Wallace Grant: Making a Difference in the Classroom

This article part of a series of reports on how support from the Wallace Foundation is making a difference at Des Moines Public Schools. In June 2014, DMPS was awarded a substantial grant by the Wallace Foundation to improve teaching and learning by improving the work of principals and their supervisors. DMPS is one of six urban school districts from across the country selected to participate in the initiative.

Wallace Grant story

Support from the Wallace Foundation is improving principal leadership, which will make a difference in the classroom.

Monday afternoon right after lunchtime on a balmy day that hinted at the fast approaching spring break, first-year first grade teacher Morgan Maharry refocused her class at Monroe Elementary School. There were other potential distractions besides the nice weather outside. Clustered in the corner of Room 126 were six observers who batted away at their tablets in seats sized for six year-olds.

Mike Lord, a Director of Elementary School Services for DMPS, was there and so were principals from four other district elementary schools: Marsha Kerper, Capitol View; Peter LeBlanc, King; Jennifer Williams, Stowe; and Tiona Sandbulte, Cattell. Rounding out the group was Diane Hampel from Learning Services International. LSI is an educational consultant that collaborates with the district on professional development for teachers and administrators.

Periodically throughout the year all DMPS principals leave their own buildings to participate in these “side-by-side” observation sessions. They are one piece of a strategic puzzle arising from the district’s receipt of a prestigious Wallace Grant aimed at helping principals help teachers help students.

As we reported recently, the Marzano Instructional Framework is the philosophical foundation guiding the work made possible by the Wallace Grant. Implemented on a districtwide scale it will take the subjectivity out of the observation/evaluation aspect of the relationship between principal and teacher. The idea is to make the principal more of a coach and less of a judge. Side-by-sides like the one at Monroe on Monday are opportunities for principals to apply the Marzano rubric elements and practice looking for the same things in classrooms. They also share ideas about how to offer effective feedback.

The common instrument employed by the principal observers is a Marzano Learning Map that consists of four “domains”:

  • Domain 1: Classroom Strategies and Behaviors
  • Domain 2: Planning and Preparing
  • Domain 3: Reflecting on Teaching
  • Domain 4: Collegiality and Professionalism

A total of 60 “elements” are rated on the following scale:

  • Not using
  • Beginning
  • Developing
  • Applying
  • Innovating

Domain 1 is the focus of the side-by-sides going on around the district this week and 41 of the 60 elements fall within it. The key objective in using the map is to achieve “inter-rater reliability” or reduced subjectivity and ensure that all teachers in the district are in pursuit of the same goals and measured with the same yardstick.

Establishment of classroom routines, celebrating success and maintaining a lively pace are examples of the elements that an observing principal is trained to look for and identify. The pod of principals at Monroe on Monday afternoon would visit a classroom for roughly half an hour and then fall back to a meeting room in the office to compare notes. Then it was off to visit another grade level.

After they left Maharry’s classroom, for example, there was clear consensus that her students knew and followed her classroom routines, that the discussions witnessed had been positive and the pace of instruction was brisk as the class transitioned from a health segment where Legos were used as teeth to practice flossing to a weekend recap where everyone had a chance to mention something they were excited or happy about to a lesson in math about addition and subtraction story problems. All of this transpired in less than 30 minutes.

“She’s got the toughest part (getting a roomful of six year-olds to pay attention) out of the way,” Lord commented and the others all nodded in agreement.

Yes, a task tough enough on a routine day, let alone an unseasonably warm Monday in early March, right after outside play at lunchtime and with a group of outsiders visiting for reasons that must have been a mystery to the students. One boy commented, when it was his turn to describe his mood coming out of the weekend, that he was “excited because of the people that are here to watch us.”

They didn’t get a turn to say so until they were discussing amongst themselves in the office afterwards, but the people that were there to watch were excited too. Just like six year-olds in a classroom they are learning and mastering new routines at a lively pace and so, thanks to Wallace Grant resources, are their counterparts all across a diverse district that is a mosaic being remounted on a solid background.

Photos of Wallace Grant at Work at Monroe

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