Category Archives: Leadership Insights

Empowering teachers with collective efficacy

In 1999, I embarked on my first year of teaching, eagerly anticipating leading my own classroom and filled with much hope, promise, and possibility. However, as my initial year unfolded, it turned out to be a no good, terrible, very bad year (so disappointing that I even wrote an editorial about it for the Denver Post). I consider myself a very positive person—a team player—so this experience was as much a surprise to me as anyone else. What changed my hope to despair and, eventually, my profession from teacher to education consultant?

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Directive vs. collaborative leadership: Which is more effective for improving schools?

When a school needs to improve, school leaders can approach it one of two ways—tell your staff what to do and how to do it, or work together to figure out what to do and how to do it. Because the direction you take will shape the success of your improvement efforts, it’s crucial to choose the approach that’s best for your school’s needs and will help reach your long-term achievement goals.

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Our 10 (or 11) most popular blog posts of 2014

Educators face many challenges each day—large and small—that when addressed effectively have the ability to inspire better teaching, leading, and learning. Our staff continually ask themselves the same question you might ask yourself: As educators, how can we make a bigger, better difference in student engagement and knowledge?

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Taking some of the stress out of professional development

For most occupations, routine continuing education is necessary to keep current with new and changing policies, procedures, and technologies and is critical to job expertise and career advancement. Why is it, then, that educators too often view professional development (PD) opportunities with a touch of dread and angst?

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Are you identifying and developing your leadership talent?

Successful school systems understand the need to attract, select, develop, and retain the right leaders. In a 2004 study for the Wallace Foundation, Kenneth Leithwood and the study’s authors found that effective leadership is second only to good teaching when ranking school and classroom factors that have a measurable effect on improving school outcomes and student performance. A later report from McKinsey & Company further emphasized that school improvement requires a strong pedagogy, supported by collaborative practices and leadership continuity.

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Building academic optimism with changing demographics — infographic

Many factors can dramatically affect a school’s population in a short period of time. Maybe a new industry moves into town. Maybe a new school opens or an old school closes. Maybe school or district boundaries are redrawn.
Sound familiar?
Regardless of the causes, new student demographics bring both challenges and opportunities, and school faculty must decide how to respond. The experience may be both rewarding and disorienting. As faculty work to improve student outcomes, they may ask, “How do we adapt?”

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Student success is influenced by district leadership

In our study we were less interested in what superintendents bring to the job (personal characteristics such as gender, age, or ethnicity) than what they do on the job (leadership behaviors). We wanted to learn if the effect of superintendent leadership is positive, negative, or non-existent. We also wanted to learn which leadership behaviors/practices of superintendents, if any, had the largest effects on achievement. We discovered positive relationships between key, specific practices of superintendents—and, perhaps more importantly, their leadership teams—and higher average measures of district-level achievement.

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Coaching takes informal observations to a new level

McREL’s Power Walkthrough Coach, available July 1, builds upon our successful informal walkthrough platform for school leaders, providing tools and protocols to help coaches more specifically address instructional needs with the teachers they serve. This is in line with emerging trends we’ve seen in schools and districts, where coaches or peers give feedback to one another, yet don’t often have a vehicle for doing so in way that captures look-fors and progress without being evaluative.

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Maximize the power of walkthroughs

During those critical hours between bell times, school leaders are continually challenged to find the time to conduct classroom observations—let alone, the time to take all the data they collect and use it effectively. For principals and assistant principals who have figured this out, we wondered how the tools they use to collect data help them be more effective, efficient leaders.

I had the opportunity recently to ask long-time users (six or more years) of McREL’s Power Walkthrough® observation software this question. Their answers highlighted the challenges school leaders face with conducting observations and how technology can help them maximize the experience for themselves and their teachers.

It makes the task of observing simpler but more meaningful. Administrators are more motivated to leave the office, visit classrooms, conduct brief walkthroughs, and collect data when they can use it immediately and meaningfully. With software loaded right onto their digital device, they save time and effort by not having to hand-write observations and reports. The time they save allows them to conduct more walkthroughs more frequently, which creates higher visibility for them in the school and ends up causing less disruption. The technology also allows them to give teachers formative feedback more quickly, by e-mailing data to them soon after an observation.

The data collected helps administrators and their teachers “zoom in” on what matters most. The software helps principals and assistant principals collect data that can be shared with teachers to heighten their awareness of school initiatives and progress. This opens lines of communication about what professional needs are and should be. Further, the data can help administrators determine the value of specific professional development and provide documentation needed for grant proposals and district reports.

In addition, the ability to customize templates to measure initiatives taking place allows school leaders to “inspect what they expect,” as one district administrator put it. “If you expect teachers to use 21st century skills, then you need to go into their classrooms and inspect [for 21st century skills],” she said. Similarly, one leader said his district started using a template based on the instructional strategies from Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and then added to it their own “look-fors” related to the Common Core.

The reports generated help administrators “zoom out” and use the data at many levels. Power Walkthrough software can create more than 15 kinds or reports based on the data collected. These reports can be used to share information with colleagues and staff at the individual, grade, department, school, and district levels. The reports also can be used as an accountability measure on a larger scale for money spent on technology and other investments.      

Conducting walkthroughs and gathering data is vital to identifying what individual teachers are doing well and the areas in which they need support, as well as ensuring high-quality instruction across classrooms. Technology can help simplify this process and, in short, maximize the power of walkthroughs.

Lisa Maxfield is managing consultant in McREL’s Center for Educator Effectiveness. To learn more about Power Walkthrough, contact her at or 303.632.5561.



In support of classroom observations

There’s been chatter in the educational blogosphere lately about the effectiveness of classroom walkthroughs. Some question the impact that instructional leaders have on student achievement. Some have even questioned whether principals should visit classrooms at all.

However, research shows a clear link between the coaching of teachers and student achievement. There is also a clear indication that walkthroughs are valuable if teachers see them as part of professional development. So what’s the best model for walkthroughs?

McREL’s research on school-level leadership found 21 principal responsibilities, activities, and behaviors that are most strongly connected to staff and student success—15 of which can be addressed by conducting classroom walkthroughs. An informal classroom walkthrough of 3‒5 minutes allows school-level leaders to gather information about teaching styles, instructional strategies, technology use, and other valuable information that can help drive professional development. It also allows leaders to increase their visibility among students and staff and to gauge the temperature of the school climate. Walkthroughs conducted with a purpose and linked to instructional practice do create value for teachers, leaders, and students.

Bringing coaches into the picture

We’ve seen an interesting shift in the typical users of McREL’s Power Walkthrough software and training. When it was developed in 2007, our clients were almost solely principals and assistant principals. But lately, we’ve seen the software being used more and more by teacher leaders, mentors, and instructional coaches. Perhaps this is reflective of principals realizing that allowing staff to observe and learn from one another is an effective way of providing ongoing professional development.

In response to this shift, this summer we’ll launch Power Walkthrough Coach, designed  to help principals, teacher leaders, and instructional coaches give teachers the valuable feedback and input they need to improve their practice.

If done in the context of research-based leadership practices and instructional development, classroom walkthroughs are a valuable way for principals and school leaders to see instruction happening in their schools, provide personalized professional development and feedback to teachers, and to involve staff in their own professional learning.


2011_Hubbell_WEBElizabeth Ross Hubbell is a consultant in McREL’s Center for Educator Effectiveness, and co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching.



2011_Kerr_WEBAndrew Kerr is a consultant for McREL’s Center for Educator Effectiveness, working with schools, districts, and state and national education agencies on curriculum and instruction, technology planning, staff development, and distance learning programs.