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Why Aren't School Leaders More Like Doctors?

Daily rounds and internships can make better administrators.

Years after accountability and data-driven decision making swept through schools, many educators may believe there is not one part of their profession that hasn't been thoroughly dissected, quantified, or ranked. But for many districts a black hole lies in the space between what they expect to accomplish and what actually occurs in their classrooms every day.

Is summer professional development really helping teachers integrate technology? Is the new language arts curriculum creating more engaged learners? Are the new math textbooks doing a better job showing students how the problems relate to real life?

About 10 years ago, Harvard professor of educational leadership Richard Elmore worked with a group of Connecticut superintendents to create a program to bridge this gap. To do so, he turned to the basic framework that is familiar to anyone who has watched a medical drama on television: doctors' rounds.

In this new program, educators emulate the practice of doctors' rounds by visiting classrooms together and then comparing notes to make better "diagnoses" of classroom practices. The payoff for this new model, which is detailed in Elmore and colleagues' book, Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning, is not in learning the basic description of tasks, but in the work and discussion that occur within each step. More simply, Elmore says, "You learn the work by doing the work."

Diagnosing Classroom Practice
So what is this new process and why is this practice starting to grow? Simply put, because the people doing it, committed to working at it, are finding success. And not the type of success that shows up in test scores two months later, or the achievements that look good when presented at a board meeting. "It helped us unleash our resources on the right problems," says Robert Villanova, the former superintendent of Farmington (Connecticut) Public Schools. He and his district were in the original group participating in the work.

"The outcome is to improve performance writ large," he adds. "To create better learning opportunities and outcomes. Superintendent work is a long way from that. This connects the work of superintendents and principals to classroom work."

The impetus for the movement came when Andrew Lachman, a senior administrator in New York City's District 2, moved to the Connecticut Center for School Change. Lachman and Elmore had worked together in New York, and they agreed to create an executive leadership program for superintendents in Connecticut. As Lachman writes, the model now seems "so logical, purposeful, and polished. It was never that way in the doing, which was fraught with anxiety and much messier."

Villanova remembers that when Elmore first met with the group, he said, in no uncertain terms, "If [the work you are doing] is not getting at instruction, you're probably missing the boat." The Harvard professor also insisted the leaders couldn't do the work of transforming their school systems without visiting classrooms together.

The idea behind the rounds movement is that administrators first must identify a "problem of practice." This is an idea the school or district wants to study, such as the level of student engagement or how past professional development affects classroom instruction.

Then a group of administrators, typically superintendents and principals from the district and neighboring districts, will gather to visit classes together. The visits hopscotch across the school, with guests spending about 15 minutes in each spot. Using the problem of practice as a lens, each visitor jots notes on what he or she sees occurring in the classroom.

This is where the model demands that superintendents and principals put aside their ingrained notions of classroom visits. Typically, administrators start making judgments the second they walk in the door. It's not that this instinct is wrong, but it is counterproductive to the rounds model, for several reasons.

A Round Is Not a Walkthrough
"There is a real difference between rounds and walkthroughs," says Peter Cummings, principal of Farmington's West Woods Upper Elementary School. "Rounds is very much meant to be a learning experience for people going through the process. You are gathering data on what's happening in your school and thinking of the implications of that data."

Understanding that, and practicing it, remain two different actions, Cummings says from experience. "Suspending judgment is really hard. We're trained to make decisions constantly."

Administrators "can argue about what they are seeing, but not whether it's good or bad," Elmore adds. Comments should be descriptive, examining the kind of teacher-student interactions in classrooms, how students are feeding data back to teachers, he says. The goal of this step is to "make the familiar strange ... American classrooms don't vaguely resemble what we thought we were doing."

Reconnecting With Teachers
Having a group of administrators barnstorming a school can obviously be a distraction and cause anxiety for teachers, so Villanova mentions that administrators need to make sure the conditions for such a visit are clearly spelled out and followed. "You need to be received without worry," he says. "[Tell teachers] ‘We're visiting the school and considering our work, not your work.' After our visits, we'd hand-craft a note to teachers that was specific about that day."

Elmore is more blunt. Because administrators have "done this work so badly, you have to gain back the credibility you've lost with teachers," he says. "You have to make administrators credible as leaders of instruction. Most teachers don't believe they are."

As a principal, Cummings says, "If I'm going to ask teachers to do something different, I need to provide the conditions and support to make it possible. This helps us do that."

In Brookfield, another Connecticut district starting a rounds program this year, Assistant Superintendent Genie Slone says this part of the process reminds her of organizational theorist Peter Senge's vision of administrators as storytellers. "The obstacles are not knowing what's going on in classrooms," she says. "This process gives you the opening to have those conversations." She and Superintendent Anthony Bivona visited two other school districts using rounds this year, and they will hold their first sessions later this school year.

While the process is named for the idea of rounds, a vital piece of the work actually occurs after the visits, when the administrators reconnect to go over their notes and discuss what they saw.

For instance, one year, Farmington focused on improving writing across the curricula. Villanova, now the director of the Executive Leadership Program at the University of Connecticut, says the group looked for evidence of this in its classroom visits. He understood each group visit was more like a dipstick than a thorough exam, a quick look at where schools are and a way to continue the conversation about where to go next. Six weeks later, the visitors would go to another school. "Some things begin to emerge," he says. "The debriefing has to be skillfully done. [It takes] expertise and capacity to be a good facilitator. If the group isn't ready to discuss openly and honestly, it can take time to prepare for that."

If you think this is starting to sound like a big investment of time, you're right. "People are a little shocked at the level of commitment it takes," Elmore says. The original group met for a full day every month. That meant no phones, with principals and superintendents out of the office for an entire day. When interviewed for this story, Slone twice had to excuse herself to handle a situation in the district, underscoring how hard it can be to carve this time out. "People think it's wildly impractical, but it works," Elmore adds.

Cummings says Farmington has used the model in two different ways, allowing each school to set its own question, and using one problem of practice for the entire district. Administrators also return to the same questions so they can check on progress and make further changes, he adds.

Elmore is clear about saying this model doesn't build an instructional strategy for a district, but it "makes a strategy work."

As hard as the work is, Villanova mentions the work does get easier as you go. "Every step forward makes the next step that much easier," he says. "It's like tilling the soil every year." Farmingon's work in this area is so deep into the culture that it would be hard to stop now, he admits.

In fact, Cummings is starting to move the process to what all agree is the Holy Grail, involving teachers. "That has been very powerful," he says. "Classrooms are isolating. The demands of the profession and problems are so complex, we need to work together to make sense of it."

Duncan Is Watching
The notion of rounds continues to spread throughout Connecticut districts, and the idea has already caught on in Cambridge, Massachusetts (where Elmore is based), Iowa, and Ohio. In fact, K–8 principals in Chicago Public Schools have worked with Elmore for two years.

"Arne [Duncan] was a big supporter of this work in Chicago," Elmore says. But the Harvard professor stops short of seeking an official DOE push. "I'm not sure it would be a good thing to have the federal government sponsoring rounds. What I've tried to say to Arne ... is to build human enterprise. Build the capacity of professional practice at a high level. The accountability system [today] is the equivalent of telling people to jump higher."

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