Superintendents Detail Their Personal Use of Instructional Rounds

by Rebecca Salon

Time is probably a superintendent’s scarcest resource. However, for the past several years, superintendents Mike Nelson of the Enumclaw School District in Washington and Brian Osborne of the South Orange-Maplewood School District in New Jersey have each set aside a day a week, along with other school leaders, to participate in collaborative learning communities focused on improving instructional practice.

Thought Leader Session on Instructional Rounds
Panelists gather for Sunday's Thought Leader Session on superintendent instructional rounds

Nelson and Osborne were part of a panel on superintendents’ use of instructional rounds that took place Sunday morning at the 2012 AASA national conference in Houston.

With support from the Center for Educational Leadership for Nelson and the Panasonic Foundation and National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching for Osborne, they have participated in communities of practice that identify and focus on high-leverage problems of practice related to instruction practices and equity.

Superintendents are trained to be judgmental, noted Larry Leverett, executive director of the Panasonic Foundation. Initial training for members of the communities of practice, before they start making rounds and doing observations, focuses on how to be descriptive of what they observe, rather than judgmental. Therefore, most people need to unlearn behaviors that focus on judgment and blame so that they can more accurately observe and take note of what is actually happening in classrooms.

Stephen Fink, executive director of the Center for Educational Leadership at University of Washington works with nine superintendents in the Puget Sound network in Washington. Thomas Hatch, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching at Columbia University, works with 10 school districts in the New Jersey network. Their approaches have much in common.

All five panelists agreed on a few key beliefs: (1) instructional leadership really makes a difference; (2) it’s critical to prioritize your time so that you can take a day every month to work on ensuring that instruction is improving every day; and (3) in Fink’s words, something magical happens when people come together to share ideas and experiences.

Nelson has extended his community of practice to elementary and secondary principal cohorts, and he has started a secondary math cohort, which is already seeing across-the-board gains.

Osborne said he found his participation in the community of practice changed how he spent his time and approached his work, describing himself as a learning superintendent who is part of a learning organization.

How does this work? In New Jersey, 14 superintendents go to one school on the same day, with small teams visiting classrooms. A classroom might be visited by multiple teams. Afterward, they identify patterns from their observations and debrief with school leadership. In Washington, they visit one school a month and rotate through 4 classrooms, after which they too share observations, conclusions and ideas for moving forward to improve instruction.

These instructional rounds minimize the distance between school leaders and the instructional work actually happening in schools and classrooms — and the communities of practice give school leaders time outside of their normal routine to focus on improvement and change.

Audience members from Alaska and Saudi Arabia talked about the geographical challenges of getting people to be physically together once a month, wanted to know if panelists had explored technology to videotape or link people virtually. Panelists noted that there were some things that could happen remotely, but that they would lose the value of setting aside the time to focus on instructional and systems improvement and the benefits of peer-to-peer consultancies, through which they support and learn from one another.

For more information about these models, visit the Center for Educational Leadership at or Panasonic Foundation at