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Characteristics of Effective Tech Coaching in Schools Explored in New Report

A $6.5-million, Google-funded effort to improve the quality of technology coaching for teachers showed positive signs in its first year, according to a new report.

After participating in the pilot year of the Dynamic Learning Project, "district leaders, teachers, principals, and coaches believe that instructional technology coaching provides an engaging and impactful [professional-development] experience that helps close the digital-use divide, and can ultimately increase student achievement," wrote researchers from Digital Promise, the nonprofit group running the initiative.

The group's analysis, however, rests largely on self-reports from surveys administered to school staff, leaving unclear exactly how dramatically teachers' technology use and instructional strategies changed as a result of the coaching initiative. The analysis also did not look at the impact of coaching on student achievement.

The overwhelming majority of teachers participating in the Dynamic Learning Project did report using technology more frequently than in previous years. They were also more likely to say they used technology to improve both the content taught in their classrooms, and the ways in which they taught that content.

But a handful of case studies conducted as part of the evaluation generally did not document the kind of widespread use of classroom technology in "powerful" ways—for student collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking, for example—to which Digital Promise ultimately aspires. 

Karen Cator, the group's CEO, said in an interview that the most valuable outcome from the initiative thus far has been the development of a framework for better understanding and studying what works in coaching around instructional technology.

"It's important that we ground what we're doing in research," she said. "If we have something we can look at and study and collect data on, we can improve it based on what we learn."

Attacking the 'Digital-Use Divide'

Big picture, Cator said, the Dynamic Learning Project seeks to draw on a wealth of literature that has found that instructional coaching can help teachers do their jobs better, and to see how that applies to technology integration.

The goal is to help close the so-called "digital-use divide." Even though high-speed internet and personal computing devices are now nearly ubiquitous in schools, big gaps remain in how schools actually use all that technology. Schools serving more affluent students are more likely to focus on creative and analytical pursuits, for example, while lower-income schools tend to rely on technology for more "drill-and-kill" practice and remediation.

In the first year of the Dynamic Learning Project, 1,110 teachers in 50 schools across five states participated. 

With grant money from Google, participating schools hired staff—typically, teachers already working at their schools—to serve as full-time coaches, helping other educators identify classroom challenges, figure out ways technology might be used to solve the problem, and try it out.

Digital Promise administered online surveys to teachers, coaches, and principals at the beginning and end of the year. District leaders also completed surveys, and four of the schools were selected for multiple site visits that included interviews and classroom observations.

Among the findings in the resulting report:

  • 86 percent of teachers who received coaching said they made more frequent use of technology in previous years (compared to 76 percent of teachers at their schools who did not receive coaching).
  • Significantly higher percentages of participating teachers reported "considerable or extreme" progress in their "selection and use of technology to teach specific content and to improve teaching approaches" than teachers who did not receive coaching.
  • Students at case study schools "reported using technology more often for working with their peers, solving complex problems, developing communication skills, and keeping track of their own work," the report notes, although the effect sizes were genererally small. 
  • Over the course of the year, the percent of teachers who said that coaching can improve student learning and engagement grew significantly.
  • Over the course of the year, the percent of coaches and principals who grew more confident in their own skills related to instructional technology coaching also grew significantly.

Also of note, Cator said, were changes in school culture, especially with regard to increased risk-taking.

"Having somebody to help you try something new and build the skills to think through and solve a problem is a really important thing," she said.

Attributes of an Effective Tech Coach

Perhaps more significantly for other K-12 educators and policymakers, Digital Promise also outlined in its report the "core attributes" of an effective instructional technology coaching program and the "key qualities" of an effective instructional technology coach.

Good programs are voluntary partnerships that are personalized for individual teachers' needs, experience levels, and classroom challenges, the report notes. They are also intensive: The teachers who participated in the Dynamic Learning Project received an average of 19 hours of coaching support over the course of the school year. And it's critical that coaches don't play a role in formal evaluations.

"Teachers reported feeling safe to confide in their coach and receive honest feedback and support without fear that the confidentiality of the coach-teacher relationship would be broken," the report says.

When it comes to coaches themselves, the ideal candidate is a "former teacher with previous experience at the school," Digital Promise suggests. And communication and skills are more important than a strong technology background, Cator said.

"It isn't the fact that you are highly technical that will make you a good coach," she said. "It's much more about relationships."

Perhaps the strongest sign of the Dynamic Learning Project's early success is that 44 of the 50 schools who participated in the pilot year will continue with the coaching initiative—and will pony up their own money to do so. 

Google will continue to support the research that Digital Promise is conducting and some of the centralized supports the group provides to schools, but (by design) will not cover coaches' salaries after the first year of the project.

The technology company will, however, support Digital Promise in the development of new digital tools, such as a mobile app for school leaders to conduct classroom observations of coaches. 

"Ideally, we'd like to get to the point where any school interested in doing coaching can take advantage of the resources and tools we build as part of the program," Cator said.


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