Instructional Leadership in Action

How This School Went From Lowest to Highest Performing in Three Years

by Stephanie Teel on Nov 11, 2015

One of my favorite things to read or watch is a transformation story. You know, seeing the before and after pictures of a renovated home, weight loss, or a yard.

My school, Onalaska Middle School is a transformation story. But our before and after pictures are much different than the ones you are used to seeing.

In 2011, the Washington State Board of Education and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction identified Onalaska School District as part of a Required Action District, or RAD, because it was one of the consistently lowest performing schools in the state.

Obviously, this was not a good place to be in as a school and it was going to take a lot of work to improve.

2010-2011 Washington State Assessment Scores
Percentage of students passing state reading/math assessment in specified grade level
Grade 2010-2011 Reading 2010-2011 Math
State School State School
Sixth 70.6 53.2 58.8 35.3
Seventh 56.4 37.3 56.9 32.2
Eighth 68.7 50 50.3 14.3

District demographics (October 2010): 811 students, 53.9% male, 46.1% female, 59.6% free/reduced lunch

Although I was not the principal in 2010, from talking to my staff it is evident that there were some common factors contributing to this poor performance: lack of ownership for the whole school, no consistency of learning expectations from teacher to teacher, and a lack of consistency in student behavior expectations.

The RAD designation added many new requirements to the school’s long to-do list. One requirement was to choose an instructional framework for the new teacher evaluation system. After much consideration, the district chose CEL’s 5D™ framework.

With the framework in place, teachers and school leaders started training to improve instruction. The bulk of the work was done in the form of “learning walks.” Learning walks are a process in which a small group of teachers are introduced to a problem of practice over a specific area of the framework. After studying the problem of practice, these teachers go into various classrooms and record what they see and hear.

This process of learning the 5D framework was utilized by the CEL facilitator to give the teachers a hands-on, real-life, and non-evaluative way of learning the framework to change the teaching and learning practice within each classroom.

Led initially by CEL Project Director Patty Maxfield, the learning walks looked like this:

  1. Based on informal classroom observations, the leadership team sets a problem of practice focusing on one specific area of the framework. For example, the Onalaska staff spent all of last year looking at the level of questioning being employed within the classroom. The focus shifted from looking at the level of questions being asked by the teacher to the level of questions being asked by the students.
  2. A small group of teachers were chosen to be the “walkers.” They studied the problem of practice and the dimension they would be concentrating on, creating a list of “look fors” or examples of what the dimension indicators might look like in the classroom. Over the course of the school year, each teacher had to be a "walker" at least once, driving a sense of shared responsibility and ultimately creating more buy-in.
  3. The group visited four classrooms for about 20 minutes, taking notes on what was said and done, what was on the walls, and other relevant information.
  4. Noticings and wonderings
    The charts lists teaching practice items the group noticed during the classroom visit (noticings) and the questions the group had about them (wonderings).
    The group came back together to create a list of noticings from each classroom visit. A typical noticing shared after each learning walk is the visibility of and reference to learning targets within the classroom.
  5. Later, on the same day, the whole staff came together to review the problem of practice along with all of the work done by the walking team earlier in the day.
  6. The staff worked to create a list of wonderings based on the observations of each classroom. Wonderings are questions staff may have based on the list of noticings. The wonderings must match a noticing.
  7. From these noticings and wonderings, the staff worked together to create a list of trends that led to a goal for the staff to work on in upcoming lessons.
  8. Staff then had an opportunity to gather curriculum and create lesson plans with the new goal in mind.
  9. The next learning walk’s problem of practice is based on the goal established at the prior learning walk.

I was not the principal of Onalaska Middle School at the beginning of this process, but I love to hear my staff talk about the first few learning walks. Donna, a special education teacher, remembers, “In the beginning, we were told ‘Try talking to the kids and allow them to talk back. It works!’”

Our team has used this process for four years now. We do at least six learning walks a year. We have also built capacity within our staff to the point that we no longer need a trainer or facilitator from CEL to lead our learning walks.

When a new teacher comes on board, he or she receive additional training outside of the learning walks. They are also partnered with a tenured teacher during one of the first walks of the school year. Towards the end of the year, their classrooms are the ones visited.

There is enough trust with each other and in the process that if a teacher feels we are straying from the established learning walk protocol, he or she will speak up and question what is being said or done.

Case in point: The best learning walk this year was when Nisha, a math teacher, said, "I’m not comfortable with the noticings from this classroom visit. It sounds subjective." As a team, we discussed the noticings and immediately jumped into the instructional framework and had a great conversation over the meaning students were making of the content. Afterwards, one of the new teachers told me that the discussion really helped her better understand student engagement and she knew exactly what she was going to do to change her practice.

2013-2014 Washington State Assessment Scores
Percentage of students passing state reading/math assessment in specified grade level
Grade 2013-2014 Reading 2013-2014 Math
State School State School
Sixth 72.7 77.8 63.6 56.8
Seventh 67.7 72.7 57.8 69.1
Eighth 71.6 73 55.9 57.1

District demographics (October 2013): 752 students, 48.8% male, 51.2% female, 57.1% free/reduced lunch

Over the past two years, my school has received two awards: the Washington School of Distinction and the Washington School Achievement Award, which means we are considered one of the highest performing schools (top five percent) in the state.

We have had many schools visit our campus to observe our classrooms and participate in learning walks. The students are so used to the learning walks routine, they question visitors that come into the classroom without taking notes on their observations.

When I ask my staff what made the difference between where Onalaska Middle School was four years ago and where we are today, without fail they give the same answer: "The two main differences in our school are the buy-in from staff and students in the changes made and the work done with the instructional framework through our learning walks."

Our transformation is by no means complete and the process has been painful at times, but the results are definitely worth it and something to be proud of.

Topics: School Leadership, Learning Walkthroughs, Partnership Stories

About the author: Stephanie Teel

Stephanie Teel is the principal of Onalaska Elementary Middle School in Onalaska, Washington. This is her third year at Onalaska and her fifth year as a principal. Before becoming a principal, she taught music and was a classroom teacher in preschool through sixth grade in both Washington and Texas. She is dedicated to working with staff to create an environment where all students feel safe and respected and where the learning time of all students is respected by all.

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