New Leaders for New Schools
In a series of columns in ASCD Express, the cofounder of New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit for education reform, shares promising practices in principal leadership for improving some of the nation’s most challenged urban schools.
Teachers matter. Research has repeatedly verified that teacher quality has a greater effect on student achievement than any other school-based factor. In a school where students make significant achievement gains, the principal recognizes this fundamental truth and works relentlessly to build the faculty’s capacity to deliver instruction of the highest quality. The experience of principals placed by New Leaders for New Schools seems to reflect that research.
While developing our Urban Excellence Framework at New Leaders for New Schools, we noted that our highest-gaining principals spent a lot of energy on teacher development. These principals create structures and a culture conducive to teachers sharing their practices with each other. They ensure that all teachers have the training and resources necessary to implement a curriculum aligned to standards for college and career readiness. They create time for teacher team meetings focused on lesson planning, curriculum mapping, and academic and social/emotional interventions for students—all rooted in teacher-driven analyses of formative and summative student data. All these efforts are designed to improve the quality of instruction and are embedded in teachers’ day-to-day work.
Observation as a Way of Schooling
Our highest-gaining principals also support teachers' ongoing professional development through frequent classroom observations, followed by substantive feedback. They track teachers' progress in implementing feedback and use their ongoing observations to inform professional learning plans developed with each faculty member. Others have written about the importance of the "three-minute walkthrough," but we were surprised to see the sheer frequency, and often brevity, with which nearly every high-gaining principal we visited conducts these observations. Highly effective principals shared with us that they visited every teacher’s classroom at least once a week, and often more. They only stay for 5–15 minutes, but they use that time in a targeted way: They focus on areas that previously have been agreed upon for development, either for a particular teacher or for the entire teaching faculty.
For example, one New Leader’s observations at her K-8 Brooklyn school revealed that nearly the whole staff could benefit from working on questioning techniques that elicit higher-order thinking from students. With her leadership team, she made questioning a schoolwide professional development focus for an entire term. This principal led whole-faculty workshops for teachers to discuss assigned readings on questioning techniques and created time for all faculty to watch a teacher with particular skill in this area model her practices. Teachers used team meetings to incorporate quality questioning within lesson plans. Throughout the term, the principal's brief classroom observations remained focused on questioning techniques, and she even supplemented her normal feedback form with another form targeted to this practice. She continually tracked faculty's progress overall and supported individuals' ongoing learning as needed.
In addition to helping educators grow professionally, frequent observations also help principals develop a rapport with teachers. This rapport can help break down walls that may prevent teachers from sharing their practices within a school. Moreover, frequent observations allow principals to better understand what each teacher will require to take instruction to the next level, and to monitor week by week groups of students about whom they are concerned.
Helping Struggling Teachers
When frequent observations reveal that a teacher is struggling with a given practice, highly effective principals become even more present. They offer more personalized support and monitor growth, continuing to provide honest feedback that never strays from the underlying messages: "You can do this" and "I’m here to help you so that our students can achieve more." In such cases, principals may decide to supplement their brief observations with longer, more holistic ones. They might observe and script entire lessons and schedule time for deeper feedback conversations, similar to the formal observations for annual or semiannual performance reviews.
As a program, New Leaders for New Schools believes that there is tremendous value in both types of observations. We have for many years provided training and support on the longer, more formal observation model. But based on our insights about the use of shorter, more frequent observations, we are incorporating effective practices in this area into our core training and support programs. We also recognize that for many principals already leading schools, making time for these observations in the daily schedule can seem a daunting task. In our upcoming articles, we look forward to sharing more stories from our principals about how they manage their time while also developing leadership teams to share in the work of observing and guiding schoolwide teacher learning.
Ben Fenton is a cofounder and chief strategy and knowledge officer for New Leaders for New Schools.