Category Archives: School Improvement

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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What does “You 2.0” look like in the classroom?

For too long, though, education has been marked not so much by a pattern of incremental improvement, but rather by a swinging pendulum. We’ve lurched from one untested idea to the next—explicit instruction, inquiry-based instruction, whole language, phonics only—the list goes on and on. The point of research is to sift through various approaches to identify what has worked and what hasn’t, so we can lock in what we know works most of the time. Only then should we explore those edges where further improvements in professional practice are necessary.

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Teach your students how to fail

Failure is not the undesirable end to learning; it is really just the beginning. Acknowledging our mistakes and learning from them is how we improve. Does a toddler who is learning to walk see himself as a failure after that first tumble? When an elementary student falls 20 times while learning to ride a two-wheel bike, has she failed or is she just practicing?

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Data walls fortify school improvement process

Data walls are a natural extension of the data-driven instruction process. While we don’t advocate sharing individual student data publicly, we believe there is value in sharing school or classroom data. Educators must be willing to look at, share, and talk about the data, in order to “take collective action” and build a unified focus on improvement across the school community.

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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.



Getting behind the wheel of school improvement

Earlier this year, I took my grandson to his first driver’s education class and memories came flooding back. When I was 15 years old and wanting to learn to drive, I turned to my oldest brother for instruction. With much effort and practice, I was ready to drive on the country roads in Iowa. I’ll never forget my calm brother’s sudden look of panic during a nighttime driving lesson after I mistakenly turned off the headlights as another car approached (I was trying to dim the headlights). Eventually, I graduated to driving on the highway, and, today, I’m a proficient driver.

School improvement cycle

School Improvement Cycle

As I reflected on my experience of learning to drive, I realized how it aligns to a school’s improvement process. First, I took stock of the situation by considering the data: the people who could teach me to drive. Next, I focused on the right solution. Out of all the people I knew who could teach me to drive, I chose my oldest brother, who was the calmest and most patient. When I implemented my plan and approached my brother for instruction, I was taking collective action. Although I learned the basics of driving, my brother and I monitored and adjusted my driving as I improved. He continued to coach me in night- and highway-driving, and I maintained momentum by continuing to practice and improve my skills (and by baking chocolate chip cookies for my brother to celebrate our progress).

Schools use this same continuous improvement process for their improvement initiatives. A school first takes stock by collecting data to clearly identify the problem it faces. Next, the school identifies a focused, manageable improvement initiative that addresses and resolves the identified problem (see my earlier post about focusing on fewer, not more, initatives for success). After determining the right solution, the school takes collective action by developing a plan and timeline for engaging all staff members in ownership of the plan. The school identifies professional development needs, and collectively implements the plan of action with consistency and fidelity.  A very important, though frequently omitted, step in the continuous improvement process is constant monitoring of the extent of implementation and its impact on student achievement, which enables mid-course corrections. Finally, the school maintains momentum of the improvement initiative by celebrating and sustaining the effort. This entire process allows the school to identify the successes and the challenges that arose, informing the process for the next initiative to be tackled.

We sometimes think that school improvement is a complex, difficult task. But if we break it down into a manageable, systemic process, we can confidently, collectively, and successfully take the wheel and move on down the road of improvement.

2011_Frunzi_WEBDr. Kay L. Frunzi is a systems transformation consultant who provides strategic improvement guidance to schools and districts across the country. Before joining McREL, she was a school principal in four districts and taught graduate-level courses at various universities.

Jump-start school improvement with fewer, not more, initiatives

When developing and evaluating school improvement plans, a meaningful question to ponder is, “Why do some schools achieve their school improvement plan goals, while others fail to make gains?” The outcome depends greatly on how the school focuses on improvement initiatives: does the school attempt to tackle many initiatives or does it focus in on a few key issues?

Educators have noble intentions and high hopes when drafting their school improvement plans. They identify challenges and set goals and strategies to meet those challenges. They, in good faith, attempt to tackle numerous initiatives to increase student achievement with the hope that, by spending time on many improvement efforts, they will get the results they seek. However, schools that follow this path often become overwhelmed by competing priorities and end up with less-than-desired results. They are attempting too many things to do any one of them well.

On the other hand, when schools focus on select, manageable change initiatives, they increase the probability of achieving successful implementation of those initiatives.

For example, a school team takes stock of their situation by looking at student achievement data, and they determine that their students need vocabulary development. The staff decides to collectively focus on building students’ vocabulary and a plan is made. All staff members agree to take collective action by posting and explicitly teaching key vocabulary words in each content area. Throughout four to six weeks of focused implementation of this initiative, the degree and quality of the implementation and the effect on student achievement are monitored. This focused approach usually results in a quick win, increasing the staff’s collective efficacy and satisfaction, engendering the belief that “we can do together what we cannot do alone.” The feeling of “we have too much to do” dissipates.

As schools repeatedly apply this improvement process, concentrating on a few important initiatives at a time, they increase their capacity to change. Ultimately, they develop the collective beliefs, capacity, and experience to sustain improvement efforts that ultimately lead to long-term, positive student outcomes.

SiS Continuous Improvment CycleHere’s a diagram that illustrates this approach.

Concentrating the focus and effort of a school improvement plan on a few key initiatives is a manageable, effective approach for school improvement that, unfortunately, still too few schools use. Why do you think some schools and districts are hesitant to use this strategy? Share your ideas in the comments section, below.

Dr. Kay L. Frunzi is a systems transformation consultant at McREL, providing strategic improvement services to schools and districts across the country. Before joining McREL, she served as a school principal in four districts and taught graduate-level courses at various universities.

Ending the “fire hose” model of PD learning

As educators, we’ve all experienced sitting through a two- or three-day workshop and, at the end of it, being overwhelmed with information, tired of sitting and listening, and wondering how we’re going to even begin incorporating what we’ve learned into our daily practice at school. We get back to work, and there’s no feedback from anyone and no time to try what we’ve learned. Time slips by, and we make little to no changes in our instructional practices.

This style of “learning via fire hose” is one of the least effective, yet all-too-commonly-used formats of professional development in education.

A much more effective PD model is to allow teachers to absorb information in small bites, giving teachers time to think about what they’ve learned and to methodically integrate new practices into their existing instruction, and providing them with feedback on their efforts.

We saw how well this worked last year when we were working with the staff at a mid-sized intermediate school on research-based instructional practices.

Instead of conducting three back-to-back days of PD, we spread the face-to-face sessions out over the course of the year.

Day 1 focused on the Classroom Instruction That Works strategies that create the environment for learning: setting objectives, providing feedback, reinforcing effort, providing recognition, and cooperative learning.

Day 2 focused on strategies that help students develop understanding: cues & questions, advance organizers, nonlinguistic representation, summarizing, and note taking.

Day 3 focused on homework, practice, and the two strategies that help students extend and apply knowledge: identifying similarities & differences and generating & testing hypotheses.

Each of these sessions was followed by an implementation assignment. We were able to track how well the implementation was going by reviewing real-time data (see chart) collected with our Power Walkthrough classroom observation system.

As we looked over the data, we saw that teachers’ instructional practices were changing over the course of the year. They were implementing what they were learning in the PD sessions.

Among the changes, we were pleased to see a drop in the predominant use of “practice” as a primary instructional strategy. While providing practice is an excellent strategy that allows students to review and refine what they have learned, we find that it is often over-used in classrooms, leaving little room for deeper learning and developing higher-order thinking skills.

We were happy to see growth in the teachers’ use of “note taking” strategies, which helps students summarize and remember what they learned, as well as growth in the use of “generating and testing hypotheses,” one of the highest-order thinking skills in which we can engage students.

While use of “nonlinguistic representation” as a primary instructional strategy appears low, we did see a definite uptick in nonlinguistic representation being used as a supporting strategy.

The data also helped us show teachers that “providing feedback” to their students was an area they could focus on in future PD and coaching.

By spreading out the PD content over the course of the year, by giving staff time to understand and integrate new learning into their practice, and by providing data and feedback along the way, the school’s teachers were able to see the impact of their hard work and newfound knowledge, and they now have the data they need to set future goals as a professional learning community.

If you’ve tried other strategies for stopping the PD “fire hose,” use the Comments section to let us know what worked well.

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.



Sarah Gopalani is a researcher in the Center for Educator Effectiveness, where she conducts quantitative and qualitative analyses in support of research and evaluation team projects.

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.