TERC? It depends – either curriculum can be implemented well or poorly (even within the same school). The devil (and the greatest opportunity) is in the details.

So what does getting better at something over time look like?

First, practice. When we consider how students improve as readers, it’s clear that doing lots of reading – in other words, practice – makes all the difference. The same is true for our work as educators – we improve our practice through more practice.

Second, strategies. Just as we run drills at soccer practice and teach students to use new reading comprehension strategies, there are strategies we can use in our schools to accelerate and scaffold the improvements that are taking place in instruction and other areas.

Third, attention to detail. When we get better at something and start to become experts, we start to see a world of detail that’s invisible to the untrained eye. This is why instructional coaches are so helpful – they see the opportunities for improvement that others might miss.

Fourth, collaboration. When we have a highly evolved state of practice, and this practice is shared among everyone in the organization, it’s possible to uphold very high standards and continually push everyone to the next level. This does not mean everyone is equally proficient – on the contrary, the diversity of levels of expertise is a rich resource for improvement. When you’re very good at something and I can see that I’m not as strong in that area, I can learn from you, and you can reflect on what would take your practice in that area to an even higher level. My school is in the first year of full implementation of a new writing curriculum, but some teachers have been using it for years, and their expertise is both a valuable resource for others and a reminder that others have strengths in other areas, and this expertise can and must be shared regularly.

In our national policy context, we’re investing in innovation, but I’d also suggest that refinement is even more worthy of investment, because refinement brings the greatest opportunity for improvement. There may be some gems out there waiting to be discovered, but there are no silver bullets.

What opportunities exist in your context for powerful incremental improvement?

Teaching Quality Is About Practice

In this op-ed in a recent issue of Ed Week, former superintendent Joseph Wise points out that accountability should not just focus on the what, but the how, of teaching. I could write five or ten posts on Wise’s various points in the article, but here’s what I think is at the core of his argument: Teaching is a practice, so the improvement of teaching must focus on practice.

Wise writes:

Historically, intense focus on the what of teaching has led us away from a healthy balance of all that drives true academic achievement. How we teach, how we challenge, how we redirect, and how we engage students is of no less importance than the what we profess to teach. Ironically, over the years, we actually have learned much and documented much about best practices in teaching. Substantial and expert research reveals that we already have explored and analyzed much about the how of teaching; we simply haven’t acknowledged its pivotal effect on academic achievement in the way we support and coach teachers.

Another great quote:

Accountability, at its essence, is not a goal; it is the acceptance of responsibility for all that we do in our classrooms, day in and day out. Accountability, when embraced for what it is, turns out to be not some sort of punitive “gotcha”; instead, it is what drives commitment to continuous examination, reflection, and improvement.

Joseph Wise, We Must Shift From Teacher Quality to Teaching Quality (Ed Week)

Improvement: Growth vs. Problem-Solving

2 types of improvement diagram

Growth is more or less continuous – as we refine our technique, we get better gradually over time. But growth isn’t the only type of improvement.

If there is a problem, a specific barrier to higher performance, solving it will not be a gradual process. When the problem is solved – either through an insight and a change in practice, or through outside assistance – performance takes a dramatic leap.

When you are considering your own practice, or the practice of someone you supervise, think about whether the greatest growth will come from a focus on problem-solving, or from refining existing techniques.

Heroism Vs. Performance

Why do we find the idea of principal performance hard to swallow?

We like to think of the principal as a hero who does whatever it takes to ensure student learning. When we see heroes, we are drawn to them, and we tell ourselves “We need more heroes like this one!” We think heroes will save us.

And we think “If being a principal means being a hero, I must be a hero.” And we stop thinking about our own performance as school leaders.

But we will never have a shark-fin curve when it comes to excellence in school leadership:
shark fin curve diagram

Our profession will never be 90% heroes. And it shouldn’t be.

As Copland notes in his 2001 Kappan article “The Myth of the Superprincipal” (see excerpt, PDF), demands on school leaders are exceedingly high, and this expectation of heroism is problematic for recruitment and retention of effective school leaders. Expecting people to be heroes discourages qualified candidates from entering the field, and leads to burnout among those in the profession.

But the alternative is not to lower expectations for principals. Instead, we can – we must – identify what effective principals do, how school leaders improve their performance, and what can be done at the local, state, and national levels to promote improvement.

The Principal As Visionary Journalist

How do you get more of what you want in the repertoire of practice in your organization?

As an instructional leader, one way to encourage practices that contribute to student learning is to recognize, call out, and celebrate them when you see them.

When teachers know their colleagues are finding success with a new initiative, hearing it from the principal validates that it can be done.

Newspapers, by Flickr user valeriebbWhen someone is struggling with an instructional technique, or dealing with a major classroom challenge, if the principal celebrates what they’re doing to head in the right direction, it can serve as a tremendous source of encouragement.

In this way, the principal serves as a journalist – not of the world as it is, but as it should be.

This is what it means to have vision – to connect the present with the possible, and to encourage and document progress toward that possibility.

Moving the Bell Curve To the Right

In Better, Atul Gawande describes the unexciting but immensely powerful impact of improving the performance of doctors. Rather than focus on breakthroughs and new technologies, he says, many more lives can be saved by simply moving the bell curve to the right.

It used to be assumed that differences among hospitals or doctors in a particular specialty were generally insignificant. If you plotted a graph showing the results of all the centers treating cystic fibrosis – or any other disease, for that matter – people expected that the curve would look something like a shark fin, with most places clustered around the very best outcomes.

Better

But the evidence has begun to indicate otherwise. What you tend to find is a bell curve: a handful of teams with disturbingly poor outcomes for their patients, a handful with remarkably good results, and a great undistinguished middle. link (PDF)

In a recent NY Times article, Elizabeth Green sounds a similar note in education reform:

THOMAS KANE, a Harvard economist who studies education… is one of several researchers who told me recently that he now has a more open mind. “I still think tenure review is important,” he said. “It’s just, I don’t think we should throw in our towel on the other things.” There is simply too much potential in improving the vast number of teachers who neither drag their students down nor pull them ahead.

By figuring out what makes the great teachers great, and passing that on to the mass of teachers in the middle, he said, “we could ensure that the average classroom tomorrow was seeing the types of gains that the top quarter of our classrooms see today.” He has made a guess about the effect that change would have. “We could close the gap between the United States and Japan on these international tests within two years.” link

Don’t we typically act as if most educators are outstanding, with a few average teachers and principals mixed in, along with a tiny number of incompetent people who should be exited from the profession? Don’t we assume our performance curve is a shark fin?

Shark Fin Plot

It’s not.

The shark fin isn’t coming any time soon, and it doesn’t need to – our best hope is to shift the bell curve to the right.

Kane refers to average teachers who “neither drag their students down nor pull them ahead,” which is reminiscent of my recent characterization of the majority of principals as “warm bodies” who have neither a positive nor a negative impact on student learning.

If we are to consider improving performance to be the fundamental obligation of a school leader, Gawande and Kane’s insights tell us two things:

  1. We need to continually invest in professional development to move the bell curve to the right. Superstars will not save us.
  2. We need to do what we can to lop off the extreme lower end of the bell curve, where we’re actually paying people to do harm.

Introducing Atul Gawande, Educator

One of my favorite authors on improvement and performance today is Atul Gawande. His insights have profound implications for educational leaders, and he may be one of the most influential reformers to come along in a long time.

But you won’t find him at Teachers College or ASCD. Atul Gawande is a surgeon.

In Better, he writes about numerous aspects of improvement in healthcare. In The Checklist Manifesto, he explores the power of checklists to reduce errors in complex fields such as aviation (where checklists are ubiquitous) and medicine (where he hopes to make checklists part of standard practice). I finished these two books in a day or two each, and am working on his first book, Complications, now.

Complications Better Checklist Manifesto New Yorker

In addition, Gawande writes regularly for The New Yorker.

Here’s Gawande in a recent appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, in which he talks about The Checklist Manifesto:

Clearly, there are many parallels between the challenges in healthcare and those faced by educators. I will soon have more to say on The Checklist Manifesto and Better from an educator’s perspective (you can subscribe to email updates using the form in the sidebar of this site).

Gawande will be in Seattle on May 3 if you’d like to hear him live.

Stepping It Up

When you’re trying to bring about a change, how and when do you decide if your efforts are working? If your efforts are either misdirected or inadequate, it’s important to know this quickly so you can make an adjustment.

If you’re trying to lose ten pounds, and your strategy is to eat less red meat and take a walk three nights a week, at what point do you decide it’s not working? How do you know when you need to step up your efforts?

Whenever we’re pursuing a goal, we need progress indicators to tell us if we’re moving quickly enough toward our goal.

There are two things to measure:
1. Whether you’re actually implementing the strategies you intended
2. Whether the strategies are having the intended effect

Comprehensive improvement planning often fails to address these issues adequately. If the achievement of the goal itself is our only source of data, we may find out too late that our efforts were misdirected or inadequate. We need to ask two questions – early and regularly – to make this determination:
1. Are we doing what we planned to do?
2. Is it working the way we wanted it to?

The first question is about fidelity of implementation – are we really doing what we set out to do? Are we doing it correctly? This is often a multifaceted question, especially when implementing a complex intervention.

The second question is about effectiveness – is this strategy producing results?

If we’ve implemented our strategies faithfully, but without the expected results, we could have a problem with fidelity of implementation, or with the level of intensity.

Step by Flickr user judepicsIf research has shown that the strategy consistently works, and we can tell we’ve implemented it with fidelity, the problem is probably one of intensity – we need to step up our efforts. There is no question that exercise leads to weight loss, but only if the exercise is done with enough intensity. Similarly, many programs we use in our schools are effective in achieving their stated goals, but only if implemented with fidelity and intensity.

If we’ve decided in advance what types of evidence to collect to answer each of these questions, supervising and evaluating programs in our schools becomes much easier.

Getting Started with Data Teams Presentation – WASA Summer Conference 2009

Linked below are the documents from my presentation at the WASA/AWSP 2009 Summer Conference in Spokane, WA. Use the contact form if you have any questions or would like more information. Thanks to everyone who participated.

Data Team Cycle Template

Data Team Cycle Process Reflection

PowerPoint Presentation – Getting Started with Data Teams

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