Education Trends

What Happens When Instructional Rounds Go District-Wide?

February 26, 2014
Photo credit: Gates Foundation via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Instructional Rounds are a process for school improvement that are based on the Medical Rounds model. It brings groups of educators together to look at what is happening in their schools, develop a collaborative learning environment, and improve student learning. This year, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) where I work has taken Instructional Rounds to scale: Every school in the district will host two Instructional Rounds, over 800 classrooms will be visited, and the learning experience of some 10,000 children will be observed. The broad focus for Rounds this year is on academic discussions.

This effort is designed and led by my colleague, Davina Goldwasser, a manager of leadership development in our district. So far, there has been a very positive response to the initiative from all involved, and perhaps most importantly, there is evidence indicating that the work is resulting in improved student learning. Furthermore, while we know of schools in this country engaging in Instructional Rounds, we don't know of any districts where it's been implemented at this scale -- multiple times in every single school, with a range of participants, all focused on one area of learning.

I asked Davina to respond to some questions about this initiative in the hopes that others might become inspired to learn more and try it in their schools. There are resources for further learning at the end of this article. But first, let's hear what she has to say.

Tell me a little about your role with Instructional Rounds in OUSD...

Davina Goldwasser: I've designed an Instructional Rounds process that is taking place in all 83 schools in our district. I've trained 42 Instructional Rounds facilitators, (administrators, coaches and special assignment teachers from within the district) organized and calendared the Rounds, supported principals to prepare for hosting Instructional Rounds, and trained participants. I've also created data tools and reports on the impact of Rounds. In addition, I've facilitated a robust response to the needs that have surfaced from the data that's been collected. We've focused on Academic Discussions and as the needs of our students and teachers have surfaced, we've been able to respond to these in real time, on the ground and online.

What's your biggest argument for why a school or district should engage in Instructional Rounds?

In our schools we are always trying to improve the educational experience for all students. Too often we jump to a quick fix without being clear on what the root cause of the problem is and we run the risk of turning to solutions that do not respond to the needs of our students. In the Instructional Rounds process, each school starts by developing a problem of practice -- a challenge that they want to understand more deeply. It is around this problem of practice that a team will engage. These rounds launch an inquiry cycle that is rooted in the instructional core of the classroom.

Rounds also help eliminate the myth of a super-principal that has all the answers to fix a school. By providing a structure for teachers to step outside of their classroom and observe instruction across the school, teachers build a new relationship with their principal. Working side-by-side in this new way, they develop shared insight into the challenge areas of the school and are able to work more effectively together to solve these problems. Teachers, principals, and central office staff work and learn together for a shared purpose. Rounds offer a very different kind of professional development experience.

Rounds also provide a temperature check on how students across a school or entire system are engaging in their learning. A question is posed and data is gathered from classroom observations. The team then engages in analyzing the data and developing next steps. All of this work is done with a team that includes the principal and teachers from the school site. This is not something that is "done to" a school site but rather a truly collaborative process. Everyone is a learner in and everyone has something to contribute. A huge benefit of the process is that a school emerges with a real time action plan based on the evidence observed from the team. After a Rounds process, a principal and a teacher leader work together to share the patterns and plan with the rest of the school community. A teacher leader may then work with the school's instructional leadership team on planning the next professional learning workshop to respond to these patterns.

How do you think Instructional Rounds can positively impact students?

Rounds foster a shared accountability for the learning in our classrooms. I see it as a call to action: Come see the quality of learning in our classrooms and help us get better. In OUSD we have people from across the system on teams, with the hope that each person is both offering something to the school site that is hosting and leaving with a take-away to inform their own work. In addition, when students see a team go into their classroom it shows them that the adults are paying attention and advocating for them. It models for them that we are a learning organization that is always trying to get better. Because we bring together educators from across the district to spend half a day learning about the challenges of a particular school; we build collective responsibility for our students.

How do you think Instructional Rounds can contribute to leadership development at a site or in a district?

In order for changes in teaching and learning to happen at a school site or district we need to be clear on our vision. What is it that we want to see in our classrooms? What is the gap between what we want to see and where we are? What are the factors contributing to this gap? What is the actual student experience in our classrooms and what are the practical steps needed to achieve our vision? When we do not have a shared understanding of effective instruction it is hard to make substantial change.

Rounds work best when it is connected to a larger school improvement strategy. In Oakland every school identified a problem of practice around how students engage in quality academic discussion. This focus was chosen because it is one of the key instructional shifts for common core readiness and something that could be observed easily. We knew that the majority of our classrooms were struggling with academic discussion and that this would be a high-leverage area to boost across our schools.

In the fall I saw teams going into classrooms looking for academic discussion and then debriefing with completely different understandings of what is meant by quality academic discussion. With practice and a commitment to this process there is now much more alignment across the district and shared vision for the kind of learning we want to see in all of our classrooms.

Instructional Rounds offer an adult learning experience that mirrors the rigor we want to see taking place in our classrooms. It is not easy work but the amount of learning that can be gleaned in a short time is immense. Rounds push everyone in our system to spend time observing student learning and thinking about what they see through the lens of a student.

If a school or district was interested in doing Instructional Rounds, where would they start?

The starting point really depends on the goals you want to accomplish, your current structure for professional learning, and an assessment of the capacity and conditions you have to do the work. Rounds will take a significant amount of time and everyone needs to be prepared for this. First, it's important to spend some time reading about Instructional Rounds so you are well informed about this body of work. Secondly, shadow Rounds happening at another school or district then bring a team together to adapt Rounds to meet your school's needs. Be careful to stay true to most of the structure otherwise the power of the protocol may be diluted and you will not get as rich of an experience. (Contact Davina Goldwasser with any questions you might have.)

Resources on Instructional Rounds

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