Phyllis Chase bends down next to the desk of a redheaded first-grader at Mill Creek Elementary School.
“What are you working on today?” she asks the boy, Alex Geyer.
“I’m writing down the book I read today,” he says, pointing to a reading log on his desk. In it, he lists the date and the book he read that day.
“Are you a good reader?” Chase asks.
“Yes, I am,” Alex replies enthusiastically.
Confidence on the student’s part is one of the indicators Chase, superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, looks for as she walks through each of the district’s classrooms. Since becoming superintendent in 2003, Chase has visited classes in each of Columbia’s schools, but this is the first year her central office staff — six assistant superintendents and a deputy superintendent — have also participated in the walk-throughs. Chase’s goal is for her or her staff to visit each of Columbia’s 1,500 or so classrooms.
But here’s the catch: Her intent is to take about four minutes in each classroom.
She even brings her white digital timer from home and keeps it clipped to the corner of her clipboard.
Here’s what Chase is looking for:
- Literate environment. Chase looks around the room: Does the classroom foster learning by what’s posted on the walls?
- Learner engagement. That’s where students like Alex come in. For example, Chase is looking to see how quickly students raise their hands to answer questions. How actively are they participating in classroom learning?
- Higher-order thinking skills. Based on Bloom’s taxonomy — a hierarchy that explains levels of educational questions — Chase looks to see students moving from knowledge of a subject to synthesis and application of their knowledge and skills.
- Curriculum alignment. If, for example, Chase visits a third-grade classroom where a plot of fiction is being taught, the lesson’s objectives should be the same as those listed in the district’s third-grade curriculum.
So far, Chase has visited about 250 classrooms. Sometimes it’s a fairly quick in and out; sometimes she stays past the four-minute mark to finish a conversation with a student or watch an activity.
Chase takes notes, but there’s no scoring or grading of the classrooms. Rather, she’s just trying to get a sense of student learning.
This is nothing new for teachers as principals and other administrators routinely visit classrooms to see what’s going on.
Mill Creek principal Mary Sue Gibson said walk-throughs are “a way to see what our building is like in terms of student engagement.”
Can Chase really get a sense of student learning in just four minutes? Jerry Valentine, professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at MU, thinks so.
“I have no doubts that Dr. Chase can obtain a very accurate picture of student learning in just three or four minutes, as long as the picture is a districtwide picture, not an individual teacher picture,” Valentine said.
No matter their length, he said, walk-throughs serve “particular importance in this day and time, with so much focus on accountability and student achievement.”
“It’s common practice, and it’s a good practice,” he said. “From a large volume of small, random snapshots comes a composite image that gives the school leader a good sense of instruction and learning across the district.”
Valentine also said school administrators increase their visibility with walk-throughs and build relationships with teachers and students simply by being present.
As Chase made her way through the classroom at Mill Creek a few weeks ago, Alex Geyer’s teacher, Heather Lewis, seemed unfazed.
“I don’t worry when she’s in the classroom,” Lewis said. “I know she’s going to see good things.”