Instructional Leadership in Action

Leading for Teacher Effectiveness

by Stephen Fink on May 11, 2012

Stephen Fink Anneke Markholt Sandy_Austin
Stephen Fink Anneke Markholt Sandy Austin

Recently we celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL). Our mission a decade ago, as it is today, was to support school and teacher leaders in the challenging work of eliminating the achievement gap among students. When we began this ambitious journey, high school seniors in the current 2012 graduating class were in second grade.  

Today, our nation’s education system continues to face stagnating achievement gains, despite nearly 10 years of federal education reform efforts. The once-bright promise of those reform efforts has faded as we recognize that too many of the students who were in second grade in the spring of 2002 will not be graduating with their class of 2012 this year.

If we, as a nation, are to raise achievement for all students, we must be prepared to invest where it matters most: in leading for teacher effectiveness. The research is clear. Student achievement will not increase until the quality of teaching improves, and the quality of teaching will not improve until our school leaders can observe, analyze and support the continuous growth of teachers.

Quality Teaching Matters

Over the course of 10 years, CEL has worked with thousands of teachers, principals and school district leaders across America. Our experience and the research show that if we want students to learn, we need to provide them with powerful learning opportunities. More so than family income or education levels – two reasons widely cited by educators why students are not learning – it is quality teaching that matters most when it comes to student achievement (Haycock, 1998; Peske & Haycock, 2006).

A close examination of student achievement reveals that differences among students, and differences among schools, pale in comparison to the differences in the quality of teaching from classroom to classroom when it comes to variances in achievement (Rowan, Correnti, & Miller, 2002). Rather than searching for the best schools for their children, parents should be searching for the best teachers.

Teaching Is More Complex Than People Realize

Producing the best teachers is no simple feat. While high-quality teaching matters most for student achievement, high-quality teaching is much more complex than the general public and policymakers realize.

What is high-quality teaching? In practice, there is little consensus. Our front-line educators simply do not agree on what constitutes powerful instruction.

In a frequent experiment with groups of school leaders, we show a video of an actual classroom lesson and at the end we ask them to rate the quality of instruction on a scale of one to five. We have run this experiment dozens of times with hundreds of educators and, invariably, the ratings run the scale from low quality to high quality. The reason for the discrepancies is that most school leaders and educators do not share a vision and common language for quality instruction.

The Complexity of Teaching Can Be Defined

Years ago, CEL set out to define a common language for teaching, drawing on the abundant research in the learning sciences. In a multiyear effort, CEL experts created a framework for quality teaching through a process of combining a number of empirical studies, drawing from experiential research, and corroborating our findings with a panel of practitioners with expertise in observing classrooms and providing feedback to teachers.

The result was our 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning instructional framework which has been used by school districts throughout Washington state and across the nation to develop a common vision of high-quality instruction. In brief, the 5D™ instructional framework defines teaching and learning along five dimensions: purpose, student engagement, curriculum and pedagogy, assessment for student learning, and classroom environment and culture. These five dimensions are further defined by 13 subdimensions (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Five Dimensions and 13 Subdimensions of Teaching and Learning
Purpose Standards
Teaching Point
Student Engagement Intellectual Work
Engagement Strategies
Curriculum & Pedagogy Curriculum
Teaching Approaches and/or Strategies
Scaffolds for Learning
Assessment for Student Learning Assessment
Classroom Environment & Culture Use of Physical Environment
Classroom Routines and Rituals
Classroom Culture

While teaching remains complex, the 5D framework provides a clear instructional roadmap for educators. The resulting common language of instruction provides a foundation for powerful discourse about effective teaching, instructional feedback, and the collection and use of formative and summative assessment data across a system.

And like any instructional framework that is truly research-based, the 5D framework comes from the same trunk of the research tree that defines quality teaching. What sets the 5D framework apart from other frameworks is its accessibility to instructional leaders and practitioners. It solves the complexity issue with an inquiry-based format for observing instruction and providing feedback to teachers.

The Importance of Observing and Analyzing

Like any tool, an instructional framework is only as effective as the person using it. One of our foundational ideas at CEL is that if leaders cannot observe and analyze high-quality instruction, then they cannot lead for instructional improvement. Educational leaders must know how to observe instruction before they can begin to help improve teaching.

Furthermore, teaching will only improve in a culture of frequent, public practice. Simply put, classroom instruction must be open for observation. The odds of improving instruction are measurably higher when both teachers and leaders use observation tactics linked to a clear purpose, intended outcomes and a theory of action.

But, shifting to a culture of open and frequent classroom observation requires the right support. Structures, processes and protocols are critical to helping instructional leaders and teachers learn collaboratively how to use a framework to observe and analyze instruction.

At CEL, we utilize guided classroom walkthroughs as one means to ground instructional leaders and practitioners in the foundation of the 5D framework. By capturing what an instructional leader notices and thinks about in relation to instructional practice, a process of collaborative analysis and discourse can occur in service of creating a common vision and common practices in the classroom.

The CEL 5D+™ Teacher Evaluation Rubric

With the passage of teacher evaluation legislation across the country, it is clearer than ever that an instructional framework – coupled with protocols around observation and feedback – is central to improving teaching practice and learning for all students.

To meet the specific needs of teacher evaluation legislation, CEL developed the 5D+ Teacher Evaluation Rubric. The 5D+ rubric provides language around four tiers of instructional expertise ranging from unsatisfactory to distinguished. By providing specificity about improving teacher practice in stages and steps, the 5D+ rubric allows leaders and teachers to engage in conversations focused on continuously moving instruction to a higher level.

The 5D+ Teacher Evaluation Rubric extends the five dimensions of the 5D instructional framework with the addition of the professional collaboration and communication roles of teachers outside the classroom (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Professional Collaboration and Communication Roles of Teachers Outside the Classroom 
Professional Collaboration and Communication Professional Learning & Collaboration
Communication & Collaboration
Professional Responsibilities

Developed from the same research base as the 5D framework, the 5D+ Teacher Evaluation Rubric is a sophisticated tool that enables consistent, reliable observations of instruction across classrooms, schools and districts.

But it bears repeating that as a tool, the use of any evaluation rubric will be limited by the expertise of those using it. Principals, teachers and evaluators must develop the empirical expertise to use the 5D+ Teacher Evaluation Rubric – or any evaluation rubric – well.

Teacher Evaluation – Proceed with Caution

Moving from the historical teacher evaluation systems (satisfactory or unsatisfactory) to multitier systems provides much promise for giving teachers the feedback they need to improve instruction.

But the ramifications for rushing into implementing revised evaluation systems inadequately prepared could be costly for school districts.

Policymakers and educational leaders would be wise to carefully consider both the initial professional development and ongoing professional development necessary to ensure that evaluations are carried out reliably and consistently. Ensuring evaluator reliability across classrooms and schools is critical. Failure to provide adequate initial and ongoing training to evaluators could lead to costly challenges of evaluation results down the road.

School districts should beware of developing their own evaluation systems or altering an existing one. Developing a research-based evaluation system is a huge undertaking, one that is prohibitive for the vast majority of school districts in both cost and time. And the prospect of altering or adapting an existing evaluation system risks losing the research base on which its validity rests.

Without doubt, revising teacher evaluation systems is a high-stakes investment – for policymakers, for school districts, for teachers, and ultimately for our nation’s school children. It speaks to equity, social justice and our commitment to future generations. By raising teacher effectiveness across the nation, we will raise the educational bar for all students, moving us closer to eliminating the achievement gap. Every child, in every school and in every classroom, deserves nothing less.


Haycock, K. (1998). Good teaching matters: How well-qualified teachers can close the gap. Washington, DC: The Education Trust.

Peske, H., & Haycock, K. (2006). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington, DC: The Education Trust.

Rowan, B., Correnti, R., & Miller, R. (2002). What large-scale survey research tells us about teacher effects on student achievement: Insights from the prospects study of elementary schools. Teachers College Record, 104(8), 1525-1567.

Stephen Fink, Ed.D, is executive director, Anneke Markholt, Ph.D., is an associate director, and Sandy Austin, Ed.D., is a project director at the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership. Fink and Markholt are co-authors of Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise.


5D, “5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning” and other logos/identifiers are trademarks of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership.

Topics: Teaching Effectiveness

About the author: Stephen Fink

Dr. Stephen Fink is affiliate professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the University of Washington College of Education. He served as the founding executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) from 2001 to 2018. Dr. Fink is co-author of Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise.

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