Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands

Instructional leadership is always hard work, but it’s even harder when our plates are overflowing with other responsibilities.

The truth, for a lot of us a lot of the time, is that we can barely even get to the work of leading learning improvement. We squeeze it in, but it’s far from our primary focus.

Sometimes the best intentions can make this even worse: By requiring principals to complete plans, hold meetings, and take other steps aimed at instructional improvement, a lot of districts are making the job of instructional leadership even more un-doable.

I know principals who are required to complete 14, 18, or even 21 written plans a year, leaving very little time for getting into classrooms and talking with teachers.

So whose job is it to make sure the principalship is a “doable” job? My favorite researchers have an answer:

District leaders should acknowledge, and begin to reduce, ways in which secondary school principals are limited in their capacity to exercise instructional leadership by the work required of them in their role as it is currently structured…secondary school principals do not, according to our data, interact with teachers frequently and directly about instructional practice. District leaders need to find ways to help secondary and elementary school principals work with teachers in order to improve. They also need to help principals structure their work schedules in order to find sufficient time to do this…Most districts will need to have honest and in-depth discussions with their principals to develop procedures for systematically and practically monitoring implementation of instructional leadership. The needs and circumstances of elementary and secondary school principals may need to be differently addressed, however the bottom line would have each principal expected to take specific steps to enact instructional leadership in his or her school.

Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, from the Wallace Foundation Knowledge Center, by Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, and Stephen E. Anderson, p. 92-93

Well-said…but I don’t think we can simply wait for superintendents and central office leaders to dramatically redefine the work of principals.

I think district leaders play a hugely important role in making the job of principals doable—empowering principals to be true instructional leaders—but I also think we need to take matters into our own hands.

I’ve seen what happens when principals wait for the central office to fix things. I’ve heard my colleagues complain, helplessly, that “the district” isn’t spoon-feeding them every tool they need for success.

Guess what? This is a hard job. It demands that we give our all.

But it also demands that we work smarter. It demands that we use technology, and smarter strategies, to get more done and get to the “important but not urgent” work of instructional leadership.

At conferences, I often give a presentation subtitled “Working Smarter with 21st Century Tools.” And you know what’s encouraging? Lots of people always come, which tells me plenty of principals are taking their productivity into their own hands.

Making instructional leadership “doable” is a joint responsibility: district leaders have to make sure they’re not crushing us with work that takes our eyes off the ball, and we have to make sure we’re developing our capacity to handle the ever-growing demands of the job.

What helps you get to the important work?

—Justin

What’s Next for Your Instructional Leadership?

As you look back on this school year, you’ve probably accomplished a dizzying number of things.

Some of these accomplishments are part of the daily churn of school life—dealing with endless minor emergencies, making countless decisions, and doing what needs to be done, day after day.

Other accomplishments will stand out in your mind as big career moments, like when you started a new program, made key staffing changes, or took a stand for something.

Mirror road

First of all, thank you for all you do on behalf of your students. You make a difference, even if it feels like the day-to-day work that keeps you on your toes is endless. You are impacting lives and impacting the future of your community.

But I also want to ask an aspirational question: What’s next for you as an instructional leader? How can you lead your staff to even better work on behalf of the students you serve?

Let’s be honest: This is a tall order. Most principals aren’t realistically expected to be strong instructional leaders—on paper, yes, but not in the way the job is configured.

Sure, plenty of districts pay lip service to instructional leadership in job descriptions, but the day-to-day duties placed on principals undermine that priority. We never have the time we need for the work that’s supposed to matter the most.

If this is going to change, I believe it has to change with us first. We have to be the ones who decide, “I’m going to be a leader of learning improvement.” Because that’s what instructional leadership is, at its core—leadership to improve the teaching and learning that takes place in your school.

If you want teaching and learning to improve in your school, it’s going to take work. It’s going to involve challenging the status quo that keeps you busy in the office and corridors and lunchroom, and keeps you out of classrooms. It’s going to involve challenging the norms of isolation and I’m-fine-so-please-leave-me-alone teaching. But it’s going to be incredibly rewarding.

A New Opportunity

I have an announcement: Starting in July, I will be working with a small network of school leaders in an intensive, long-term professional development program. This program is designed to dramatically increase the capacity of school administrators to serve as instructional leaders, even as the other demands of the principalship continue to compete for our time and energy.

The High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network is a year-round PD program that includes two workshops each month to help you maximize your impact as an instructional leader. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re interested, here’s more information.

More Information:

High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network

I’ll continue to offer near-daily articles on improving your performance and productivity as a school leader here at eduleadership.org, and we’ll continue to offer a variety of online workshops at PrincipalCenter.com.

But what I’m most passionate about is dramatically increasing the capacity of school leaders to serve as leaders of instructional improvement, so that’s why I’m throwing my energy and focus into this project. I hope you’ll take a look.

Instructional Climate and Instructional Actions

Runningwitharrows

We all know we’re supposed to be instructional leaders, but what does that really mean? Research suggests two pathways for exercising instructional leadership:

The actions that principals take to influence instruction are of two complementary sorts. One sort aims to set a tone or culture in the building that supports continual professional learning (Instructional Climate). The second sort involves taking explicit steps to engage with individual teachers about their own growth (Instructional Actions).

Instructional Actions include principals’ direct observations and conversations with teachers, in their classrooms and in team meetings.

Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, from the Wallace Foundation Knowledge Center, by Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, and Stephen E. Anderson, p. 77

If we ignore either of these pathways, our leadership is going to be severely limited. We can’t be the solo heroes who alone are responsible for improving teaching and learning. That work has to be shared tangibly in the school’s culture and climate. And if we think we can establish a conducive environment, then kick back and watch the growth take place on its own, we’re fooling ourselves.

High-performance instructional leaders understand that improvement is work. Hard work. Collective work. And work that we ourselves must lead. It won’t happen without us, and it won’t happen if we’re going it alone.

Setting the tone and climate for growth is necessary but not sufficient. So are walkthroughs and observations and conversations with teachers. Put these two approaches together, though, and watch out—great things are going to happen.

Will Sharing Instructional Leadership Save You Time?

Smart principals know the job of leading a school is too big for one person, so forms of distributed leadership have made their way into most schools. Leadership teams, site councils, departmental decision-making, and other forms of shared leadership can make a school a better place because they don’t rely solely on the principal’s expertise and influence.

But if you share the leadership workload with others in your school, will this take work off of your plate?

You might think so, since dividing a pie into more slices makes each slice smaller.

Pie sliced into pieces

But the answer, according to recent research, is no:

Distributing leadership more widely in schools should not be viewed as a means of reducing principals’ workload. Leadership from teacher leaders and external sources is more likely to be goal- or initiative-specific. Principals, on the other hand, are responsible for a boundary-spanning role not typically performed by others, nor picked up by others in the absence of active principal leadership. Principals are typically involved in a great many leadership initiatives in their schools, including initiatives for which others have assumed lead roles. Their role to coordinate or link others’ leadership efforts is essential.

Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, from the Wallace Foundation Knowledge Center, by Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, and Stephen E. Anderson, p. 65

In other words, sharing leadership doesn’t save principals time because it creates more work. The “slices” don’t get smaller because the pie gets bigger as more teachers take on leadership roles.

And this is a good thing.

I think it’s great that distributed leadership doesn’t reduce your workload, as long as your school is embarking on substantive improvement efforts. We can look for other places to save time.

As the overall leadership workload in your school increases, though, your work will become:

  • More interesting
  • Higher-level, and
  • More impactful

as your time is increasingly devoted to coordinating the amazing work being done by your staff.

How do you see your role changing as others take on more leadership? What does that coordination look like?

The Pareto Principle and Instructional Leadership

80 20 pareto principle

The Pareto Principle states that 80% of our results come from 20% of our efforts – and conversely, that only 20% of our results come from the other 80% of our efforts. It’s more a rule of thumb than a mathematical or sociological law, but the Pareto Principle is useful for thinking about how we spend our time with staff.

It’s tempting to think that visiting every classroom for an equal amount of time and perfectly balancing our time conversing with each staff member is the right way to go. But in the real world, where time is so limited, we will actually accomplish less when we try too hard to be “fair” with our time and attention.

The Pareto Principle tells us we should identify the 80% of our efforts that have a low payoff, so we can shift more of our energies into high-impact work. Let’s walk through a few classrooms and see how we can have the greatest impact.

Three Classrooms
Steph is a master teacher who just finished teaching a workshop on the district’s curriculum to other teachers. I stop in, and she is leading students in a discussion of what they learned yesterday. Directions for the next activity are already on the board. Do I stop and watch the whole lesson, which I know will be great, or hit another classroom and come back mid-lesson to engage with students?

Karen is a veteran teacher who has been struggling lately, but she knows how to put on a good show. I stop in, and she calls on several students who answer articulately. The discussion continues in this way for several minutes without an apparent direction, and students seem anxious. I have other classrooms to visit, but I get the sense that I need to see what’s behind the dog-and-pony show.

Steve is a 3rd-year teacher who is making good progress but still has plenty of room to grow. Our conversations seem to help Steve reflect on his practice and strive to improve. I stop in to observe part of a lesson, then catch up with him later in the day to talk about how it went.

In these three scenarios, time invested with each teacher has a different payoff, as predicted by the Pareto Principle. Time I spend with Steve has an average payoff, so I try to give him a fair share of my time.

On the other hand, time I spend giving feedback to Steph is going to have a marginal (if any) impact on her practice. She’s going to need access to advanced training and leadership opportunities, and I’d be better off learning from her than pretending to give her feedback. My visits to her classroom are quick, and when we talk, I try to pick her brain rather than find some tiny thing she can improve on.

Time I spend in Karen’s classroom is going to have a disproportionately high impact, because it will allow me to address the potentially major problems that lie just beneath the surface.

The Harsh Truth: We Don’t Do This
Unfortunately, it’s tempting to do the exact opposite of what the Pareto Principle suggests. At best, we visit each classroom equally, but it’s more likely that we spend 80% of our time with teachers who are doing great, and only 20% in classrooms that desperately need our attention.

Kim Marshall reflects on this tendency in his must-read book Rethinking Teacher Supervision & Evaluation. As he made his way around the building on walkthroughs, he kept track of which classrooms he visited, and noted that

even though I wasn’t planning the sequence of visits, the same four or five teachers always wound up being at the end of the line. These were classrooms, I realized, in which I felt unwelcome and awkward or dreaded the negative feedback I knew I would have to give, and had been subconsciously avoiding them. My checklist made me aware of which classrooms I was putting off visiting and made me think about why. If it hadn’t been for the self-discipline imposed by my rotation, I would have gone for months without visiting them. (Rethinking Teacher Supervision & Evaluation, ch. 3)

An Alternative
How can we avoid this tendency to see only the sunny side of instruction in our schools? The first step is, as Marshall notes, to actually keep track of our classroom visits, so we can tell if we’re avoiding someone.

But what if we want to take it a step further and try to differentiate our time? Here’s one idea – let me know if you take a shot at it.

  1. Make a list of all of your classrooms or staff, divided into three groups – high, middle, and low performers
  2. For each cycle of walkthroughs, visit teachers in the top tier once
  3. Visit teachers in the middle tier twice
  4. Visit teachers in the bottom tier three times
  5. Revise your list as needed and repeat

Obvious stuff, right? But I challenge you to actually try it, and actually visit your struggling classrooms three times as much as your best classrooms.

You’ll probably open a few cans of worms, but hey – that’s the job.

I’d love to hear from you if you give this a try – you can tell me here or leave a comment below.

An Excellent Article on Feedback & Instructional Leadership

I recently came across this article from Dr. Shira Leibowitz, a colleague from New York, and thought it was a must-read for all principals.

It’s titled “7 Steps To Effective Feedback,” and while you might think it’s a quick list of tips, it’s really an in-depth plan for instructional leadership and supporting staff growth, based on Dr. Leibowitz’ extensive reading, professional development, and experience as a principal.

An excerpt:

Principals, at least as I was trained years ago, have been viewed primarily as evaluators, giving “expert” advice and assessment, rather than sharing nonjudgmental observations with teachers for the purpose of professional learning and growth.

Despite the inherent challenges, I have come to recognize that giving feedback effectively to teachers can be among the most significant contributions a principal can make to improving the quality of learning in our schools.

Read the full article at TeacherCast. You’ll spend 5 minutes reading and 10 minutes thinking about your work as an instructional leader.

Your 8%

A recent study found that principals spend only 8% of their time in classrooms. If you have 20 teachers per administrator, that means you’ll see about 0.4% of the instruction in any given class over the course of the year, assuming you spend equal time in each classroom.

Polaroid Land Camera by Flickr user angel_caidoIt’s no wonder that walkthroughs have become a popular way to spot-check what’s happening in schools – when we can see only a tiny fraction of the teaching that takes place, we have to rely on intuitive judgments based on what little we do see.

But we don’t have to just stay for a minute. Perhaps it’s better to spend that 0.4% in 30 or 60-minute chunks, even if you have no intention of doing a formal observation.

When you see a whole lesson, the pieces fit together in a way they don’t when you see only a snapshot.

Classroom Days & Office Days

Yesterday was an office day. I stayed in my office writing observation reports and doing other office work almost all day. My door was open, and some people came to see me, but I didn’t venture out to observe in classrooms or elsewhere during the day.

Today was a classroom day. I visited every classroom at least once, and spent a great deal of time interacting with students and staff. I got very little office work done, but got quite a bit done in terms of communicating with people and having a pulse on happenings around campus.

I’m more comfortable mixing office and classroom time in the same day, since it doesn’t create the nagging guilt that I’m ignoring part of my role, but I seem to get more done when I split my week into office days and classroom days. One reason: I’ve realized that I sometimes would use visits to classrooms as a form of procrastination: Whenever facing unpleasant office work, why not “exercise instructional leadership” by visiting classrooms? Of course, unpurposeful time in classrooms isn’t instructional leadership; even if it has some benefits, I don’t want to get in the habit of deluding myself about the purpose and value of what I’m doing.

However, I’ve also realized you can’t always decide ahead of time whether a day will be an office day or a classroom day – sometimes the events just unfold in a way that determines the question for you.

What do you think – is it better to block off whole days for classroom time, and separate days for office work? Or is it better to mix it up and get into classrooms whenever you can?

Using the iPad for Paperless Walkthroughs

I’ve been trying a few different methods for doing walkthroughs and giving feedback to teachers using my iPad. I used a paper log and paper notes for feedback in previous years, but now that I have an iPad, it’s time to go paperless. I’ve tried a few different solutions for organizing walkthroughs and giving feedback via iPad, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

Trial and Error
Chris Lehmann developed a great form using Google Spreadsheets, which I tried and found very easy to use (for entering feedback, at least). You create a form and enter information into the form, and the results are added to a Google Spreadsheet. The drawbacks are that you need constant internet access (wifi or 3G), and the spreadsheet format doesn’t lend itself to communicating feedback to teachers (though Chris has a partial solution to this in asking teachers to sign up to receive notifications when their spreadsheet is updated). I like using the form, but not the spreadsheet.

I’ve also tried using OmniFocus to keep track of both whom I need to visit and what feedback I provided. OmniFocus is a great task management app, and I rely on it to keep track of my to-dos, but I’ve found it’s not great for holding large amounts of text. You can type a note into a task, and even email it, but the resulting email is oddly formatted (so that the recipient, if also an OmniFocus user, can add the task to their to-do list), and adding lots of text can slow down your database loading and synching.

Hitting My Stride
However, OmniFocus shines when it comes to keeping track of whom you’ve visited. You can set recurring tasks, re-order them, and set reminders. Today I made a list of all the teachers in my school, and when I visit a teacher’s room and give feedback, I drag that teacher’s name to the bottom of the list so I know I’ll get to everyone. When it’s time to pick a room to visit, I look at my list and see who’s at the top.

Evernote

So far, I’ve found Evernote to be the best app for taking notes and emailing feedback. I already use Evernote as my virtual file cabinet, so it’s easy to use it for this additional purpose. I take notes in Evernote (starting a new note for each classroom visit), then email them to the teacher directly from Evernote. Evernote works even if you’re offline, so you can take notes even if you’re out of wifi range, and they’ll send/sync when you’re back online. To make it easy to find all the notes for a particular teacher, I add two tags to each note: the word “feedback,” and the teacher’s name. A bonus is that Evernote syncs via Evernote’s servers, so your notes are always backed up and accessible from your computer.

Apple Bluetooth Keyboard

One more essential tool: the Bluetooth keyboard. This $69 accessory almost turns the iPad into a laptop, but with 12 hours of battery life and half the bulk of even the smallest netbook. The keyboard multiplies my typing speed tenfold, and makes it viable to give substantive feedback directly from the classroom.

Workflow that Works
Using these tools, here’s the workflow I’ve developed: Whenever I can get into classrooms, I visit the room at the top of my list (in OmniFocus), take notes in Evernote, email them to the teacher, and move the teacher’s name to the bottom of my list in OmniFocus (I can also add the date to the note field in OmniFocus so I can quickly see all the dates I’ve visited the room).

So far this year, my schedule has been unpredictable enough that I haven’t scheduled informal walkthroughs, but if you can consistently make time, it’s OK to put them on your calendar. I would caution you to avoid using your calendar to motivate yourself, and have a way to ensure that, even if you miss a planned visit, you’ll still get to every classroom without too much reworking of your schedule. In other words, I wouldn’t recommend adding specific classes to visit to your calendar at specific times, because if you get interrupted and can’t make it to the class, you won’t want to completely redo your schedule. That’s why I keep an ordered list of classes to visit in OmniFocus, and just move each class to the bottom of the list when I visit.

I prefer to send feedback via email in most cases (since teachers can respond at their leisure if necessary), but some feedback is best given in person. If your walkthrough leads you to the conclusion that a personal conversation is in order, you can email the teacher from your iPad to set up the meeting, and put the meeting on your iPad’s calendar.

If you’ve been thinking of getting an iPad but have questions, please ask in the comments. See also my Essential iPad Guide for Principals.

How do you give feedback when you do walkthroughs?

Cross-posted from LeaderTalk at Education Week

Focusing on The Right Work

Cross-posted from EdWeek’s LeaderTalk

Yesterday I spent the day at another elementary school in my district as part of our district’s Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) for principals. The five of us spent the morning identifying a problem of practice and visiting classrooms, and spent the afternoon debriefing and identifying implications for our work.

It’s always stimulating to talk with other principals and learn how they lead their schools. I got great ideas for what I could do in my school.

At the end of the day, though, I was exhausted by possibility. There is so much I could be doing, and so much I’m not doing, yet I don’t seem to have much room to add more to my plate.

This leads to a painful question: Am I doing the right work?

I always stay busy, but is it with the right things? Should I be ignoring some of what I’m currently paying attention to, in order to focus on something else? How can I decide?

One obvious way to decide what to focus on is to listen to others. What issues are urgent to teachers, parents, students?

The problem with allowing the squeaky wheel to get the grease, though, is that it’s not always the right wheel. Perhaps the issues that are coming up are not really the most important.

Learning from my peers (other elementary principals) forces me to ask the question “What am I not addressing in my school?” If an issue will require uncomfortable discussion or serious change, perhaps no one will bring it up. Perhaps it’s up to me.

Part of a leader’s job is to create and uphold a vision for the organization. This means speaking boldly, bringing up the important issues that we might not otherwise face, and making sure they get the attention they deserve.

How do you decide what deserves your time and attention? How you identify the “right” work?

How to Set Meaningful Professional Growth Goals

In many districts, the annual evaluation process for teachers involves setting both student growth goals and professional growth goals. I’ve found that professional growth goals are often fuzzier, and the administrator’s role in ensuring that the goal is meaningful and challenging is even more important. What do you look for?

1. Strong personal commitment
A professional growth goal should be something at the top of the teacher’s list – in other words, it should matter to them personally. Otherwise, the evaluation process will be nothing more than a formality.

2. Connection to school and team goals
A professional growth goal should have relevance to the broader work of the school and the teacher’s teammates. While everyone has their particular interests, the work you are supervising should have specific relevance to your school’s current areas of focus, and should involve relevant colleagues.

3. Well-defined evidence
It should be easy to determine, at the end of the year, whether the goal was accomplished or not. For example, goals such as “I will get better at…” are incomplete, because they don’t give clear criteria that enable the evaluator and the evaluated to agree on whether the goal was met. (A student growth goal should be measurable, but professional growth goals shouldn’t necessarily include quantitative measures.)

4. Growth orientation
The goal should emphasize (as the title suggests) professional growth, not just the completion of an agreed-upon project such as rearranging desks for group work.

Soccer girlIt might seem that #1 and #2 are in tension, as are #3 and #4. A good professional growth goal, though, can meet all of these criteria and provide a meaningful challenge and direction for the teacher’s efforts for the year.

Here are a few examples:

Goal: Increase skill in using writing workshop instructional model, with particular attention to modeling the writing process using my own work. By the end of the year, I will model three lessons for my grade-level team, and will develop a portfolio of my own writing that I have revised in front of students.

Goal: Increase collaborative learning in math by creating project-based lessons to allow students to work in groups. By the end of the year, I will develop, teach, and evaluate 6 lessons, and share them with our school’s math council for feedback.

Goal: Increase positive communication with parents of struggling students. By the end of the year, I will make at least 5 positive contacts with my 10 lowest-performing students’ families, and will update the student support team on their progress.

How do you help your staff develop meaningful professional growth goals?

Physics Envy: Why “Best Practices” Don’t Scale Up Well (and What to Do About It)

Is education a science, and if so, what kind of science? What implications does this have for instructional leadership?

We typically think of physics as the ideal science – it is consistent, universal, and predictable. An experiment conducted in France can be replicated in Mexico or the United States, and the same results can be expected. If teaching is a science, why isn’t there a similar level of predictability?

This question has enormous implications for both instructional leaders and for policymakers. In the October 2009 issue of Educational Researcher (AERA), Pamela A. Moss, D. C. Phillips, Frederick D. Erickson, Robert E. Floden, Patti A. Lather, and Barbara L. Schneider take up the question of quality in education research in their article “Learning From Our Differences: A Dialogue Across Perspectives on Quality in Education Research” (38: 501-517).

Erickson explains why educational research is constantly (and unfruitfully) compared with natural science research:

The reason social science has suffered from physics envy is the assumption that the social world is basically like the natural world. What makes physics and chemistry work is an assumption of the uniformity of nature—a unit of force, or of heat, or a chemical element is the same in Britain as it is in France or on the face of the moon or in the most far-flung galaxy.

Large Hadron Collider by Flickr user µµ

In the 19th century, as the social sciences were developing (looking over their shoulders at the mathematical physics of Galileo and Newton), there was a serious argument over whether social sciences should model themselves after the natural sciences or try for something else.

Adherents of what became the meaning-oriented approaches to social inquiry, the hermeneutical approaches described by Moss (2005b), took a position that meaning differences made such a difference between one social setting and another that there was in effect a nonuniformity of nature in social life (as I called it in my 1986 article on qualitative research on teaching; see Erickson, 1986). The notion was that it is local meaning that is causal in social life, and local meaning varies fundamentally (albeit sometimes subtly) from one setting to another. One of the consequences of this notion is deep distrust of the possibility of any generalization at all in social research…

Close descriptive study of a setting, based on extended participant observation and interviewing, doesn’t try to generalize directly from that setting to others…what happens in Miss Smith’s first grade is fundamentally different as a local ecology (subtly different, despite surface appearances of similarity) from what happens in Miss Jones’s room across the hall in the same school building. (Parents know this—that’s why they fight to get their kids into Miss Smith’s room, away from Miss Jones.) Nor is what happens in Miss Smith’s room quite the same as what happens in Miss Robinson’s room in the next school district. It follows that policy evidence for “scaling up”—trying to get everybody to adopt “best practices”—no matter how well produced technically—just doesn’t tell us what we need to know as educators. Best practices, as specific behaviors, don’t travel intact across the hall in one school building, let alone across the country. (p. 508, emphasis added)

Erickson’s extended argument implies what we, as instructional leaders, have long known: good teaching can’t be measured simply by checklists of “best practices.” Some of our best teachers don’t use the best practice du jour, and some of our most compliant adopters of new best practices are unable to pull everything together to create powerful and coherent learning experiences for students.

This suggests that instructional leadership is going to remain a labor-intensive, and inherently local, endeavor. If we want to improve the quality of teaching and learning in every classroom, we will need to be in every classroom. We will need to know the research, but the research will not save us. It may give us direction and help us understand what is taking place in our classrooms, but it does not (and cannot) provide a recipe for high-quality instruction.

Instructional Rounds in EducationIn order to understand what is happening in a classroom and whether it’s good for kids, we need to adopt what Elmore (in Instructional Rounds) calls a descriptive-analytical-predictive approach. Briefly, we must ask three questions:

  1. What is taking place in this classroom?
  2. What dynamics does this create?
  3. What learning do we expect this set of dynamics to cause?

After asking these questions, we can consider what next steps will improve the teaching and learning taking place in the classroom.

How do you see social science research influencing your work as an instructional leader?

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

Results Now Chapter 1: The Buffer

Schmoker says in Results Now that the single greatest obstacle to major improvement in our schools is what he calls “the buffer.”

Results Now

The buffer is, simply put, the unspoken norm in the education profession that no one will question what teachers teach, or how well they teach it. The buffer is ostensibly a matter of professionalism and trust, since teachers should, in theory, be trusted to teach well.

Ironically, Schmoker says, this is highly unprofessional – tens of thousands of educators working each day with virtually no oversight, guidance, or monitoring to ensure that students are receiving high-quality instruction.

Reflecting on my experience as a teacher, I can say that no one knew or seemed to care what I taught. Annual evaluations were taken seriously, but did not occur often enough to lead to major improvements in my teaching. And even these formal observations were not seen in the context of ongoing instructional growth, but as a required opportunity to say some nice things about my teaching and make one or two suggestions for improvement.

Some of my teaching was downright bad, such as the days when I would spend a few minutes before school reviewing the lesson and pull out last year’s materials. The scary thing, which I realized during my third or so year, was that no one noticed anything unusual on those days. I was not happy teaching poorly, and tried to hold myself to higher standards, but the message was clear: I could be virtually as lazy and careless as I wanted, and no one would say anything about it. My colleagues would even commiserate with me when I came in less than prepared. Professional autonomy led to unprofessional behavior.

I have little doubt that Schmoker is right in saying this is the reality in most classrooms and schools. Because of this dire situation, there is also a powerful opportunity for improvement. Leaders must know the curriculum, and ensure that it’s being taught. They must know the strengths and weaknesses of their staff, and take appropriate steps to address weaknesses and celebrate strengths.

Schmoker will offer more specific advice on how to achieve this leverage in later chapters, but the message of chapter 1 is unequivocal: we cannot remain agnostic or laissez-faire about the quality of teaching any longer.

Results Now: Introduction

From the Introduction to Mike Schmoker’s Results Now:

…historic improvement isn’t about “reform” but something much simpler: a tough, honest self-examination of the prevailing culture and practices of public schools, and a dramatic turn toward a singular and straightforward focus on instruction. p. 2

…most – though not all – instruction is mediocre or worse…educators in overwhelming majorities have agreed that there is indeed a yawning gap between the most well-known, incontestably essential practices and the reality of most classrooms. p. 2

The changes that will have the most impact on student learning require only reasonable efforts and adjustment, not more time. As Collins writes, greatness can be achieved “without increasing the number of hours we work.”

Perhaps our chief obstacle is the prevailing perception that because most educators work hard and with dedication, we are within reason doing most of what’s necessary for good schools. This is simply not the case. The system itself has prevented even the most talented and industrious among us from seeing this pronounced gap between poor and effective practices. p. 4

Be prepared: Section 1 contains a frank criticism of typical schooling. The purpose here is not to discourage but to point to how existing funds of time, talent, and money are being misdirected. That is, they are being diverted from our greatest opportunity for better schools: a simple, unswerving focus on those actions and arrangements that ensure effective, ever-improving instruction. p. 5

…the key components of effective schools are “not a mystery,” even though they are exceedingly rare. Teachers themselves agree that these practices are widely known, that they can and should be carried out by people in any school and with current levels of funding – and that these practices can demonstrate how additional funding and higher teacher salaries could leverage even greater improvements. p. 5-6

The school [that made tremendous achievement gains] set goals and identified areas of weakness. The staff made arrangements for teachers to work regularly in teams to share, prepare, assess, and then adjust their teaching on the basis of formative assessment results – a virtual definition of a true professional learning community. Along with these steps, school leaders employed the talents of their best teachers – their in-house experts – to coach their colleagues toward better practices. p. 6

Schmoker makes the case, as the above quotes illustrate, that school leaders can bring about dramatic improvements in a short period of time by making certain high-leverage changes in instructional leadership. He wastes no time in pointing out opportunities for serious improvement, and marshals convincing statistics and vignettes to make the case that change is not only possible, but an ethical mandate.

The first opportunity to improving our schools: eliminating “the buffer.” Schmoker tackles the buffer in chapter 1.

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