At Woodlands Elementary in Bremerton, Washington state, Cindy Larson’s kindergartners don’t just answer her questions. They explain their thinking and evaluate their classmates’ reasoning. For example, during a lesson on measurement, one of the boys asked to come to the whiteboard and explain why another student’s answer was incorrect.
"He was basically up there teaching the class," Larson said. "That would never have happened in my classroom before." Discussing content at such intellectual depth early on bodes well for students’ future growth, she added. "If we’re starting this in kindergarten, the discussions in the upper grades are going to look qualitatively different."
"Before" refers to the years before I and other University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) staff helped Central Kitsap School District develop a shared vision of quality instruction. Building this shared vision of instruction has not only begun to improve student learning for the long term, it has also made Washington state’s new teacher evaluation process flow much more smoothly in Central Kitsap than it might have otherwise.
Choosing an instructional framework
Building a shared vision of instruction has not only begun to improve student learning for the long term, it has also made the new teacher evaluation process flow much more smoothly.
Central Kitsap School District is located in the Puget Sound region of Washington state, west of Seattle and near Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. Of its approximately 11,000 students, one-third qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 23 percent are from active-duty military families. Overall, district students are high-achieving; however, achievement and equity gaps persist and all students need stronger instruction to meet the challenges of new Common Core State Standards.
Before CEL arrived, Central Kitsap district leaders had already realized their teachers and principals needed to develop a shared vision for good instruction and common language to describe it. They convened a committee that decided CEL’s 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning™ instructional framework was well-matched with Central Kitsap’s philosophy and priorities.
Bringing CEL experts in to train district leaders, principals and teachers in the framework was the natural next step. "We were looking for someone to provide a base knowledge of our instructional framework," recalled Franklyn MacKenzie, director of secondary education for Central Kitsap. "Who better than CEL to provide that knowledge?"
Training “gave us a lot deeper understanding”
Thanks to a grant from the Department of Defense, Central Kitsap invited CEL to lead training on the 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning at all levels — district, administration and teachers. We opened the work with a multi-day training for the superintendent’s cabinet, so that they would clearly see how the framework would change the ways principals spend their time and what they as district leaders would have to do to support those changes. Our theory of action recognizes that the first step toward improving student learning across a district is to support strong, learning-focused leadership within a district’s central office.
Though district leaders had already read Leading for Instructional Improvement, CEL’s book describing the framework and its implementation, the training took their knowledge to a new level. "It was very rigorous, and it opened our eyes, gave us a lot deeper understanding," said Peggy Ellis, director of elementary education. From there, central office leaders continued to work with CEL, learning to support principals as instructional leaders first and foremost, and looking for ways to reduce their workload in other arenas.
Central Kitsap principals received the same overview of the framework. Through a series of walkthroughs, they learned to use it as the base for observing classroom instruction. To measure the growth in their understanding over time, we gave them our 5D™ Assessment at the beginning and the end of the training. "Before we saw the framework, we got kind of a score back of our review of [a videotaped] lesson," recalled Craig Johnson, an assistant principal at Central Kitsap High School. "That was our baseline. [It showed] what you’re familiar with and what you need to work on."
Principals cut their teeth on the 5D walkthrough process by looking for evidence of purposeful instruction in classrooms. Over the year, they tackled each dimension of the framework by examining a real, relevant problem of practice within different district schools. They learned to keep their focus on evidence, not judgment, and to express "wonderings" about what they saw, allowing for open discussion of the classroom evidence. During each walkthrough, all classroom observations were recorded. Each day’s debrief focused on trends observed across classrooms, keeping the focus on evidence and school-wide trends rather than subjective judgments of individual teachers.
The walkthrough experience proved so useful that Central Kitsap encouraged staff beyond principals and teachers to participate. School psychologists, speech-language pathologists, the district’s HR leader, and even an interested school custodian joined walkthroughs in order to understand more about how they could support stronger classroom instruction. "We felt that all of our staff members should have an understanding of what instruction is based on, and their role in supporting the instruction in the classroom," said Ellis.
Teacher-led learning walks build trust, open doors
Teachers, too, lead learning walks. Larson and a colleague have led Woodlands teachers through the process of observing their peers. "The learning walks have moved us away from judging the teacher to judging the teaching," Larson observed. "The process of going through learning walks really opened the trust in the building. It has turned the focus of building meetings away from frustrations and toward goals for the classroom and the school."
"The process of going through learning walks really opened the trust in the building. It has turned the focus of building meetings away from frustrations and toward goals for the classroom and the school."
"It has been a catalyst for people to open up, share more, and collaborate more," agreed Johnson. Among his high school faculty, "Teachers are having more conversations with each other, working collaboratively more often because we’re all using the same words." Getting everyone on the same page has fostered deeper conversations around what good instruction looks like and how to improve it, he added. No longer is one person looking at instruction through the lens of their graduate school coursework while another is viewing it based on previous training they received in a different school district. "We all have the same vision. We’re all looking at the same guiding questions. There’s no misunderstanding about what we’re going to look for and what we’re going to talk about."
Easing into new teacher evaluation
An important and timely benefit of the work to develop this common language has been easing the transition to a new, state-mandated teacher evaluation system. "We had the luxury of choosing the framework without the evaluation tied to it," said Jeanne Beckon, a former teacher and principal who now serves as Central Kitsap’s director of human resources.
However, as Washington State developed its teacher evaluation process, it required districts to adopt one of three instructional frameworks—including CEL’s—and use it as the basis for teacher evaluation. "We were hesitant at first to make that linkage," said MacKenzie. "It was work with our association that kind of pushed us along to make that linkage. It happened almost organically with the staff bringing it to the forefront."
Like many teachers, Larson found it easy to fall into self-criticism and worry that others observing her might judge her negatively. The CEL framework shifted her thinking to focus on how to improve the learning experience for students.
Teachers and principals in Central Kitsap agree that having CEL’s framework in place paved the way for a successful rollout of the new evaluation process. "The anxiety level isn’t as high because we’ve had the language in advance of the evaluation," said Larson. Like many teachers, Larson found it easy to fall into self-criticism and worry that others observing her might judge her negatively. The CEL framework shifted her thinking to focus on how to improve the learning experience for students. "It turns the discussion to how you can strengthen your teaching. For me, that’s a huge change."
Johnson sees teachers thinking much more intentionally about goal setting and planning steps to achieve their goals. "We can plan more concretely," and schedule observations so he can see what a teacher is working on toward a goal. As a result of the clarity and progress on the goals through the year, final conferences took only half as much time as needed in previous years, he added.
As teachers prepare their goals for year two, they are becoming more strategic, Johnson noted. Some departments have looked at student data to determine common practice goals that teachers will work on through the evaluation process next year. "People are being way more intentional," he said. "They’re thinking about it differently and working backward from the student data."
Overall, Central Kitsap’s work with CEL has helped teachers give students greater control over their own learning. "I’ve seen evidence of teachers doing lessons they probably wouldn’t have done in the past based on some of the work," said MacKenzie. He remembers observing a high school teacher who was a good lecturer make the shift to using student-led small groups as an instructional strategy. "Now he’s releasing students to look at information, talk to each other, talk to him. He had been to the workshops for the overview. He’s been on a walkthrough. For whatever reason, he’s moved to that type of instruction, and that’s fabulous."
One of the reasons is likely to be the experience he’s had of good teaching through CEL training. In its training sessions, CEL offers strong modeling of good instruction and engaged learning. "Every single training I’ve been in has been a model of what good teaching should look like," said Beckon. "They really have walked their talk."