A group of Puget Sound school superintendents is touring classrooms in one another's school districts this year, similar to the kind of medical rounds that doctors make in hospitals. Their goal is not to evaluate or judge, but to learn — deepening their ability to define, recognize and support excellent teaching.

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This is part of an occasional series highlighting promising programs, creative teachers and life inside local classrooms. Today: “Instructional rounds.”

As students settle into their seats in a Tahoma Middle School language-arts class, eight adults file into the room, pens and paper in hand.

They are a high-powered group, mostly school superintendents such as Maria Goodloe-Johnson of Seattle and Sue Walker of Shoreline. The kind of people who usually command attention wherever they go.

Today, their job is to fade into the background.

They don’t evaluate the teachers or pass judgment on the lessons at this Maple Valley school. Borrowing a practice from the medical field, they are on “instructional rounds” designed to help them learn.

There is a lot of talk about the importance of teaching these days. Across the nation, there are efforts to raise the level of instructional quality, mostly by making it easier to fire bad teachers.

Yet education doesn’t have a well-developed, shared definition of what great teaching looks like, says Stephen Fink, a leader of this tour and executive director of the University of Washington’s Center for Educational Leadership. Tours like this one — a growing practice nationwide — are one effort to change that.

Over the course of this school year, the superintendents and assistant superintendents on this tour will visit five schools, working to deepen their ability to define, recognize and, as leaders, support excellent teaching.

“I don’t go to many superintendent meetings,” said Tahoma Superintendent Mike Maryanski.

“But this is an opportunity to really focus on what we’re all about.”

Helping teachers get better

Each set of rounds follows the same schedule. Before they visit classrooms, the administrators discuss what they’ll look for — and why. As their host for this visit, Maryanski gets to choose.

He wants his colleagues to see if teachers are using some of the practices he’s been stressing. Whether they make the “key content” and particular learning skill of each class clear to students. Whether they check in from time to time to see if students are lost. And whether they make sure students do more than sit and listen.

In small groups, the administrators discuss, in concrete terms, what those practices would look like. Rather than general terms such as “active learning,” for example, they talk about whether many students participate, not just a few.

As they talk, the school leaders refer to two dense pages from Fink and his associates — a summary of years of research into what constitutes high-quality teaching.

Too much of the conversation about improving schools, Fink says later, centers on how to get rid of ineffective teachers or reward great ones. The reality, he says, is that few teachers are truly ineffective — or completely effective. The vast majority, he says, are working hard to the best of their ability.

The more important challenge, in his view, is to help the vast majority of teachers get better.

It’s not an easy task, he says.

“Our entire mental model … still assumes that this thing called teaching is doable by the vast majority of people with a limited amount of training. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Quizzing students

As the pre-rounds huddle winds down, the administrators head out to observe.

They spend a few hours in four classrooms, 20 to 30 minutes in each. The first stop for one group of eight visitors is a seventh-grade social-studies class. The teacher and students don’t seem to pay the visitors any mind, even though a lot of them are standing at the back and sides of the room scribbling notes.

None of the four teachers — who volunteered to be observed — appears to have planned anything special. In the social-studies class, the students discuss ancient Egypt. In the language-arts class, seventh-graders revise papers. Down the hall, sixth-graders in a math class learn to add and subtract fractions. In an algebra class, the teacher goes over how to plot intercepts.

When there’s a chance, administrators kneel down by a student or two and ask what they’re doing, one way to see if the teacher has made the point of the lesson clear.

Some give specific, spot-on answers. But in a math class, one student shrugs, saying, “We just seem to be getting ready for our test.”

Class work

When the rounds are over, the administrators regroup to go over what they saw. At this point of the discussion, they must stick to what they’ve observed. No judgments. No conclusions.

In the seventh-grade algebra class, for example, they noticed the teacher walked around the room, checking students’ work, and reminded students several times how what they were doing fit in with earlier lessons.

But even as they stick to observations only, some themes quickly start to emerge. All four teachers talked about the objective of their lesson, and most paused at least once to check in with students.

They all made efforts to get students involved, but they also talked — a lot.

That’s common in classrooms all over the place, but Fink reminds the group that research shows students learn better when they have a chance to express themselves.

That observation leads to more questions. Just what would be the right balance between teacher talk and student talk? What kind of student talking is best?

And if student talk is so important, why don’t more teachers do it? Do they know it could be valuable? Or do they think that they don’t have enough time, given all the content they need to cover?

That, in turn, led those in the group to look at themselves. Are they doing a good enough job helping teachers understand why some practices are important?

That’s where Fink hoped they’d go. Because for education to improve, he says, district leaders, as well as teachers, need to up their games.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com