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Would the “instructional rounds” concept work in your school district?

By October 1, 2009June 14th, 201614 Comments

Recently, as I have traveled to several school districts in the United States, I have been invited into some conversations about the concept of “instructional rounds”.  As I have listened, I have learned about the application of using the concept of “rounds” in the educational setting, which is quite similar to what is used to develop new interns and residents in the medical profession.

Since I work with leaders at all levels in school systems, I began to wonder how a school district would implement the instructional rounds model, so I did some investigating. I came across a new book by City, Elmore, Fiarman, and Teitel (2009) that is dedicated solely to this concept. The book, titled Instructional Rounds in Education:  A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning provides a thorough view of the concept, and the authors make some recommendations that potentially could transform some systems.

Essentially, the premise of instructional rounds assumes that educators usually do not have a common set of shared practices that are effective – meaning that educators ranging from teachers to superintendents do not have a core set of shared practices. This distinguishes education from other professions. Instructional rounds are a process for bringing effective shared practices to the forefront of a school system:

“The basic idea is to put all educators – principals and central office administrators as well as teachers – into common practice disciplined by protocols and routines and organized around the core functions of schooling in order to create common language, ways of seeing, and a shared practice of improvement (City, Elmore, Fiarman, and Teitel 2009).”

The authors of Instructional Rounds in Education (2009) have tested this concept in several school systems in the United States and have found it to be successful.

My questions to the educational leadership blogosphere are:

  1. Does the concept of “instructional rounds” have the potential to be implemented into your school system? What would it take to do so?
  2. Do you think this idea will bring about successful practices if implemented?
  3. What systemic changes would cause the “rounds” concept to succeed?
  4. What systemic barriers would cause the “rounds” concept to fail?

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Jill Conrad says:

    Hi Matt! Guess what? DPS is just beginning to explore/implement the instructional rounds process. All principals and instructional superintendents have been reading the book and discussing ways to implement it. Dr. Tilton (DPS’ new Chief Academic Officer) has been working with Elmore on this…and I think he’s coming to Denver in January. Would love to know more about what you’ve learned.

  • Hi Jill – Please keep me in the loop with the work DPS is doing with instructional rounds and I will do the same as I work with more clients who are utilizing this framework.

  • Jill Conrad says:

    okay, matt… will do! i am eager to see how it plays out in DPS as well…

  • Thanks for the information on the new book – this is a concept I’ve not thought about much, but makes absolute sense. My 2 cents on your questions:
    1. Does the concept of “instructional rounds” have the potential to be implemented into your school system? What would it take to do so?
    -There is the potential, but no such system really exists, so I think time to study and implement would be necessary.
    2. Do you think this idea will bring about successful practices if implemented?
    -I cannot foresee how conversations focused on the “patients needs” could do anything but improve practice.
    3. What systemic changes would cause the “rounds” concept to succeed?
    -Creating a culture where rounds are seen as a routine, necessary part of instruction.
    4. What systemic barriers would cause the “rounds” concept to fail?
    -Current culture where once educators enter the classroom, they are the in control. Not to say they would not remain in control, but instructional rounds introduce a new layer of communication that would make many uncomfortable, I believe.
    A new book to add to my reading list!

  • Approximately 125 superintendents are members of ten Iowa Leadership Academy Superintendents’ Networks sponsored by the statewide system of Area Education Agencies and School Administrators of Iowa. Through instructional rounds visits in members’ districts, superintendents are learning to gather and analyze non-judgemental observation data and to pose questions or make suggestions for the district’s “next level of work.” The focus is on all three elements of the instructional core (the intersection of student, teacher and content), with special attention given to “looking down” at student work.
    Not only does this process provide useful data to the host district, it gives superintendents the opportunity to deepen their skills and knowledge related to improvement of learning and teaching.
    What have we learned? Instructional rounds is a discipline that is learned through practice. Skilled facilitators help participants maximize the benefit of their experience. Focusing on what the students are doing helps participants see their schools through a new lens. Committed participants model learning and instructional leadership through the rounds process.

  • Teri says:

    In our district, there are “rounds” being made where an administrator observes for 5-10 minutes. They are usually unplanned. I don’t think this is fully the intention of the article but it is a start. There is consistency in their observations because of the data collection piece. Generally teachers receive information by email and it would probably be better if the a genuine conversation occurred.

  • Thanks to all of you for adding to this post.
    Since writing this blog, I have been contacted by several experts on the topic of instructional rounds outside of the blogosphere. One such expert is Dr. Thomas Fowler-Finn, Retired Superintendent of Cambridge Public Schools in Boston, MA. Dr. Fowler-Finn contacted me by phone shortly after I posted this blog to talk about the concept in more detail. Dr. Fowler-Finn enlightened me on his experience with instructional rounds. He is frequently mentioned in the book and his leadership and experiences with implementing rounds in a large urban school district are amazing. Dr. Fowler-Finn, along with other leaders at many levels of the Cambridge School System, proved the rounds concept can be highly effective beyond the theoretical framework presented in the book. For those who may be interested in more information, or would like to get in touch with practitioners who are currently involved in instructional rounds, please contact me through this blog and I can give you this information.
    From what I have learned to this point, the concept of instructional rounds is one that is gaining momentum, and in its purest form, as Bonnie Boothroy added in her blog post, allows for a non-judgmental look at systems and elevates everyone involved to higher levels of learning. From what I can tell, the instructional rounds concept is designed to always be a process by which continuous growth takes place and the knowledge and use of best practices is everyone’s responsibility.

  • Hi Matt. You may be interested to know that following a visit from Professor Elmore to Scotland a few years ago, we have been working on our own version of “Learning Rounds”. A pilot programme run by the National CPD (Continuing Professional Development) Team and SCSSA (Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration, based at the University of Edinburgh) is being funded by the Scottish Government. We are working with a range of educators from across Scotland to develop our own local model. A full report will be published later this year.

  • Emily says:

    Hi Matthew,
    Thanks for a great post. I’m working in Australia and am also very interested in the possibilities outlined in Instructional Rounds in Education… Would love to hear more around the Cambridge model, and to get contact details for practitioners currently involved, especially with Thomas Fowler-Finn who I think has already done some work setting up Instructional Rounds over here!

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  • But is education really like health care?
    Is ignorance like a disease: a dysfunction in need of treatment? Or is it merely a condition of being human?
    The problem with connecting the ideas of ignorance and disease is that it commits us to the proposition that all ignorant people can be rehabilitated to some satisfactory state of understanding (or intellectual health). And that, in turn, forces us to evaluate the learners according to some set standard that we call satisfactory; this standard inevitably becomes the goal of teachers who are judged on their ability to get their students to that standard.
    And by and by the teacher begins to teach to that standard rather than to the natural impetus of the instructional narrative. And in the process, the concepts lose their internal connectivity—they lose their meaningfulness as necessary parts to the whole. The teacher, believing fervently that it’s his job to save the patient, feels himself a failure and in need of some new instructional theory, which of course is on the way.
    By no means am I saying that the “doctor” analogy invented this way of thinking. Educators have long suffered under the pretense that ignorance is a dysfunction in need of treatment. This new line of thinking—the “rounds” philosophy—is merely a symbolic expression of that idea.
    I don’t mean to be difficult, but there is a long tradition in American education of uncritical acceptance of new educational philosophies. There’s probably even a longer tradition of regurgitating old ideas and repackaging them into something that looks new. Robert Marzano’s made a profitable career of it. Countless others, known as “consultants”, roam the country during in-service season raking in lots of money doing exactly that.
    Maybe it’s time to consider—as we look at our classrooms full of dying patients—whether it’s time to face a hard reality: learning will always be a function of the talent and energy that teachers and students bring with them into the classroom. There is no way around that fact, at least none that I can see.
    All that said, I earnestly hope that I am wrong and that the “rounds” idea revolutionizes instruction and leads to brighter futures for everyone. There could be nothing greater than that.

  • Jeannie says:

    I enjoyed reading your post and believe that my school district, at least in the cluster in which I teach, practices a sort of “instructional round.” It is called “Vertical Teaming.” This practice involves a group of teachers, as well as some administrators, across grade levels and subject areas, that come together to discuss and push best practices for students across the board. They create common assessments and focus on common skills that all students must know at each grade level. After reading your article, I realized that we have created our own version of “instructional rounds.” Thank you for the information.

  • ms_teacher says:

    I’m curious as to how much Districts have worked with teachers to get buy-in from them. Currently, where I work, there is one school site that is implementing instructional rounds. The problem of practice has been defined by the principal, who also selected the teams from the teachers at the school site. I’ve purchased the book by Dr. Elmore & hope to get the process clarified, but from what I’ve read so far online, teacher buy-in & collaboration are essential.

  • Pat Chamberlain says:

    I am researching the potential of instructional rounds as a means to provide ongoing professional development for systematic change. Specifically, improved professional conversations that result in improved student achievement. This may become my dissertation, but many questions on methodology, subjects etc.

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