Guest Column

Fishing Blindly for Quality Teaching


Once a year I fish the shallow waters known as the “flats” off the Florida Keys.

I fish with a guide who has more expertise than I do in several areas, not the least of which is the ability to see and identify fish swimming in the clear, shallow waters.

A good guide can spot a fish 50 yards away and tell you what kind of fish it is.

This is the first and absolutely critical step in catching the fish — the ability to see it in the first place. If you don’t know what you are looking for, the game is over!

Much of the rest of my year is spent helping education leaders learn to identify good teaching. While agreement is growing over the understanding that quality teaching is the most important variable in student learning, I find all too often school leaders responsible for observing teachers on the job don’t know what quality teaching looks like.

A Measuring Stick
I have run the following experiment dozens of times. I take principals and central-office leaders on a virtual classroom walkthrough. We spend approximately 10-15 minutes watching a classroom lesson. At the end, I ask the leaders to rate the quality of the teaching on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high). In every case, the responses vary wildly. In no instance has there been agreement about the quality of the lesson.

In a far more scientific study, researchers at the University of Washington have been assessing leaders’ ability to observe and analyze instruction and provide feedback to teachers using a sophisticated, research-based instrument. A four-point rubric that runs from novice to expert.

To date, approximately 1,000 principals and central-office administrators from urban, suburban and rural school districts have participated. The average score, which measures not the quality of teaching but the knowledge and skill of the administrator in analyzing the lesson is 1.70. From this early research, we can conclude too few school leaders responsible for instructional improvement have sufficient expertise to identify really good teaching and explicate what makes that teaching effective. This may explain for the wide variation of opinions when observing a teaching performance.

Public Modeling
So lesson No. 1 for fishing applies here, too. Know with expert eyes what good teaching looks like. Otherwise, you have no starting place for improving teaching.

Lesson No. 2 is that just being able to see the fish doesn’t mean you can catch it!

Catching requires other expertise, just as leading for instructional improvement requires other expertise. Developing this skill can be accomplished in the same way, by studying with people who have greater expertise.

Let’s couple lessons 1 and 2 and think about how they play out in our collective desire to improve the quality of education for every student. There’s really no substitute for teaching leaders how to observe and analyze instruction. Yet acquiring this important capacity isn’t enough. School administrators at the building and district levels also have the responsibility to lead for instructional improvement. And this doesn’t mean setting up a variety of feel- good activities designed for adults to talk among themselves.

To improve teaching, education leaders must employ specific strategies. This includes modeling their own learning in public ways and loudly voicing their deeply held beliefs that high-quality teaching is the key to student learning. This means orchestrating professional learning in the truest meaning of the orchestra conductor — the individual with the expertise in music content to recognize whether the oboe or strings are off key.

Finally, it means building a culture in school where the focus on teaching practice is afforded the same kind of public scrutiny and precision one would find in a medical or law school.

Clear Benchmark
This work begins with leaders knowing their teachers as individual learners and applying the same instructional focus to developing teachers that we expect teachers to use as they develop students. Concomitantly, district leaders need to know their principals as individual learners so they, too, can be much more intentional in developing their leadership expertise.

It’s a recursive process that relies on a series of reciprocal relationships all premised on the following — as a leader I have the responsibility to ensure you have the knowledge and skill necessary to improve student learning. The improvement of instruction cannot be outsourced. It is first and foremost a leadership responsibility, and it all starts with first knowing what good teaching looks like.

This is not easy work, but the benchmark is exceedingly clear. At the end of the day, every structure, program, process or training activity must be measured by asking: Has teaching practice improved? How do you know?

If your favorite instructional leadership program does not address at its core how you identify and explicate good teaching, you have as much chance of improving teaching and learning as I would by blind casting into those clear shallow waters hoping to catch a fish.

Stephen Fink is executive director of the Center for Educational Leadership at University of Washington in Seattle, Wash. E-mail: