Spotlight

Real-Time Data From a Classroom Walk-Through

by PETER F. FLYNN

One way we are raising the effectiveness of classroom instruction for our racially and ethnically diverse student body of 4,300 students in Freeport, Ill., is through the use of data walks.

Usually no more than four minutes in length, data walks are conducted by the principal, as well as nonadministrative instructional leaders, such as best practice coaches and central-office administrators. As superintendent, I’ve conducted data walks, and I’ve asked the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, director of human resources, director of equity, and director of pupil personnel services to do so, as well.


To help us identify the presence or absence of essential components of the learning environment, we attended the same two-day training program and one-day refresher course run by Learning Keys to learn about and practice classroom walk-throughs. The training allowed for actual classroom visits and follow-up professional development.

Like other school districts, Freeport continually looks for effective ways to implement and improve best practices in our classrooms, so we apply the data from the walk-throughs through coaching.

Informative Data
During a classroom visit, the observer considers these questions:

•  Is the learning objective evident (posted and understood) to the students?

•  Is the learning objective aligned to state standards?

•  What level of thinking is expected of the students?

•  Are measurements being used to assess learning?

•  What is the engagement level of the students in the classroom?

•  What research-proven instructional strategies are evident?

•  Does the classroom environment contribute to student learning?

The data walks allow each school in our district to gather real-time data, look at patterns and trends across grade levels or subject areas, and increase the visibility of the administrators and instructional leaders in the classrooms.

During our early use of data walks, we tackled this question: To what extent are we all seeing the same (or similar) things in classrooms when considering the seven questions?

We asked the central-office administrators to begin their observations in schools with the principal and instructional leader visiting the same classroom as a team. They were to pause after each walk-through to compare notes on what each saw in the visit in order to narrow the variance that might initially exist among the observers.

My Observations
I joined one of the teams at an elementary school, and following each classroom observation, the principal, the best practice coach and I would have a brief conversation about what we saw. It was not surprising that three sets of eyes and ears picked up much more than one. It also allowed each of us to become sensitive to the different ways we could find evidence of something in a classroom.

During my walk-through, I quietly asked a 3rd-grade student, “What are you working on?” and “How do you know if you have completed good work?” I was searching for evidence to answer the questions “What is the standard?” and “Is the objective evident to the student?” and possibly “What level of thinking is expected?”

Each observer has access to a handheld electronic device that has a template with the seven questions and possible answers so that the template can be completed quickly following the walk-through, using a touch screen. The data are then uploaded to a database for that school. The individual teacher is not identified with the data gathered. The classroom is identified by grade level and the subject.

Coaching Role
We know from research that there are four elements that effective professional development must exhibit.

The instructional practice we are trying to get teachers to deploy in their classrooms must be research-proven and learned by the teachers in a context that is at least similar to, or preferably the same as, where it will be used. The third element is reflection, or a time for colleagues to discuss why they are doing what they are doing and how it’s working. The final or sufficient element is follow-up coaching, referred to as sufficient because with it the implementation rate skyrockets from 10 percent (using only the first three elements) to 90 percent.

The role of the coach is critical to the successful deployment of effective classroom practices. In our school district, we expect principals, best practice coaches, reading specialists, literacy coaches and certified central-office administrators to take on the role of coaches.

The role of coaches in data walks is twofold. First, they, along with principals and central-office administrators, identify the existence or absence of best practices in the classroom. Second, once an instructional gap is identified in a building as a result of the data aggregated from our data walks, we design professional development for our staff using the process, which is implemented with the coaches modeling the sufficient element.

Staff Needs
We try to visit all classrooms in each school each week and to visit the same classroom at different times of the school day over the course of a month.

A weekly report of the data is available to the building principal, nonadministrative coaches and central-office administrators. I look at the weekly reports, which tell me how many observations were carried out in a week, by whom and what they found. The reports become a potential source of conversation between the superintendent and the principal.

Within several weeks of beginning the walk-throughs, we identified some staff development concerns. We wondered whether our teachers needed a refresher on the elements we look for during observations, such as how to make the objectives evident to the students and how to align objectives to state standards.

We have directed our building administrators to personally provide the refresher courses or workshops or to bring in people, including staff from other buildings, who can provide the staff development.

This effort in the area of classroom walk-throughs, now in its second year, has been an attempt to put together a vertical team of central-office, building and teacher leadership to monitor and improve the deployment of best practices in our classrooms. We are expanding our capability to recognize best practices, while improving the coaching process.

Peter Flynn is superintendent of the Freeport School District 145 in Freeport, Ill. E-mail: peter.flynn@freeport.k12.il.u