Instructional Rounds: A Powerful Reform Strategy

on Sep 29, 2011 in Blog by

Collaboration, networking, school improvement, instructional support, a collaborative learning culture, knowledge building, and rigorous and relevant teaching—these are all attributes and practices school reformers strive for by awarding funds, promulgating rules, instituting strategic plans, launching training initiatives, and extending promises to stakeholders. One approach that truly advances all of these attributes and practices is the instructional rounds process – “an explicit practice that is designed to bring the discussion of instruction directly into the process of school improvement.”[1] Instructional rounds are adapted from a routine used in medical education in which interns, residents, and supervising physicians visit patients, observe, discuss evidence for diagnoses, engage in dialogue to analyze the evidence, and share ideas for possible treatments. Educational rounds brings networks of educators together using protocols and routines to articulate a theory of action, identify a problem of practice, observe classroom instruction, debrief with colleagues to analyze any patterns that emerge, and recommend the next level of work to help the school achieve their desired goals.[2]

Richard Elmore, Lee Teitel, Liz City, and their colleagues from Harvard have developed processes, protocols, and technical assistance resources for establishing networks to implement instructional rounds. They have worked closely with networks and district leaders to apply the practice of rounds, refine the model based on lessons learned, and to expand the community of learners who are able to facilitate the rounds process. Examples of these networks include the Cambridge Leadership Network, the Connecticut Superintendents’ Network, the Ohio Leadership Collaborative, and the Iowa Leadership Academy Superintendents’ Network. I have had the privilege of being a member of the Iowa Leadership Academy Superintendents’ Network – an experience that has allowed me to participate in intensive training provided by Dr. Elmore and the Harvard team, engage as both a member on various rounds teams and as a facilitator of the rounds process in several Iowa school districts, and to continuously learn from my fellow rounds facilitators through our Network meetings.

The instructional rounds model seems to be gaining more traction and is recently being advanced as a model for  school leaders and  teachers as a means to transform educator practice.  What I have noticed in my work with the rounds model in Iowa is that it offers tremendous benefit to the Network members and to the participating schools.  The process focuses the district’s efforts on, what Elmore calls, the instructional core. Engaging in rounds builds the capacity of superintendents to recognize quality instruction, enhances trust among Network members, increases their willingness to take on the challenges of influencing change, and leads to a culture of inquiry that enhances professional learning.

On a cautionary note, I have also noticed some aspects of the model that anyone aspiring to adopt this approach should consider.  Some of the lessons learned from my own work with rounds and from sharing experiences with other facilitators in Iowa are listed below.

  • Though the steps for conducting rounds may seem straightforward, in practice, it is a very difficult program for participants to implement.
  • Establishing a network takes an extraordinary amount of work and leadership. In Iowa, Bonnie Boothroy of School Administrators of Iowa and several of the Area Education Agency Chiefs have committed extensive amounts of time and effort to establish and sustain Iowa’s Network.
  • Being a member of a network takes a lot of time, commitment to learn, and perseverance to follow through and apply new learning. It is not a model for anyone who wants their professional growth to be quick and easy. Becoming a facilitator is an extremely valuable professional learning experience, but the work of developing the skills needed to support a network and run the rounds process can’t be shortchanged.  The “faint of heart” should not apply.
  • New capacity building is needed to do this work. School leaders shouldn’t consider running rounds without background knowledge. Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning a well written book by City, Elmore, Fiarman, and Teitel (2009) is a great resource, but just reading the book is not a substitute for learning how to conduct rounds from those who have had extensive direct experience.
  • Going to scale across multiple districts and running rounds with fidelity is a constant effort and requires ongoing vigilance. Our network meets several times a year to address how best to support the rounds process and we continuously confront issues that have the potential to seriously domesticate the delivery of the model.

It takes a community of committed practitioners for the networks and rounds process to work well. Isolated implementers who just pick up the book are likely to implement the model partially or incorrectly. Plus, the experience of engaging in collective learning in an organized way will serve school leaders well as they work to establish learning communities in their schools.

School reformers might want to take a look at this promising and exciting approach to school reform. While they should be excited about the potential, reformers also need to be cautious about selecting a model that is demanding to implement.  To fulfill the promise of this approach, school leaders will need to make a serious commitment to engage deeply in the work and be intentional about fully learning the model from experts. The policy makers and administrators who are responsible for designing the roll-out of the rounds networks must attend to the all the factors that are necessary to advance  a model to scale and be vigilant about expecting careful replication of the model.

[1] City, E., Elmore, R. , Fiarman, S. and Teitel, L. (2009). Instructional rounds in education: A network approach to improving teaching and learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

[2] Ibid.

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