Professional Development

Educators See Classroom Visits as Powerful Learning Tool

By Jeff Archer — July 26, 2005 6 min read
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Donna Berggren, the principal at Chateau Estates Elementary School, used to think she knew what to look for in a good classroom: A teacher who artfully employed activities that held students’ attention, while keeping them under control.

Now, she sees things differently. Instead of focusing on what teachers are doing when she goes into their rooms, she asks herself what the children are learning. The subtle shift has transformed her view of effective instruction.

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“It was like this light bulb went off,” said Ms. Berggren, whose school is in the 50,000-student Jefferson Parish system outside New Orleans. “It allows you to go past that first layer, to what is the teacher enabling the student to do.”

Her district is one of seven in Louisiana that are seeking to make principals better observers of teaching with a technique called “walkthroughs.” Administrators in each system are being trained to coach school leaders on what to look for, and how to use what they see to plan professional development in their schools.

The year-old effort is organized by the School Leadership Center of Greater New Orleans, an independent group founded in 1998 to run an executive-training program for principals in local districts. A $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education mostly underwrites the walkthrough initiative.

The Factory Floor

The Louisiana districts are hardly alone in making new use of classroom visits. Such observations have become an almost ubiquitous tool among school systems trying to raise the level of instruction. But the term is being applied to so many different practices, some worry, that it risks becoming meaningless.

Experts caution that done wrong, walkthroughs lose much of their value. Worse yet, they can spark mistrust among the teachers they’re meant to help. In a sign of how controversial they can be, walkthroughs are banned under a new teachers’ union pact in the 720,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District.

Ann Van Sickle, the lead trainer for the Louisiana project, argues that walkthroughs work best as a tool for analyzing what’s working in the classroom, and what isn’t. Then, she adds, principals must use that information to determine the supports their teachers need to get better results from students.

Ann Van Sickle of the University of San Diego, an expert on instructional "walkthroughs" makes a point during a training session held last month at the University of New Orleans.

“A walkthrough is a waste of time unless you use that to inform your leadership practice,” said Ms. Van Sickle, whose day job is to direct a program at the University of San Diego that trains principals for the San Diego district. “It has to change what you do.”

The best-known pioneer of the practice was Community School District 2, part of the New York City school system until its recent reorganization. Under District 2 superintendents Anthony J. Alvarado and Elaine Fink, walkthroughs became a routine for the district’s principals, teachers, and central-office leaders, starting in the 1980s.

Unlike traditional observations for job reviews that assess whether teachers are doing the right things, District 2 looked to see what students were getting out of the instruction.

Ms. Fink, now retired, compares the practice to a corporate leader’s visit to the factory floor to figure out how to raise production.

“This is about why kids aren’t getting what they need,” she said in a recent interview. “And the only way to know that is to get into the classroom.”

Before she retired, Ms. Fink and Mr. Alvarado took the practice to San Diego, where he served as the chancellor of instruction for the 140,000-student California district for four years, and where she started the training program that Ms. Van Sickle now heads.

The Louisiana effort began when Ms. Fink and Mr. Alvarado were invited by the New Orleans-based leadership center to come to this state to demonstrate the technique. Principals who volunteered their schools for those initial visits found it an eye-opening, and often humbling, experience.

In hallway conversations after each 15-minute observation, Ms. Fink peppered the school leaders with questions: What can students do as a result of what you just saw? What makes you say that? How did the instruction impart meaning to the students?

Many principals found themselves stumped. Cindy Hoyle, the principal at Belle Chasse Primary School, said the exercise differed greatly from how she had been doing classroom visits.

“We had these lists of things to look for,” said Ms. Hoyle, whose school is in the 4,800-student Plaquemines Parish district. “And these teachers were doing everything on these lists, but the most important part was missing.”

Finding Patterns

Veteran practitioners of walkthroughs don’t blame principals for not knowing how to analyze instruction. Traditionally, the skill hasn’t been the focus of their training. As a result, both District 2 and San Diego overhauled their professional development for school and district leaders to concentrate on how students learn.

With that knowledge, said Ms. Van Sickle, principals can use walkthroughs to identify areas in need of improvement. The answer might involve sending a teacher to observe a colleague. Or it might mean having all the teachers in a school study a specific skill, like how to identify an author’s point of view.

“As a principal, I no longer send my teachers away for professional development,” Ms. Van Sickle said. “My job is to design what I know my teachers need to support the kids.”

Educators from the St. Tammany Parish, La., schools attend a training session on conducting instructional "walkthroughs."

Ms. Berggren, the principal at Chateau Estates Elementary, said the walkthroughs that she began doing last year are particularly helpful in guiding a veteran staff in a school with a changing student population. With about 740 students, her school has gone from majority white to majority minority over the past decade.

“A lot of the teachers had set mind-sets about how good and effective they were,” she said.

Her goal has been to visit three classrooms a day for five to 10 minutes each. Ms. Berggren makes a point of asking students in each room why they’re doing whatever activity they’re engaged in. Early on, many replied that it was simply because their teachers had told them to, or that they didn’t know.

Before long, the principal began to see patterns. Vocabulary lessons often entailed having students look up and copy definitions. In response, she urged teachers to discuss new words with students so they could relate them to things that they already knew. She showed how in a model lesson.

Ms. Berggren also saw the teaching of measurement as lacking. Many teachers taught the concept mostly by lecturing, rather than giving students measuring devices to use. She recalls one teacher talking about time to a group of students without having them handle clocks.

“I never made the teacher feel like, ‘You did it wrong,’ ” said Ms. Berggren. “It was, ‘You used this approach; let’s see if we can tweak it a little bit.’ ”

Perceptions Critical

Many proponents of walkthroughs agree that teachers’ perceptions are crucial. Although larger disputes were at issue when the practice was prohibited in Los Angeles this year, walkthroughs can easily become a problem, said Lauren B. Resnick, the director of the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.

The institute, which had provided the training on walkthroughs in Los Angeles, argues that school and district leaders must cultivate a climate in which educators can solve problems together. That takes trust, and a common understanding about instruction, Ms. Resnick said.

“To try to take this practice of walking through classrooms into a school that has none of that kind of community learning has a nearly 100 percent chance of blowing up in your face,” she said.

Ms. Resnick’s group has trademarked its process—“LearningWalks”—to make the point that the purpose is professional growth, not job evaluation. The group advocates that teachers go on the observations themselves.

Another critical ingredient is time, Ms. Van Sickle added. At a training session here last month for the Louisiana districts, she was asked how long it took educators in San Diego to make the shift in their thinking about instruction.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Ms. Van Sickle answered. “What I do know is that there is different practice than there was seven years ago.”

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