|Christina Podraza, a first-year assistant principal at Hawthorne Elementary School in Elmhurst, Ill., confers with David Moyer, the district’s superintendent, during the latter’s school visit this fall.
Last April, the principal at Hawthorne Elementary School, Nikki Tammaru, interviewed 1st-grade students about learning targets. She asked one pupil, “What are learning targets and what do you think about them?” The girl answered, “Well, learning targets are a goal for the day or the week, and what you want to get to and learn about in that hour, day or week.”
At the same time, she asked teachers to survey students about what they value in their classroom learning environments. Those answers vary, but one thing draws student agreement — learning targets are the favorite part of their classroom.
Just eight months earlier, learning targets were virtually nonexistent at Hawthorne or any other school in the 8,500-student Elmhurst, Ill., district. For Tammaru and her staff, the journey toward implementation wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. With persistence, Tammaru, joined by assistant principal Tim Riordan and instructional coach Effey Nassis, facilitated incredible movement in their teachers’ ability to write quality learning targets and use them effectively in the classroom. How did they get to that point?
A Serious Duty
Scenario A: A new principal is hired and assumptions are made that the principal knows how to do a job he or she never has done previously. Minimal support is in place.
Scenario B: An experienced principal is bogged down regularly with building management issues. Minimal support is in place.
Both school leaders become increasingly frustrated with the complex challenges of their job and the lack of support from supervisors.
Scenario C: An elementary school principal flies solo with no administrative team in place for support.
The lesson to be drawn: Superintendents must take seriously the responsibility for building the leadership capacity of principals. In too many places, that is not the case.
When I arrived in Elmhurst in July 2015, the school district did not have an operational plan in place. My first action, with feedback and input from my central-office team, was to organize instructional improvement around two objectives: balanced assessment and student engagement. These could provide a focus to the work of our staff while we devised a comprehensive, multiyear plan that would provide direction for resource allocation and facilities’ decisions in support of the district’s learning goals.
In the absence of such a plan, principals and teachers did their best to positively influence student learning, but the results were random, not systematic.
A Medical Model
My team identified instructional rounds as a means to improvement. Rounds incorporate the principles of the medical rounds model, in which groups of professionals observe and discuss evidence for a diagnosis, analyze the evidence and discuss possible treatments. In their book Instructional Rounds in Education
, Elizabeth City and her co-authors describe the rounds process as “an explicit practice that is designed to bring discussions of instruction directly into the process of school improvement.”
Our school district’s instructional rounds process embraces three goals:
ensure fidelity to the student achievement objectives;
provide useful feedback to support teachers in their work; and
accumulate data to inform professional development decisions and support professional learning communities across the district.
We identified learning targets as the priority in year one and rigor as the priority for this school year.
My administrative team adopted the International Center for Leadership in Education’s definition of rigor as the combination of higher-level thinking and application to unpredictable real-world situations. ICLE’s rigor rubric has helped establish a common understanding of a concept that is often open to individual interpretation. It has helped us explain to teachers that rigor is
thinking, not doing, and that rigor does not
demand cruel amounts of mindless homework.
Mary Henderson, the assistant superintendent for learning and teaching, worked with the district’s 13 principals to develop the logistics of the visits, the “look fors” and forms, data protocols and feedback loops to teachers.
Principals traveled in teams to each other’s buildings on a rotating basis throughout the year, collected data, shared it at our principal meetings and then took it back to their buildings to share with their leadership teams and teachers. This transparency helped us to be interdependently accountable to each other for whole-system improvement.
In Elmhurst, principal meetings are professional learning workshops. In 2016-17, our team studied two books — Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School
by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan and Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems
by Fullan and Joanne Quinn. We used these resources to support a future-focused and student-centered approach to instructional improvement.
Instructional rounds quickly became a critical component to translate these ideas into the everyday work and professional practices of our teachers and administrators.
, Fullan and Quinn state that “coherence represents going into action with the right drivers as the foundation.” They outline four components of coherence: focusing direction, cultivating collaborative cultures, deepening learning and securing accountability.
While the term alignment has a structural connotation, coherence implies mindset. Culture always trumps strategy, so developing a collective mindset and improving culture is clearly the better path to whole-systems change than are structural fixes (such as bell times, calendars or schedule modules), or quick, programmatic fixes (such as co-teaching or a reading program). Structural and programmatic adjustments can have a place in supporting improvement efforts, but they cannot drive improvement, and they have minimal impact in the absence of a healthy belief system.
Instructional rounds helped us extend networks of professional communication, increasing the amount of dialogue among our leadership team and enriching its quality. Principals, who otherwise might have had little opportunity for professional collaboration, now can develop a common vocabulary to support our student achievement objectives, establish a common instructional focus across the district and share ideas for continuous improvement.
Learning data were collected in 11 areas, ranging from basic indicators to complex. Every indicator showed growth from fall to spring, but the most impressive data point was that the more complex areas demonstrated the greatest growth. This suggests teachers became more adept at using learning targets to lift student learning. The indicator “Students Know What Proficiency/Success Looks Like” grew from 10 percent to 24 percent in all classrooms visited. The indicator about students using learning targets as a measure of success rose from less than 1 percent to 22 percent.
Our administrators learned from this process and are making adjustments this year. One significant change: Most principals will no longer do instructional rounds in their own buildings.
Before the start of the school year, I sat down with the union leadership to explain what we planned to do. I indicated the data would be collected in the aggregate so it could not be identifiable by teacher and would not be used for evaluation. Rather, the data would guide decisions about schoolwide improvement and professional development.
At the opening teacher institute in August, all principals delivered a standard message developed by the district’s learning and teaching department. Though the teachers were unaware of the exact date administrators would be visiting, all of the rubrics were shared with teachers in advance so that there was a common understanding of what administrators were looking for and what data were being collected. Even so, because the process was new, many teachers experienced anxiety over having administrators in their classrooms, and union leaders raised some concerns about use of the data.
Any school leader implementing instructional rounds should be sensitive to the perceptions of teachers. If anything, overcommunicate.
is superintendent of Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205 in Elmhurst, Ill. E-mail:
by John E. Roberts, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Mass.
by Connie M. Moss and Susan M. Bookhart, ASCD, Alexandria, Va.