Walk-Throughs for School Improvement
The Genesee (Mich.) Intermediate School District is a regional service agency providing leadership and resources to 21 school districts and 10 charter schools in Genesee County, which includes a total of 83,000 students and 10,000 educators. After the state created its Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for all Michigan schools as part of the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind act, GISD found it had 10 schools failing to meet AYP within its jurisdiction. GISD administrators were determined to raise the standardized test scores from these schools.
"School improvement plans tend to be very broad and vague," says JoAnn Pastor, GISD's former interim assistant superintendent, "so part of our strategy was to focus on specifics. For example, since research has shown that principals need to be the 'instructional leaders' in a school, we looked for ways to help these principals develop into this role." One district school already had a positive experience with a program focused on improving teaching and instructional leadership, called "Classroom Walkthrough," from Teachscape. GISD Superintendent Thomas Svitkovich says he was "impressed with the program's proven track record" and so decided to implement Classroom Walkthrough in these 10 struggling schools in 2007, as "one part of a systemic, long-term improvement strategy."
The Walk-Through Concept
The philosophy behind Classroom Walkthrough is not a recent development, nor an idea that originated at Teachscape. Carolyn Downey, a longtime Arizona superintendent and now a retired professor and consultant in San Diego, is widely credited for both developing the administrative style and coining the term "classroom walk-through." Her approach was influenced by her experience and a best-selling 1982 business management book, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies, by consultants Tom Peters and Robert Waterman. Among the companies profiled was Hewlett-Packard, whose trademark management style became known as "MBWA," or "Management by Walking Around."
Classroom walk-throughs emphasize the use of frequent, informal, short classroom visits by principals to look for specific aspects of good instruction, and they foster a mentoring or coaching, rather than a superior-subordinate, relationship with teachers. Administrators also gather ongoing schoolwide and districtwide assessments of teaching, instead of isolated classroom examples.
Principals focus on a variety of simple but specific questions, such as "Is the objective of the lesson clear to students?" or "Is there a clear instructional strategy employed by this teacher?" Answering such questions leads to regular discussions with teachers about their teaching styles, strengths and weaknesses, and about possible ways to improve.
In recent years, educational technology companies such as Teachscape, Austin Sky, and McREL have developed walkthrough programs that utilize handheld devices, software and the Internet for data collection and staff development. "The principals and teachers involved are thrilled with having these data so accessible. They can clearly see patterns in teaching, and focus on specific areas to improve." Teachers can then access Teachscape's online resource library, which includes "learning modules" that outline effective ways to improve teaching.
As a result, it is easier than ever for districts to utilize classroom walk-throughs, and they have become increasingly common. GISD has just begun implementation, but "already we've seen significant improvements in instruction," says Pastor. "We wanted to do the right things the right way, and classroom walk-throughs are an important component of our ongoing strategy."
Kurt O. Dyrli is a contributing writer for District Administration.