5 Strategies for Scaling Effective Coaching
Our team spends a lot of time thinking about how to develop teachers. We believe that investing in the professional growth of teachers has the potential to dramatically change the landscape of education in our country and the lives of millions of children. While school systems across the U.S. spend billions of dollars annually on teacher professional learning and development we have little proof of their efficacy (The Mirage, TNTP 2015).
Given this context, we were thrilled to read a new study, The Effect of Teacher Coaching on Instruction and Achievement by Matthew Kraft and Dylan Hogan of Brown University and David Blazar from Harvard University. Kraft and his team conducted a meta-analysis of 37 studies and found coaching programs to positively impact instruction (.57 standard deviations) and student achievement (.11 standard deviations). The authors offer the following summary:
The results of our meta-analysis suggest that teacher coaching programs hold real promise for improving teachers’ instructional practice and, in turn, students’ academic achievement. These findings provide strong motivation to invest in efforts to scale up teacher coaching models, and to expand and improve upon the existing research base.
The authors characterize the coaching process as one where instructional experts work with teachers to discuss classroom practice in a way that is:
- Individualized: one-on-one sessions
- Intensive: frequent interaction between teachers and coaches (e.g., at least every couple of weeks)
- Sustained: coaching support over an extended period of time
- Context-specific: coaching on their practices within the context of a teacher’s classroom
- Focused: teachers and coaches engage in deliberate practice of specific skills
These findings support much of the work we have done with school systems including KIPP Austin Public Schools, DREAM Charter School and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to grow talent through multiple-measure evaluation and development frameworks. Each of these organizations have employed innovations specific to their unique contexts, however common across all approaches is a theory of change that recognizes the critical role coaches play in moving teacher practice and ultimately student outcomes.
Scaling Systems of Effective Coaching
One of the most important insights in the analysis is data suggesting “that coaching can have an impact at scale” but that scaling-up programs (to more than 100 teachers) is challenging, particularly in building a cohort of capable coaches and in establishing strong teacher buy-in.
From our experience, these two factors matter mightily. There are certainly pockets of excellent coaching in every school system, but the real challenge of scale is consistency of implementation. Here are five strategies for solving the scale-up challenges described by Kraft, Blazar and Hogan:
1. Establish a common definition of excellence: Coaching is incredibly hard work as it requires deep content knowledge, pedagogical expertise, emotional intelligence and strong interpersonal communication skills. One the best steps we can take to set coaches up for success is adoption of a clear definition of excellent teaching (e.g., a robust rubric or vision of excellence document). In establishing a common bar of quality of important instructional practices and a common language, coaches and teachers have a clear development road-map to work along. You can read more about strong observation rubrics in this March 2017 post.
2. Make Tools Available: Great coaches need tools to guide their learning and development. School systems should develop and train leaders on a common observation debrief protocol or conversation guide such as Paul Bambrick’s 6-Steps to Effective Feedback or the TEF Debrief Planning Guide to structure coaching conversations. Systems for capturing, analyzing and sharing observation data including observation ratings and feedback are also vital for supporting coaching efforts.
3. Invest in ongoing leader development: Often lost in conversations around teacher professional development is the importance of ensuring professional learning for those responsible for coaching teachers. These professionals warrant the same level of thoughtful support. Summer is a great time to bring coaches together for intensive training but without ongoing follow-up, development can be lost or minimized. Managers of coaches should have talent development within their core responsibilities including time for managers to observe and support school leaders/coaches working with their teachers.
4. Build a Culture of Transparency and Continuous Improvement: Ultimately the work leaders do coaching teachers is only as impactful as the level of trust and partnership teachers feel in the relationship. Transparent communication of the “why” and “how” of key policies along with timelines, goals, and progress to-date is essential for successful long-term investment. Gathering frequent feedback with public recognition of the findings and appropriate next steps will build a culture of continuous improvement.
5. Phase-in implementation: As noted in the study, working one-on-one with any person over a sustained period requires an investment of time and money. Certainly shifting funds from less effective professional development activities toward coaching is a strong first step. Another strategy is to phase-in implementation of a coaching program to build capacity, gain early wins, expand the coalition of supporters, and prove the value of the financial investment. We suggest system leaders identify the core problem they are hoping to solve, then target the first phase of implementation toward that issue. For example, if a system seeks to solve the challenges that arise from new teachers lacking foundational classroom management skills they can launch a coaching program focusing on that subset of teachers. Over time, coaches could roll-off and target other groups of teachers for support or the program could expand with the hiring of additional coaches.
What approaches to coaching teachers have you seen work well? How have you built a cohort of strong coaches and/or invested teachers? Let us know in the comments below!