How Do You Show Evidence That Your Strategies Impact Student Learning?


School Superintendent Dr. Julia Espe often quotes Israeli teacher Haim Ginott: “Children are like wet cement. Whatever falls on them makes an impression.”

During her career as superintendent of Princeton Area Schools in MN, Espe continually strove to ensure that whatever “fell” on the students in her school district left a positive and long-lasting impression.

Espe, a passionate and creative partner with Learning Sciences International, participated actively in Leadership Academies and implementing the Learning Map in her district. Each year, she made tweaks to Princeton’s implementation in order to improve how teachers continue to learn and retain the 21st century instructional skills they need to impact student learning – with rigorous standards.

She remains convinced that communicating directly and often was one of the keys to Princeton’s success. Espe, the teachers, and school leaders were guided in this work by implementing a non-evaluative instructional model.

In visiting 200 classrooms over a four-year span, Espe wanted to see how teachers were using and practicing the Essentials teaching strategies they were absorbing, and to gauge how these strategies were impacting student learning.

“You need to know why I was visiting classrooms. Teaching and learning is the core business of schools. It is why they are in existence. Everything that happens in our district should support the learning that happens in the classroom. This includes my work.” — Dr. Julia Espe

As she visited classrooms randomly–no prior notice, she collected data as to whether she saw evidence of the goals for the year. If she saw the goals, she simply recorded Yes. If she did not, she recorded it as No. She also wrote notes to each teacher.

At the beginning of the classroom visits, she focused closely on these three strategies:

  1. How teachers were using learning targets,
  2. How students were using learning targets, and
  3. How teachers were building effective learning progressions into their lessons.

She visited classrooms in all five Princeton schools: the Family Center (Early Childhood), the Primary School, the Intermediate School, the Middle School, and the High School. In an email to all Princeton staff, after half of the visits were completed, Espe shared that on average, 66% of the classrooms showed evidence of effective use of the focus strategies for increased student learning.

The next year, Espe continued random classroom visits as well as conversations about effective instruction. As she visited classrooms, she looked for strategies she and the teachers were emphasizing the year before, as well as evidence that all students were engaging in cognitively complex tasks and applying their knowledge to real-world problems.

The third year of classroom visits, Espe looked for evidence of the practice of high-impact strategies, including:

  • Identifying Critical Content,
  • Previewing New Content,
  • Organizing Students to Interact with Content,
  • Helping Students Process Content,
  • Helping Students Elaborate on Content,
  • Helping Students Record and Represent Knowledge,
  • Managing Response Rates with Question Sequence Techniques,
  • Reviewing Content,
  • Helping Students Practice Skills, Strategies, and Processes,
  • Helping Students Examine Similarities and Differences,
  • Helping Students Examine Their Reasoning,
  • Helping Students Revise Knowledge, and
  • Helping Students Engage in Cognitively Complex Tasks.

The fourth year of classroom visits, a very talented Teaching and Learning Director, Jessica Town-Gunderson, created a Princeton Paradigm, which combined prior learning with current and future goals. This communication tool brought life to expectations as well as my classroom visits: (See other document slide for explanation and the “Paradigm Tree”)

During the fourth year, we found even more success in increased student learning evidence from room to room, reaching over 80% of classrooms showing evidence of the Paradigm by the end of the school year.

“I was very pleased with the results and the work of teachers in general. Incorporating the expected instructional practices takes intentional practice and effort on the part of the teachers. As a superintendent, delivery of quality teaching, which promotes consistent student learning is a challenge. Our performance as a system, looking and acting upon our strengths and needs, is one of my responsibilities. Teaching and learning is rocket science. It takes the science of learning and the art of teaching, together, to help students to learn and remember what they have learned. Over the years, I loved watching the adults, as well as the students, as we all learned to be even better than the year before. Our Princeton teachers emulate lifelong learning.” — Dr. Julia Espe

Getting every student to reach rigorous learning goals is one of the main objectives of the Schools for Rigor initiative.

Espe’s visits were non-evaluative and focused on helping teachers grow their practice through targeted feedback. And because she knows communication is key, Espe did quick broadcasts to explain and clarify new goals and to provide feedback on what she has seen in classroom visits. Her ultimate goal was that, eventually, every classroom in the district would be working at the level of rigor required by Minnesota state standards.