Role of 'Walk-throughs'
After delving more deeply into specific practices and behaviors of instructional leadership, however, researchers Susanna Loeb and Ben Master of Stanford University and Jason Grissom of Vanderbilt University, found that classroom "walk-throughs"—the most typical instruction-related activity of principals in Miami-Dade schools—were negatively associated with student performance, especially in high schools.
But the time that principals spent on coaching teachers or working to improve the school's curriculum did predict positive achievement gains, especially in mathematics.
The study closely documented how the Miami-Dade principals spent their time by having trained observers follow more than 100 of them around for one full school day in each of three school years and record their activities. That information was paired with data on each administrator provided by the school district, along with survey data and interview responses provided by the principals themselves.
Overall, the results showed that principals spent an average of 12.7 percent of their time on activities related to instruction, and the biggest chunk of that time— 5.4 percent—was devoted to conducting brief classroom walk-throughs. Elementary school principals spent more of their time on instructional activities than their high school counterparts, the study found.
"It's not that those classroom walk-throughs can't be positive, it's just that they are particularly negative if principals don't follow up with some kind of meaningful professional development for teachers," Ms. Loeb said.
In follow-up interviews with some of the principals, the most common reasons they cited for conducting classroom walk-throughs were to check up on teacher practices in order to gather information and to be visible to staff members. A smaller number of principals cited opportunities to provide coaching as their primary reasons for doing the walk-throughs.
The study also revealed that even when principals themselves viewed classroom walk-throughs as a valuable tool for professional development, they reported that many of their teachers did not share that view.
"Many principals see these walk-throughs as very positive," said Ms. Loeb. "This is how they check to make sure that teachers are teaching the material and how they let teachers and students know they are present and are paying attention to what is happening inside classrooms."
So, what's a principal—whose duties as an instructional leader continue to ratchet up with the colliding rollouts of new academic standards, new assessments, and new teacher-evaluation systems—to do?
Two professional organizations for school leaders—the National Association of Elementary School Principals, or NAESP, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, or NASSP—have been toiling to come up with some answers.