Spotlight

Getting Through the Classroom Door

by ANDREW LACHMAN

The classroom observations that are now central to the instructional rounds work of the Connecticut Superintendents’ Network have evolved over nine years. While the visits are now common practice, that wasn’t always the case. When the notion of superintendents visiting classrooms was first proposed, the idea was viewed with skepticism and opposition by many of the superintendents.

The Connecticut Center for School Change created the network in response to requests from several superintendents for a forum in which to explore issues of improved student achievement and districtwide instructional improvement. The network started in fall 2001 with a cohort of eight superintendents. During the first year, the group met five times for three-hour discussions around a conference table with Harvard University professor Richard Elmore.


Initially, Elmore raised questions, proposed topics and summarized discussions in a series of short papers. These framing papers shifted the discourse from individual show-and-tell stories to a collective discussion of how superintendents used leverage points, including financial resources, professional development and accountability for administrators’ performance, as strategies for driving change to promote instructional improvement.

However, a disconnect developed between the ideal of community practice and the reality of the network’s performance. While everyone participated as required by the norms, the conversation was often abstract and unconnected to the real world.

To put practice front and center, Elmore and the center staff strongly recommended the network leave the comfort of the conference room and visit classrooms together. Site visits would focus on questions about instruction, and visits would provide members with a shared experience. Classroom observations would serve as the building blocks for developing a common language about instructional practice. Follow-up conversations would be descriptive and data-based. To stay focused on the practice and not the person, defined protocols would guide both the visit and the reporting of the observations.

Elmore’s Influence
Not all superintendents embraced the idea. Some did not believe they could learn anything important or useful from the visits. Some were reluctant to offer one of their schools, perhaps because it might have revealed educational shortcomings to their colleagues.

Some perhaps were uncomfortable with having to demonstrate their mastery (or lack of understanding) of instructional practice. One superintendent openly admitted the real incentive to be in the network was the opportunity to listen to and learn from Elmore, a much-admired researcher in the school leadership field. Fortunately, a new member who had only recently joined the network rose to the challenge and offered a school in her district for a group visit. With a great deal of skepticism, the group agreed to give classroom observations a try.

The network’s first site visit occurred in April 2002 at an elementary school in a small suburban district. After visiting a half dozen classrooms for 20-minute observations, the protocol required the superintendents to answer the question “What did you see?” Their reports were mostly generalized: The teacher used evaluative language; students were engaged in reading; there was a nice tone; it was a marvelous lesson; students weren’t getting into critical thinking.

In contrast, Elmore’s comments about what he had observed in the same settings were precise, specific and clinical. They addressed the number of students working on a specific task with an aide and included verbatim transcripts of the teacher explaining the strategy for solving the problem, and detailed summaries of student work on top of desks.

Moved by the contrast between Elmore’s evidence-based approach to seeing instructional activity and their own, the network superintendents began to recognize the value of using classroom visits and subsequent debriefings to develop a shared understanding of good instruction and a strategy for considering alternative approaches to solving instructional problems of practice.

One participant summarized the lesson she learned from that first visit by affirming the “site visit experience brought us to a different level of discussion.” The following year, with consensus, the network instituted a schedule of regular classroom observations and debriefs.

Andrew Lachman is executive director of the Connecticut Center for School Change in Hartford, Conn. E-mail: alachman@ctschoolchange.org