Thursday, March 27, 2014

Principal Walk-Throughs a Waste of Time? Maybe So

Today, I stumbled an interesting article from Education Week I feel I must share and comment upon. The article, "Principals Pressed for Time to Lead Instructional Change" by Leslie Maxwell, adds an interesting wrinkle to the focus on principals getting into classrooms and conducting walkthrough observations.

Apparently, if you're doing it to raise test scores, you might be wasting your time. Here's some interesting points from the article:

  • "In a study published late last year in the journal Educational Researcher, researchers found that the amount of time principals spent on a broad range of activities related to instruction was not associated with gains in student performance, as measured by standardized tests."
  • "Walkthroughs were negatively associated with student performance, especially in high schools."
Apparently, the study and this article make some important points about principals and using classroom observations and walkthroughs to improve instruction.
  • First of all, I have always thought this to be true, though there are those who think differently: Principals must be teachers themselves. I would add that they must have extensive classroom experience to even credibly coach another teacher to improve classroom practice. The idea that someone who has not taught or who has little classroom experience coaching teachers makes little sense. School leaders must have more than a textbook knowledge of teaching and learning to even hope to help someone improve instruction.
  • Secondly, like any strategy employed to improve instruction, none will work in isolation. There is nothing magical about a principal's presence in the classroom that is going to make teachers get better. As the article indicates, for classroom walkthroughs and observations to work, there needs to be follow-up and coaching as well as feedback. Improving teaching and learning takes a broad approach with a range of strategies.
Perhaps the real answer lies in what Michael Fullan, the author of the new book The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact. He argues that the whole problem lies with the currently defined role of "principal as instructional leader." It just doesn't work because trying to improve teachers one at a time is a time-wasting approach. Instead, principals should be "Learning Leaders" or "Lead Learners." In that role, according to Fullan, principals should work to develop community and collaboration. They should work to develop the expertise of the whole group, not focus on one teacher at a time.

This study once again illustrates how education so many times gets things wrong. There is no one single strategy for improving teaching and learning, despite what all the vendors and snake oil salesmen selling such wares tell you.


  1. We used to conduct walkthroughs to monitor specific instructional practices in sum to inform our professional development needs. They also included follow-up with each teacher about teaching. It never occurred to us to do it to improve test scores. Fullan is correct, principals needs to find ways to provide teachers with common purpose, time to collaborate.

    1. Sadly, I think walkthroughs are not always used in the manner you describe. They are "gotch you" strategies to try to force conformity and compliance. Used for feedback and to provide support there is potential. But the principal has to be a teacher, as I see it, to be able to do this well.