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Targeting Improvement:

Instructional Rounds   

Similar to physician training, this new model emphasizes collegial classroom observations, diagnosis and a plan of action


When Mark Odsather moved into the superintendency of the Pleasant View Elementary School District in California’s San Joaquin Valley four years ago with a mission to turn around one of the state’s most impoverished and low-achieving districts, his first visit was to the lower school’s kindergarten.

Watching the young pupils answer yes/no questions to the story the teacher had just read, he noted the group of mostly English language learners didn’t have much to say. And it wasn’t just the kindergarten class — none of the children in the school seemed to be talking in class.

Kathy Greider (right), superintendent in Farmington, Conn., records notes during an instructional rounds visit to classrooms in her district.

Across the country in Connecticut, students in affluent Farmington’s high-achieving school district were struggling with a different problem — answering open-ended questions. “They couldn’t really explain the concepts or their thinking,” said Superintendent Kathy Greider.

And in Melbourne, Australia, when Katherine Henderson, director of schools in the Western Metropolitan Region, visited some of the region’s 150 schools to ask about their rock-bottom performance, she was told by teachers that she “didn’t understand,” that with such dire backgrounds of poverty, neglect and/or language troubles, “these kids just can’t learn.”

A Defensive Culture
Now, a few years later, the picture looks much improved in all three school districts. Despite different pedagogical problems in widely disparate settings, all three have been helped by an innovative and fast-growing program that improves teaching and learning by focusing on transforming the leadership culture among school and district educators.

Called instructional rounds, the approach is modeled after the training doctors receive in medical rounds. In hospitals, groups of doctors and residents visit patients to observe and collect and review data to diagnose and then recommend a plan of action. As a collegial model for communal growth and continuous self-improvement, the process serves doctors well — something the developer of instructional rounds, Richard Elmore of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, found inspiring and distinctively helpful for a profession famous for the isolation of its teachers.

Like the medical version, instructional rounds has groups of educators (central-office to building-level staff) visiting classrooms in each other’s schools to observe and take notes around a particular problem of practice. The group (or network, in rounds parlance) then analyzes the collected evidence to find meaningful patterns before suggesting remedial action.

Despite offering prescriptive help to the schools in question, the work’s overall ambition is to bring school improvement to scale districtwide. Key to this involves changing the often-defensive culture and professional practice of the network members themselves.

Rounds is designed to correct something Elmore describes as “a profession without a practice.” For historical reasons having to do with the way it evolved from one-room classrooms, teaching lacks the rigor of many disciplines.

“Rounds professionalizes the process of defining problems and problem solving,” says Stefanie Reinhorn, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who works as a facilitator with school teams that come to Harvard to learn about instructional rounds. The highly technical steps in instructional rounds help “force professionals to act like professionals,” she adds, “through forcing conversation to focus laser-like on student learning.”

Observation and self-scrutiny can be hard and scary. “It takes courage,” says Reinhorn, a former instructional coach in the Boston Public Schools, “to bare your problems to your colleagues,” even if rounds protocols require observers to be objective and nonjudgmental. “Rounds really has nothing to do with teacher evaluation — something that is basically disconnected from actually learning about what is going wrong in the classroom.”

Instead, classroom observers concentrate on a predefined problem of practice (lack of rigor in the classroom, for example) in the core learning experience. This is what Elmore calls the “instructional core,” the actions of teacher and student in the presence of content.

Math specialist Christina Garrity reports on the patterns she and her colleagues uncovered during an instructional rounds visit in the Farmington, Conn., district.

Research shows that “educational leadership best succeeds as shared leadership that exploits the collective wisdom of the staff,” says Dennis Buzzelli, former superintendent in Tallmadge, Ohio, who works as a school improvement consultant and rounds facilitator in Akron. Instructional rounds, he adds, asks educators to talk about and establish a common understanding of what good teaching and learning look like.

A Rural Network
Rural districts don’t get a lot of outside attention in terms of school improvement efforts, says Odsather, who doubles as superintendent and principal of the 560-student, K-8 Pleasant View district in the farmlands of the California Central Valley. About 93 percent of the Pleasant View students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and 80 percent are Hispanic with an equal number of English language learners. Turnover is so high that 80 percent of those who begin in kindergarten leave before 8th grade. Some neighborhoods are plagued by gang violence.

What really upset Odsather upon arrival in Pleasant View, though, was the quality of education students were receiving. “Rural schools are easily forgotten,” says the veteran educator, who came from an upscale Seattle suburb, Bellevue, Wash., and grew up alongside the children of Microsoft millionaires.

“The kids here are no different from the ones I was raised with — only they’re treated differently,” Odsather says. “Not much is expected of children of migrant farm workers.”

In casting about for improvement tools, he read the initial Harvard Education Press book on instructional rounds published in 2009. “When I started, my mind was just melting,” he says. “I was confused by how the concepts led to school improvement, but intrigued by the idea of identifying and calibrating what high-quality education might look like. I liked the idea of rigorous and collegial self-reflection. To reach for professionalism based on honesty and transparency really appealed to me.”

Odsather contacted peers across the region, mainly superintendents from districts with similar demographics, to form a six-district (five K-8, one K-12) network spread 200 miles across the San Joaquin Valley.

“The first thing we learned in trying to develop problems of practice was that we were too passive,” he explains. “We weren’t truly focusing on the things we valued, like raising expectations. Recognizing this was a huge help.” The superintendents began meeting three times a year before moving to monthly gatherings. Classroom observation visits in Odsather’s district focused on why the young students weren’t talking. What the leaders learned was the classrooms lacked opportunities for conversation.

The Next Level
What to do about it — or developing the next level of work, in rounds terminology — was more challenging. Pleasant View ran training for the leadership team on addressing the deficiencies in instruction. But deeply embedded institutional practices are difficult to change. “I’ll be honest,” Odsather concedes, “I had staff leave rather than change how they ran their classrooms.”

Adds Reinhorn, the facilitator at Harvard: “Fixing is often more an issue than investigating the problem. This is when lateral accountability within networks becomes important.” In this regard, Odsather’s fellow superintendents offered critical help with advice and feedback.

Odsather worked with his small staff to create norms and strategic structures around project-based lesson planning. The aim was to stimulate student conversations, leading to higher levels of critical thinking.

“One of our first staff conversations was to talk frankly about our hopes and fears,” he says. “It turned out many worried about losing control of the classroom if the kids work in groups. But it turned out the kids were much happier with hands-on, group projects. Classroom management was less of a problem than before.”

In the revamped kindergartens, youngsters in groups of four took turns talking about story prompts. Meanwhile, 8th graders began discussing their work around rubrics that clarified standards of excellence.

Odsather met with his two schools’ leadership teams for two hours each week. More importantly, teachers’ schedules were upended to give them 45 minutes before class daily for joint lesson planning. In emphasizing structures to help realize change, faculty set norms to improve meeting efficiency with expectations for punctuality, productivity, transparency through peer observation and positive feedback. They then created their own teacher evaluation systems around ongoing improvement.

Now, three years into the process, Odsather claims the information collected during rounds and the networked adult learning has guided him in how to improve teacher skills and knowledge, while reorganizing the school day to empower teacher collaboration to better support teaching and learning in the classroom.

“Rounds has invigorated my staff to become owners of their craft — to find the tools to be successful in creating classrooms that encourage kids to solve problems, think critically and creatively, as well as communicate their ideas clearly and articulately,” says Odsather. “Our expectations have soared. We had a high gang population and graffiti problems when I arrived. Now, we no longer have the fights and discipline problems we once had. Teachers say we have given the kids their innocence back.”

Farmington Network
In its ninth year of instructional rounds, Farmington’s school district of 4,000 students and seven schools is a mature example of a district well into the application of instructional rounds.


Facilitators, Networks and Budgets

Farmington began this work in response to discovering that while their high school students may have been acing college-entrance exams, they remained unable to explain their thinking. Assistant Superintendent Kim Wynne says these students, whom she calls “high-achieving, passive learners,” had great knowledge recall but failed at critical thinking.

When the district discovered Elmore’s newly developed theory of school improvement, Farmington moved forward with just one network, the District Leadership Council, composed of central-office staff, the school business manager and the district’s seven principals and assistant principals. Jointly, they visited classrooms in a different school every six to eight weeks.

But they quickly found changes to raise critical thinking skills would not be possible without reaching deeper into the classroom. So, the Farmington leadership expanded its networks to include teachers, with each school running its own network.

Enthusiastic teachers formed their own networks organized around core subjects, enlisting subject-area instructors at all schools (including the high school department chair) to meet in this subject-based, multigrade, vertical network twice a year. To create more independent learners in English language arts, the instructional rounds network examined whether providing writing scaffolds, graphic organizers and sentence starters made students overly dependent on teacher guidance, Superintendent Kathy Greider says.

During a debriefing session of instructional rounds in California’s Pleasant View Elementary School District, Superintendent Mark Odsather (center) explains how to use pieces of evidence to identify instructional patterns.
At the high school, student representatives who were added to the network suggested the curriculum would be more interesting if it were made more relevant to their lives. “Today, we are seeing ownership of school improvement from students to (the) central office,” says Wynne, the assistant superintendent.

While raising achievement results is the ultimate goal, Farmington’s leaders say they evaluated their success in terms of improved student engagement. “This, we assess through noting [whether the students or the teachers are] asking questions in the classroom, as well as in the answers students have about what they are learning and why,” Greider says. “To our gratification, they increasingly have answers.”

Victoria’s Surge
In the 77,000-student region she leads in Victoria on Australia’s southeastern coast, Katherine Henderson was tired of hearing accounts of teachers doubting the ability of students to learn. She set out to ensure every child would succeed.

It took five years, but by 2012, her region of considerable poverty and a large immigrant population moved from ranking last among the state’s nine regions on every measure of statewide testing to third. The upward change was so dramatic, the state Department of Education built a case study around the work.

“No school can improve without good leadership,” she says. “Sure, I could have dismissed all 150 principals and started over, but I had the tools with rounds to improve schools through improving the current leadership.”

After launching the work with Harvard’s Elmore on-site, she recruited as rounds facilitator Thomas Fowler-Finn, former superintendent in Cambridge, Mass., to provide ongoing guidance. They divided the region into seven networks of 16-22 schools each and began network training by dissecting current educational research to raise understanding of what good educational practice looks like.

“Early on, there was tremendous anxiety among staff over a sense of exposure, especially when principals were presented with irrefutable evidence about teaching and learning problems in their classrooms,” Henderson says. “We had colleagues who had socialized together but never discussed their mutual practice,” who suddenly were asked to move beyond camaraderie to brutally appraise each other’s and their own teaching practices.

The teachers learned they couldn’t assume any one of them had a professional knowledge base, Henderson adds. “But over time, as they began to trust the dedication of their colleagues to mutual improvement, they were better able to face the challenges.”

Henderson described it as fascinating work. “We had classrooms where teaching was excellent but which still weren’t succeeding because what really matters is what the children are saying and doing. We ended up with a coherent and shared focus across the region. It was very, very satisfying and exciting to bring people from very different professional levels and lift them up together.”

Summing Up
Odsather, the superintendent in his fourth year leading California’s Pleasant View schools, captures the instructional rounds experience this way: “I often think of Richard Elmore saying, ‘You hire people on their ability to learn, not on the basis of a resume.’ Now when I interview people, I ask about their greatest weaknesses as a teacher and what they’re doing about it. I’m really interested in their thoughts on how to improve their practice.”

Colleen Gillard is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Mass. E-mail: colleengillard@gmail.com. Twitter: @colleen_gillard 


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