Skip to main content

Do Principals Know Good Teaching When They See It?

Most principals can’t identify or explain what constitutes good teaching, much less help teachers improve, according to a new book.

It’s happened hundreds of times. An audience of principals, superintendents and instructional coaches is shown a short videotape of a classroom lesson and asked to score it from 1 to 5. It would seem straightforward: The teacher is good, bad or somewhere in-between. But invariably, the scores come in all over the map, with high and low in fairly equal numbers.

Having toured the United States with those videotapes, two leaders of the University of Washington’s Center for Educational Leadership conclude that most school leaders can’t identify or explain what constitutes good teaching, much less come up with helpful suggestions for improvement.

“Frankly, this is shocking to consider,” say Stephen Fink and Anneke Markholt, co-authors of Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise and executive and associate directors, respectively, of the center.

“Whether under the guise of academic freedom, local control, or perhaps just simply doing what we have always done, millions of students are taught every day by hundreds of thousands of teachers, supported by thousands of school and district leaders without a clear understanding and agreement on quality practice,” the authors say.

In their view, the major challenge facing public education in America is a widespread lack of expertise. No wonder, they say: While doctors spend between six and 11 years in medical school, principals charged with improving the “highly complex and sophisticated endeavor” of teaching typically study administration for only two years and will spend no more than a semester in an internship. As Miller-McCune reported last year, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education itself has suggested that teachers be trained through “clinical practice,” as doctors are.

Separately from the audience survey, Fink’s center has administered individual tests to 2,000 principals, superintendents and instructional coaches in several hundred school districts since 2001, asking each participant to observe a 20-minute videotape of a math or reading class, assess it in writing and make recommendations for how to improve it.

The principals and their colleagues answered three questions:

• What do you notice about teaching and learning in this classroom?

• What conversation would you want to have with this teacher?

• How, if at all, does this inform your thinking about and planning for professional development?

Based on how well a principal can assess a teacher’s goals and strategies, take stock of how engaged the students are and offer helpful feedback, the center assigns him or her a grade. Out of four possible points, with 4.0 being an “expert instructional leader,” the average score of the school leaders was 1.8.

“It should be deeply insightful for us as policymakers to say that if we’re not focusing on developing the expertise of our teachers and leaders, then we’re off-track,” Fink said.

It’s not a question of simply getting rid of bad teachers, Fink said. “If we’re going to improve the quality of learning for all kids, we have to develop the expertise of those teachers we have in our ranks.”

He admits the center sets a high bar for “expert” scores: “You really have to know your stuff.”

But most don’t. For example, while visiting a class on the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a principal sees that the teacher is simply grilling students on what’s in the text. In a written evaluation after the class is over, the principal suggests that the teacher ask higher-level questions that would prompt students to analyze and think about what they’ve read instead of merely parroting it back. But as Fink and Markholt note, the teacher likely doesn’t know how to ask those kinds of questions or he or she would already be doing it.

“We have observed this typical exchange between principals and teachers dozens of times,” they write. “If principals want teachers to teach differently — in any way, shape, or form — then they must guide, support and nurture teacher learning just like we expect teachers to do for students.”

To help smarten up schools, the center shows principals how to become like anthropologists taking field notes, “noticing and wondering” and scripting what goes on in the classroom. The center also sends in coaches to lead principals on “learning walkthroughs,” or “instructional rounds.” These are modeled after the medical rounds in which doctors, nurses and medical students discuss hospital patients, case by case.

“Principals are in school classrooms all the time,” Fink said in an interview. “What we’re pushing for is for them to be much more purposeful in that work. We think it’s really important for leaders to be clear about why they’re in schools and what they’re intending to accomplish.”

As Miller-McCune also recently reported, some schools regularly schedule time for teachers to meet in small groups and share their ideas about what works in the classroom. These efforts make sense, Fink and Markholt say, but only if there is a enough expertise in the group to bring up the general level of learning.

The center instead sets up “residencies” in which a coach, possibly an expert from within the school, models a teaching strategy in a live classroom while the principal and a group of teachers watch — another concept borrowed from medical school. Later, the coach and the classroom teacher may try the strategy together, or the coach will watch as the teacher tries it alone.

“It takes expertise to make expertise,” Fink and Markholt say, yet coaching in schools is “still the very rare exception, not the norm.

“We believe that K-12 education, as often practiced, is a quasi-profession at best, because we do not, in fact, have common standards of professional practice.”

Sign up for the free e-newsletter.

"Like" Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add news to your site.