Category Archives: Leadership Insights

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.

Non-core classrooms: Are you observing them?

Imagine you’re conducting classroom walkthroughs and, as you walk by a music classroom, you hear the sound of student voices singing beautifully. “They are all busy practicing together again,” you think as you continue on toward a U.S. history classroom down the hall.

Wait a minute—did you just skip the music teacher’s classroom?

The music teacher needs to feel valued as a teacher as much as the history teacher does. Stopping in her classroom, and other “non-core” classrooms, to observe is just as important as seeing what happens in math, science, social studies, and language arts.

To get a clear picture of the instruction happening in all of your classrooms, McREL recommends that every teacher, core and non-core, be observed twice a week. While this may seem daunting, walkthroughs can be conducted by principals, coaches, other administrators, or fellow teachers as long as they have been through sufficient training on the “look-fors.” The benefit of conducting walkthroughs and providing formative feedback to teachers is two-fold: It improves communication and helps with goal setting, and the data gathered during walkthroughs can be used to make informed decisions about professional development and coaching opportunities.

In just a couple of months of walkthroughs, you will collect enough data to identify what instruction looks like in your school (as well as in specific content areas), what teachers are doing well, and areas where they need support. As you conduct more walkthroughs, you’ll also get valuable information about how often and how well particular instructional strategies are being used. PWT data chart

As an example, look at the data in this graph, taken from a sample of more than 150,000 walkthroughs recently conducted by Power Walkthrough® users around the world. Notice that there are some differences in strategies being used in core versus non-core classrooms. How does this compare to what you think you’d find in your own school?

Lisa Maxfield is a managing consultant at McREL International, where she provides information and support for McREL’s Power Walkthrough informal observation software.

What do you do with classroom observation data?

At their core, classroom observations should be about coaching, building up professional practice, and supporting better outcomes for students. Principals should use classroom observation data to enrich conversations during professional learning community meetings, individual teacher coaching conferences, and staff meetings. When large samples of student data are available, school leaders can disaggregate the data by age, content area, or other categories to enable powerful analysis of the data’s meaning and uses. This, combined with other evidence, can be used to support school improvement goals, collaborative planning, professional development planning, and a common understanding of what quality pedagogy looks like. Principals who do this well can help their teachers
make great gains in teaching and learning.

We’re sometimes asked by principals and district leaders who are interested in Power Walkthrough® for more information about how the system ties in with research-informed instructional practices and good classroom observation protocols and purposes.

The Power Walkthrough system supports best practice by using a carefully designed template of observable elements based on the best understanding of modern pedagogy, with indicators of research-informed classroom environmental factors, instructional strategies, learning taxonomies, technology applications, evidence of learning, and student interview responses. The template is customizable, so that if a school wants to focus on formative assessment or collaborative learning, they can do so by adding or substituting observation elements. We recommend not adding too much to the observation template, so that it doesn’t turn into a teacher evaluation tool and take too long to conduct. If individual observations take more than 3-5 minutes to conduct, principals won’t
be able to visit enough classrooms for the data to be valid and reliable.

Validity and reliability of data relies not only on a sufficient sample size, but also on the skill of the observer. Becoming an efficient, skilled, and astute observer of teaching and learning takes quality training, practice, and collaborative reflection between observers. School leaders don’t have to be experts in all content areas to conduct good observations, but they do have to be highly knowledgeable in pedagogy and be a keen observer of student learning evidence. The Power Walkthrough templates help principals by providing cues, “look-fors,” and a common nomenclature.

Templates and lists provide structure and allow for statistical analysis, but they don’t preclude the principal from observing other factors in the classroom, interviewing students, or recording descriptive notes. In fact, Power
observations are designed to end with student interviews to gather student perspectives on what they’re trying to learn and why they’re learning it, to see if they fully comprehend the objectives of the lesson. Answers such as “we’re learning math because we have a test on Friday” aren’t good enough. A great
answer would be something like, “we’re learning how to graph polynomials because they can be used to model how some things work in nature like the shape a stream of water takes when it’s shot out of a fountain or the path of a
basketball when you shoot a free throw.”

In the end it’s not about the instrument itself, but how it’s applied. Depending on the goals of school leadership, Power Walkthrough can be used either for typical data collection purposes or innovative change. We encourage instructional leaders to collaborate with each other and their teachers to learn from the data together. Teachers will take ownership of the data’s meaning if they are allowed to find it themselves rather than using a top-down approach of dictating to them what the data means. If used regularly and collaboratively, Power Walkthrough data can provide a wealth of professional development experiences for all educators, both on a daily basis and as part of a whole school improvement effort.

We hope this explains a little more about how Power Walkthrough supports good classroom observation practices and instructional improvement.

Matt Kuhn is a principal consultant at McREL, where he designs and delivers professional development and provides technical assistance to school and districts in instructional technology, STEM, and leadership. 




A formula for planning effective school improvement

It’s nearing the end of the school year across America, which means thousands of principals are preparing school improvement plans for the 2013-14 school year. There are two common scenarios that take place, illustrated here by Principal A and Principal B:

Principal A sits down and, with little input or involvement from others, dutifully writes an ambitious school improvement plan for the next school year. The plan is submitted to the central office and receives a stamp of approval. At the beginning of the new school year, the plan is shared for the first time with the school staff. Momentum and focus are quickly lost, and the plan sits on a shelf, practically untouched, until the end of the school year.

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Ensuring teacher quality: A global view

E000061rThere are few things more talked about in U.S. education circles right now than how to improve evaluation for teachers. While states and districts are focused on what’s wrong with our current systems and how we can make them better—by changing what we evaluate, how often we evaluate, and even who evaluates—perhaps we should look to how other countries with the top student achievement rates in the world, such as Finland, South Korea, and Singapore, are already getting it right.

Only the best get in. Only 15 percent of Finnish prospective teachers are admitted into teacher programs. Once in, their preparation includes extensive coursework on teaching principles and at least one full year of in-school experience (Darling-Hammond, 2010). By the time Singaporean candidates pass a demanding test and panel interview, only one out of eight applicants successfully becomes a teacher (Tucker, 2011).

Teachers in high-performing countries also receive high-quality professional development in research methods and pedagogical practice, and they participate in it quite often. Common in Western European countries is “job-embedded professional development,” which supports teacher research on a specific learning practice. Because teachers are provided time and support for studying and evaluating their own teaching strategies, their learning is ongoing and sustained (Wei, Andree, & Darling-Hammond, 2009).

Teacher collaboration in high-performing countries ensures high teacher quality. In South Korea, only about 35 percent of teachers’ working time is spent teaching pupils. The rest is spent working in a shared office space exchanging instructional resources and ideas. Likewise, teachers in Finnish schools meet at least one afternoon each week to jointly plan and develop curriculum, and they are encouraged to share materials and work with teachers at other schools (Wei et al., 2009).

These methods appear to be working. Results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) released in December 2012 reflect that in 4th-grade mathematics, Singapore, Korea, and Hong Kong were the top performers, followed by Chinese Taipei and Japan (Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Arora, 2012). According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the top-performing countries in 4th-grade reading were Hong Kong, the Russian Federation, Finland, and Singapore (Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Drucker, 2012).

In addition, high-performing countries have high levels of graduation and post-graduate education. More than 99 percent of Finnish students, for example, complete upper secondary school and two-thirds of those graduates go on to universities or professional schools (Darling-Hammond, 2010).

While these practices may seem utopian to U.S. educators, they provide insight into how teacher quality in other countries contributes to the student achievement results that we strive for. To achieve best-in-the-world results, the United States needs to determine what best-in-the-world evaluation practices we can apply or modify to create the highest quality teachers.

How can these practices be implemented in your school? Do you have the time and resources to do so? Do you think they would improve teacher quality in your school or district?

Written by Jennifer Tuzzeo, Writer/Editor II


Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). What we can learn from Finland’s successful school reform. Retrieved from

Mullis, I. V. S., Martin, M. O., Foy, P., & Arora, A. (2012). Chestnut Hill, MA: TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, Boston College. Retrieved from

Mullis, I. V. S., Martin, M. O., Foy, P., & Drucker, K. T. (2012). PIRLS 2001 international results in reading. Chestnut Hill, MA: TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, Boston College. Retrieved from

Tucker, M. (2011). Standing on the shoulders of giants: An American agenda for education   reform. National Center on Education and the Economy. Retrieved from

Wei, R. C., Andree, A., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2009). How nations invest in teachers. Educational
Leadership, 66
(5), 28–33.


Data show classroom observations decline in spring

Classroom observations, or walkthroughs, are quick snapshots that, over time, begin to show trends within a school—trends which can be used to identify staff development needs. Based on feedback from our Power Walkthrough clients, we’ve found that schools and districts use their observation data to set goals, provide specific professional development, increase coaching conversations, and enhance mentoring programs.

6a010536aec25c970b017eea66c325970dBut in examining our clients’ data, we often see a decrease in the number of walkthroughs during April and May. Walkthroughs should be an integral part of the school culture and part of the normal routine in which teachers and students are comfortable with administrators in the classroom. If we know and understand the importance of walkthroughs, why is there such a large drop-off in how many are done during the last quarter of the school year?

Are you seeing similar trends in your school? Why do you think this might be? We welcome your insights in the comments below.

Written by senior consultant Lisa Maxfield and administrative specialist Cheryl Mervich.

Generations of Principals Lead Change Differently

The Soviets launch Sputnik, President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, OPEC enacts an oil embargo, the Challenger Shuttle explodes, or the World Trade Center falls—these events and others help to define generations. Because a generation has a shared memory of important events, it also shares similar assumptions about what matters based on their formative experiences (Raines, 1997; Kunreuther, 2008). Therefore, generations can influence people’s perspectives and behaviors.

School leaders may not be aware of their generation’s effect on the way they lead change. But awareness of these influences can help principals use reflective practice, consider their effectiveness as a leader, and adopt new behaviors. These changes can improve overall school organization and increase the efficacy of leaders as they become more aware of their influence. For instance, Gen-X principals tend to use decisive, yet inclusive decision-making processes, which may help in leading change more effectively than other generations.

I recently finished Leading Schools through a Generational Lens (Kuhn, 2012) that identifies these
generational differences in leadership. Connecting my data to the 21 leadership responsibilities from McREL’s Balanced Leadership Profile® research, I found five major trends:

  1. A significant gap exists between how principals and teachers perceive the same change. Principals tended to see the changes they led as 2nd order (i.e., a change that is significantly and fundamentally different) by a much larger margin than their teachers. This gap was significantly greater for Gen-X principals.
  2. The top and bottom five leadership responsibilities were similar across generations. Teachers rated the top five leadership responsibilities as Outreach, Ideals & Beliefs, Optimize, Focus, and Knowledge of Curriculum/Instruction/Assessment and the bottom five as Relationships, Order, Discipline, Involvement in Curriculum/Instruction/Assessment, and Input.
  3. Principals tend to self-rate their leadership capacity significantly higher than average compared to their teachers’ ratings, especially when they were thought to be leading 2nd order change. This occurred about three times more frequently in Generation Jones and Baby Boomer cohorts than the Gen-X
  4. When they felt their principals were leading 1st order change (i.e., a change in process, not in type), teachers rated the leadership capacity of their Gen-X principals significantly lower than average in some responsibilities. Conversely, teachers rated the leadership capacity of their Gen-X principals significantly higher than average in many responsibilities when they felt their principals were leading 2nd order change.
  5. Teachers rated the leadership capacity of their Generation Jones principals significantly higher than average when they felt their principals were leading 1st order change, but lower than average when they were leading 2nd order change.

If supervisors have a more holistic understanding of the leadership characteristics of principals, principal professional development improves. For instance, it appears that principals tend to rate themselves higher in many
leadership responsibilities than teachers do; therefore, exploring the nature of this discrepancy may lead to a deeper understanding of what teachers want and need from principals to be successful.

Every generation of leaders has strong and weak leadership characteristics. What differences have you seen in how generations of principals lead change?

Written by McREL Principal Consultant Matt Kuhn, Ph.D.


Kuhn, M. (2012). Leading Schools Through a Generational Lens: Perceptions of principals’ change
leadership disaggregated by principal generation. University of Denver.

Kunreuther, Frances (2008). Working across generations: Defining the future of nonprofit leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Raines, C. (1997). Beyond Generation X: A practical guide for managers. Menlo Park: Crisp Publications.

The American tradeoff: More teachers, lower salaries

According to a recent analysis, compared to an average teacher, a good teacher (in the 84th percentile) generates as much as $400,000 in increased future earnings for her class of 20 students. So if we define the benefits of teachers in financial terms alone, it would appear that paying six figures to attract and retain great teachers in the classroom might be defensible given the three- to four-fold return on that investment for society.

So why don’t we pay teachers more?

One might assume it’s because we invest too little in public education. The reality, though, is quite the opposite. As I note in my latest column in Educational Leadership, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that in the last 40 years the United States has more than doubled its spending on K–12 education and now outspends almost every other country in the world—devoting 4 percent of GDP to K–12 education compared with, for example, Japan’s 2.6 percent.

Strangely, though, while more dollars were funneled to education, average teacher salaries actually declined about 2 percent per year since 1970 when calculated in terms of per capita GDP. U.S. teacher salaries now rank fourth from the bottom among 34 competitor countries in terms of teachers’ relative spending power.

It’s probably no coincidence that this decline in salaries occurred at the same time that U.S. schools went on a hiring spree. Between 1980 and 2007, the number of teachers increased by 46 percent, more than twice the rate of student enrollment growth (21 percent). As a result, teacher-student ratios fell from 18.7 to 15.7. However, had they remained constant and funding increases had been funneled into teacher salaries, the average teacher would now make $78,574, instead of $52,578.

Class-size reduction initiatives have been one of the driving forces in creating our uniquely American teaching corps of low-salaried classroom teachers teaching smaller classes amid a supporting cast of higher-paid specialists. Yet as John Hattie notes in Visible Learning, reducing class sizes—from say, 25 to 15 students—still has only a small effect on student achievement. And even that small benefit assumes that teacher quality remains constant as districts scramble to fill vacancies for teachers.

Certainly, smaller classes make managing behavior and grading papers less burdensome for teachers. But when given the choice between having a few more students and making a few thousand dollars more per year, most rank-and-file teachers would gladly accept the larger classes and paychecks. As Marquerite Roza, a researcher at the University of Washington, reports in her book Educational Economics, a study in Washington State asked teachers if they preferred a $5,000 raise, class size reduction, a teacher’s aide, or increased preparation time (four investments of roughly equal value). Fully 83 percent of teachers said they preferred a raise over class-size reduction, 88 percent preferred a raise to a teacher’s aide, and 69 percent preferred the raise to increased preparation time.

While no one goes into teaching to get rich, it’s clear that great teachers are worth a great deal more than most are currently paid. So perhaps it’s time we re-think our approach to smaller classes (and smaller teacher salaries) so that we can find and reward great teachers with salaries that reflect their real benefit to students and society.

Easy antidote to grade inflation?

As I wrote recently in Educational Leadership, grade inflation appears to be a real phenomenon with costly consequences for students. From 1992–2006, the percentage of American high school students who reported earning an A or A-minus average nearly doubled (from 18.3%–32.8%). An analysis of student work in Oregon concluded that most high school students receiving Bs (and many receiving As) are not doing work on par with college expectations for entry-level students. Perhaps as a result, more than 30 percent of freshmen drop out of college each year, costing taxpayers in excess of $1 billion per year in wasted grants and state appropriations to colleges.

Is there any way to stop grade inflation? One solution, some offer, is to open up the “black box” of teacher grades, which can be as carefully guarded as secret recipes, making it difficult to determine what actually goes into a student grade. As a result, one teachers’ A can be another’s C grade.

More than 20 years ago, in Spain’s Basque Country, a small high school stumbled onto what appears to be a simple antidote to grade inflation. In 1990, a small school in the Gipuzkoa province purchased new software that began automatically placing on report cards, with little apparent forethought from school officials, information about where students stood relative to the average grade in their class. Immediately, student grades shot up 5 percent (an increase, according to researchers who later analyzed the school’s data, on par with lowering class sizes from 22 to 15). Presumably, as students and their parents began to understand that a grade of say, an 85, wasn’t all that special compared to other students in the class, they began to work harder. And as a whole, the entire school began to perform better on Spain’s national exam.

Incidentally, this sort of value-neutral information about students’ relative performance is exactly the kind of feedback that motivation researcher Edward Deci has noted strikes the perfect balance between providing information to guide performance while not diminishing motivation by coming across as coercing, such as saying to a student, “You should work harder in my class.” Reporting how students are doing relative to their peers seems to be a simple way to open up the black box of grades while inspiring students to work harder. It encourages a student to think, “If the average grade in my class is 85, surely I can do at least that well … if not better.”

For the school in Spain, though, there was one problem.

After just one year, parents and teachers complained that the information was creating too much competition among students. Average class grades were removed from report cards and student performance swiftly sank back to prior levels.

What do you think? Should revealing where students stand relative to their peers be encouraged … or shunned?


Killing with kindness?

For as long as letter grades have been around, so too, have fears of grade inflation. As far back as the 1890s, Harvard University professors were wringing their hands about students earning “sham” grades that would “seriously cheapen” the university’s reputation if the outside world were to learn of them.

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