One School’s Cautious Use of Classroom Walk-Throughs

by Hélène L. BICKFORD

When Hillsboro-Deering Elementary School in New Hampshire began its improvement efforts, no one expected that classroom walk-throughs would effect serious change in both student achievement and the school culture.

Being labeled a school with deficiencies under No Child Left Behind is not how you want to be known. The school district used the opportunity to work with WestEd, a federally funded resource center, to apply the Teach for Success program. Classroom walk-throughs are an integral part of the program.

School staff naturally were wary. As former principal Ellen Klein said, “Observations, by their nature, make most teachers apprehensive and defensive.” Teachers in Hillsboro-Deering were no different. They were hesitant and uneasy. It was only when teachers understood the raw data would be collated schoolwide and individual staff would not be identified that nerves were calmed and walk-throughs accepted.

Klein said her teachers often asked what they could do differently to improve the school’s status. All were working diligently, she reported, but were frustrated their efforts resulted in yet another year of poor test results.

WestEd sent two evaluators who, over two days, observed every classroom for approximately 10 minutes each and collected data about what they saw. At the end of the second day, the information was presented in a positive manner to the entire faculty. Teachers saw, in an objective, nonthreatening way, that classroom walk-throughs could yield valuable information on strengths and areas for improvement.

Teachers received high marks in the WestEd evaluation for connecting what they were teaching with learning objectives, for creating a caring, respectful learning environment and for recognizing individual students. The walk-through provided baseline data for improvement. Teachers were astonished that vocabulary was not a focus and that required thinking skills were primarily at a basic recall level.

A Validation Process
As a result, teachers and administrators collectively decided to focus on highlighting key vocabulary and increasing student engagement. Deficit areas were concrete enough that teachers could generate specific strategies to carry out immediately. These strategies were compiled, published and distributed. Teachers now had a list of particular practices they could use — which colleagues already were using successfully. The list validated in-house expertise and reaffirmed a culture of collaboration and unity of purpose.

The following summer all district administrators were trained in the Teach for Success program’s walk-through model. The two-day training by Huck Fitterer of WestEd was informative and entertaining and used videos of actual classroom sessions. He showed how to collate data from walk-throughs and how to discuss results to ensure consistency and conformity. Administrators now could follow up the walk-throughs by WestEd personnel with their own.

At the Hillsboro-Deering Elementary School, which serves 538 students in a K-5, district and school administrators did walk-throughs in teams of two for an hour each week. After some practice in district classrooms, Fitterer returned to answer questions and provide additional training.

In the fall, a group of self-selected teachers at the elementary school, primarily from the instructional leadership team, was trained to do walkthrough observations. Though not all chose to subsequently conduct walk-throughs, the teachers who did found them insightful, corroborating improvements and identifying work to be done. The trained teachers who chose not to participate found the instruction helpful in better understanding the Teach for Success model, in exactly what was required in an observation and how these elements combine to increase student achievement. This further increased the trust of all teachers in the building.

Having a cadre of administrators and teachers in a school trained to look for the same protocols in classrooms provided additional opportunities to collect data, and check and report on improvements beyond the walk-through conducted by WestEd.

The school district used the WestEd evaluators to conduct buildingwide walk-throughs again the following year. Gains were reported in communicating objectives to students, making learning relevant and emphasizing key vocabulary. WestEd’s measures showed student engagement increased by 10 percent. They reported 20 percent gains in the understanding and application phases of Bloom’s taxonomy. Teachers were demanding higher levels of thinking from their students and getting better results.

The second walkthrough results were encouraging and helped to give teachers confidence to continue to make schoolwide changes.

Small But Vital
A second group of teachers received training in conducting walk-through observations last summer. With the number of trained teachers growing, the process became less stressful for all, increasing overall understanding of the model and the likelihood of positive student gains. As one of the recently trained teachers commented, “We should all go through this training.” Another indicated the training helped with her personal growth as a classroom teacher, saying she now trusted the research behind the model and the data collected.

State assessment scores at the elementary school have improved. The school made adequate yearly progress in reading for all subgroups. Consequently, the Hillsboro-Deering School District no longer is designated as a district in need of improvement at a time when more and more districts are being added to the list.

Noreen McAloon, who took over as the elementary school’s principal in summer 2009, believes the walk-throughs are “an excellent opportunity (for teachers) to see best practices in action, to reflect upon one’s own presentations and to effect small but significant changes.” Indeed, it is often through the small but significant changes that overall improvement follows.

Hélène Bickford is assistant superintendent of School Administrative Unit 53 in Pembroke, N.H. E-mail: She directed curriculum, instruction and assessment in School Administrative Unit 34 in Hillsboro, N.H., until the past summer.