Multi-District Learning Community Impacts the Professional Learning in Member Districts
On December 12, 2008, a diverse group of thirteen superintendents from urban, suburban, and rural school districts in New Jersey came together for the first time to lay the foundation for a community of practice that continues to thrive today—The New Jersey Network of Superintendents (NJNS). Supported by the Panasonic Foundation and focused on strengthening the instructional core and equity across their districts, these superintendents come together almost monthly to learn together through observation, discussion, and sharing of practices. A primary learning strategy used by the NJNS has been the instructional rounds process as developed by Richard Elmore and colleagues—an adaptation of the rounds process used within teaching hospitals.
Members of the Network and those who work with them have many tales to tell of learning, of ongoing struggles, and of influencing change in schools. Here, Rachel Kliegman tells of two superintendents who saw potential in implementing NJNS practices within their own school districts, and how their combined efforts produced adaptations to reduce the risks associated with opening classroom doors for observation.
Districts Collaborating on Instructional Rounds
by Rachel Kliegman
Reprinted by permission of Panasonic Foundation, an NCLE Stakeholder Organization, from Strategies for School System Leaders on District-Level Change (Vol. 15, No. 1. November 2011, pp. 20-21).
For two districts in the New Jersey Network of Superintendents (NJNS), working together to introduce their staffs to instructional rounds not only enabled them to split the costs of the training, but also helped them to create a district-wide view of rounds as an opportunity for shared learning. During the 2009–10 school year, superintendents Victoria Kniewel of West Windsor–Plainsboro (WW–P) and Earl Kim of Montgomery Township worked with three members of the NJNS design team to lead their staffs through the instructional-rounds process and have staff from each district participate in a rounds visit in a school in the other district. Principal Michael Zapicchi hosted a visit by Montgomery staff at High School North in WW–P, and Principal Susan Lacy invited WW–P staff to try out the rounds process at Montgomery’s Village Elementary School.
Since their year of working together on instituting instructional rounds, the two districts have independently continued to deepen this work, and the superintendents of both districts have continued as active members of the New Jersey Network of Superintendents.
While rounds could be viewed by teachers as another classroom observation aimed at evaluating their practice, Kniewel and Kim believed that a cross-district approach would emphasize the purpose of rounds, in Kniewel’s words, “as developing a community of learners among the administrators focused on the instructional core.” Including union representatives in the rounds training and visits helped everyone to see the purpose of rounds as learning. For both Kim and Kniewel, instructional rounds is part of an overall district strategy to focus the entire organization on teaching and learning. Kim describes instructional rounds as part of “a whole philosophical shift of the district where learning starts with the teacher and the teacher team.”
Once the majority of their administrators had experienced the rounds process in each other’s districts, Kniewel and Kim began conducting rounds within their own districts. In West Windsor–Plainsboro last year, administrators conducted rounds visits in all of the elementary and middle schools with a focus on literacy, which helped them to have better conversations with teachers because they were able to discuss specific evidence from the visits. Kniewel hopes to move forward in the next school year by incorporating the district’s adopted framework, Danielson’s Framework for Professional Practice, into the template used for recording evidence observed during rounds visits. This language should then inform teachers’ and administrators’ conversations about instruction.
In Montgomery, instructional rounds has been the primary vehicle for the use of qualitative feedback to principals and supervisors on their theories of action and to see the benefits of an organizational learning cycle: framing a problem of practice, developing and implementing a theory of action, using qualitative and quantitative feedback to assess progress, and making adjustments accordingly. So far, Montgomery staff (including teachers) have conducted rounds visits at three schools, and they plan on visiting the remaining two schools in the upcoming year. For principals, participating in rounds visits has helped them to identify high-leverage problems of practice and to articulate their theories of action around addressing those problems. For example, Lacy’s staff at Village Elementary School in Montgomery Township developed this problem of practice around literacy:
Our comparative data suggest that our students’ language arts literacy performance on the NJ ASK is less than one would expect for school districts like ours. More importantly, a study of our authentic writing samples has revealed a weakness in our students’ ability to communicate effectively. We are exploring how our students’ needs are being met by our current writing curriculum.
Kim sees the feedback that teachers receive from rounds visits as well received because teachers understand that it is not evaluative of their work but is intended to support the principal’s evolving theory of action. The district intends to engage learning teams of teachers, who have identified their own problems of practice and theories of action, in learning cycles and rounds next year.
While both districts have implemented rounds in slightly different ways, Kim and Kniewel believe that the collaborative year of training enabled them to build a culture of learning as they introduced a new process for administrator development. As one participant shared, the inter-district rounds experience was a “wonderful opportunity to observe similar lessons with colleagues and share in-depth conversations about teaching and learning.”