Taking Teacher Coaching To Scale
The importance of individual teachers has emerged in sharp focus over the past decade, with compelling evidence that teachers have large effects on a range of student outcomes. Wide variability in teacher effectiveness, both across and within schools, highlights the persistent challenge of providing students with access to high-quality teachers. However, traditional efforts to increase teacher quality through professional development (PD) have been largely ineffective. That may be changing, as a new form of PD, teacher coaching, has emerged to disrupt the PD industry.
Historically, PD has been dominated by daylong seminars that took teachers out of the classroom and delivered the same tips and tricks to an entire department, grade level, or school. But as research has found, these programs to have little or no effect on teacher quality. Some training has shifted to a customized, smaller-scale approach: instructional coaching, whereby an expert mentor works one-to-one with teachers to provide a steady stream of feedback and suggest new techniques based on frequent classroom observations. By the 2015‒16 school year, 27 percent of public K‒12 schools reported having a reading coach on staff, 18 percent had a math coach, and 24 percent had a general instructional coach, according to the National Teacher and Principal Survey.
Researchers have studied individualized coaching programs for decades, but only began to evaluate their effects using randomized control trials in the last dozen years. We set out to examine what this growing literature now says about the efficacy of teacher coaching as a development tool. Does one-to-one coaching help teachers get better? If so, how powerful a strategy might this be to improve teacher practice and student outcomes?
Our analysis of results from across 60 studies found that coaching works. With coaching, the quality of teachers’ instruction improves by as much as—or more than—the difference in effectiveness between a novice and a teacher with five to 10 years of experience, a more positive estimated effect than traditional PD and most other school-based interventions. However, larger coaching programs are less effective than smaller ones, raising questions about whether coaching can be brought to scale in a way that preserves its impact.
Teacher Development Gets Personal
Public school systems in the United States spend billions of dollars annually on PD to help teachers meet the diverse needs of their students—with limited results. Most PD remains of the “sit and get” variety: one-off workshops delivered to large groups, with little obvious connection to the needs of individual teachers or classrooms. Rigorous studies find that PD programs more often than not fail to produce systematic changes in teachers’ instructional practice, much less improvements in student achievement, especially when implemented at scale.
Yet expectations for teachers have grown in recent years, as states have adopted new college- and career-ready standards and as education agencies increasingly emphasize the importance of balancing expert content delivery with nurturing the social-emotional skills that are also important for students’ lifelong success. Taken together, teachers’ expected roles range from content expert, curriculum developer, and pedagogue, to social worker, psychologist, mentor, and motivator. Every teacher has dimensions of this interrelated skill set on which they can improve—a complex and dynamic reality reflected in the one-to-one coaching model, which seeks to align the support provided to individual teachers to their unique challenges and needs.
Most teacher-coaching programs share several key features, but no one set of features defines all coaching models. In our review of the literature, we encountered multiple, sometimes conflicting, definitions of teacher coaching. Some envision coaching as a form of implementation support to ensure that new teaching practices or teaching materials—often introduced in an initial group training session—are executed with fidelity. Others see coaching as a tool that enables teachers to learn and apply new pedagogical practices to support student learning. The role of the coach may be performed by a range of personnel, including administrators, master teachers, curriculum designers, external experts, and other classroom teachers.
Synthesizing this body of theoretical work, we characterize coaching as an observation and feedback cycle in which coaches model research-based practices and work with teachers to incorporate these practices into their classrooms. In contrast to traditional PD, coaching is intended to be individualized, time-intensive, sustained over the course of a semester or year, context-specific, and focused on discrete skills. Coaches engage in a sustained professional dialogue with teachers focused on developing skills to enhance their classroom practice; ideally, the specific skills targeted for development differ based on individual teacher needs.