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What If All Teachers Had a Coach?

Note: This week Matthew Kraft, assistant professor of education at Brown University, joins us as guest-blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @MatthewAKraft.

I'm thrilled to take a break from my research this week to reflect on what we might do differently to substantially enhance the quality of teaching and learning in K-12 public schools. In this series of "What if ..." blog posts, I share my thoughts on some of the big questions I hope we all consider asking. 

In my first few weeks of teaching high school, it was clear that I needed to get much better at my job, and fast. A group of students ran out of my classroom in tears to appeal to their counselor about my unfair attempts to manage student behavior; I stood at the whiteboard and lectured on end while students' eyes glazed over; and I was scrambling each night to develop lesson plans for the next day. The support systems I had in my first years of teaching high school would be familiar to many public school teachers. I was given Harry Wong's classic book The First Days of School by my principal, I attended professional development workshops, I took graduate classes in the evenings towards earning my credential, and I was mentored by a retired teacher. The coursework and workshops were largely disconnected from my classroom context, and meetings with my mentor, a caring and accomplished teacher, were largely focused on chipping away at a binder of paperwork we needed to complete. I was making rookie mistakes left and right — I needed a coach. 

Teacher coaching is a not a new or novel idea. A wide variety of coaching programs have sprung up across the country in districts such as Oakland, Charlotte, Nashville, Rochester, and Washington D.C., but nationally, fewer than one in five novice teachers reports working closely with a mentor, master teacher or coach. Coaching has gained its widest appeal among preschool and elementary literacy teachers through programs such as Reading First, the Literacy Collaborative, and Content-Focused Coaching. New models are emerging for math and science teachers, as well as programs focused on general pedagogical practices, classroom management, and student-teacher relationships, which are applicable across grade-levels and content areas.  Despite important differences, these programs all share five core tenets. They are:

  • Individualized — coaching sessions are one-on-one 
  • Intensive — coaches and teachers interact at least every couple of weeks
  • Sustained — teachers receive coaching throughout the academic year
  • Context-specific — teachers are coached on their practices within the context of their own classroom
  • Focused — coaches work with teachers to engage in deliberate practice of specific research-based skills

In fact, best practices for teacher induction, professional development, and evaluation feedback all seem to be converging in this same direction. An instructional expert observes a teacher's classroom, works with a teacher to assess her practice using a classroom observation rubric, and identifies specific approaches a teacher can use in order to elevate her instruction. Effective coaches know when and how to shift between being highly prescriptive about next steps for improvement and facilitating teachers' own self-reflection and growth process based on the needs and abilities of each teacher.

Generalizing about the effectiveness of coaching programs should be done cautiously given the important differences in the goals, dosage, and coaching philosophies across models. However, my read of the causal evidence behind teacher coaching is more favorable, on the whole, than the current pillars of human capital development in education: teacher preparation, induction, and professional development. In an ongoing review of the teacher coaching literature, my collaborators and I have identified several dozen experimental studies, many of which demonstrate positive impacts of coaching on teachers' practices and knowledge, as well as student behavior and achievement. Among the most compelling evidence comes from a series of studies evaluating the My Teaching Partner program centered on the CLASS observational instrument.

Despite promising evidence, implementing and sustaining a high quality coaching program can present significant challenges. Back-of-the envelope estimates put the cost of in-person coaching somewhere around $5,000 to $10,000 per teacher, with costs driven almost entirely by coach salaries. In order to deliver high-quality coaching at scale, districts would have to substantially restructure their current budgets.  This would be challenging, but not impossible. 

TNTP estimates that districts spend upwards of $18,000 per teacher for all activities related to professional development and support. Several states already allocate between $1,000 and $5,000 per teacher for new teacher induction and mentor programs.  

One possible cost saving approach is web-based coaching where teachers record a lesson and meet virtually with a coach to analyze their instruction. Another option for reducing costs might be to target coaching programs to non-tenured teachers — an objective selection criterion which can prevent coaching from developing a reputation as a Trojan Horse for documenting poor performance towards dismissal. Given the high sticker price, it is tempting to fold coaching into the evaluation process in search of costs savings. Interviews with principals, the primary evaluators in most districts, suggest they are ill-supported or prepared to provide content-specific instructional coaching as part of the evaluation process.  Realistically, there might be limited opportunities for cost savings that do not compromise the coaching talent programs can attract or the ability to maintain an individualized, intensive and sustained model. 

Besides financial hurdles, coaching faces other important implementation challenges. As difficult as it is to predict which teachers will be effective, we know even less about how to select or train effective coaches.  Accomplished veteran teachers provide an obvious pool of candidates, but being a masterful teacher of students does not necessarily translate into knowing how to promote adult development. Coaching programs that involve recording teachers' lessons also require a level of comfort with technology and openness that not all teachers have. Schools play a key role in creating a culture where teachers are willing to open their doors, recognize their weaknesses, and fully engage in their own professional growth. These challenges are real, but organizations such as Match Education, TNTP and Leading Educators are working to find solutions to these challenges.

Given the size, cultural status, and relative wages of the teaching profession, any effort aimed at substantially improving instructional quality across the U.S. has to include large investments in workforce training. This is more important now than ever as we ask teachers to elevate their instruction in keeping with new Common Core State Standards. I've learned a tremendous amount about effective pedagogical practices from the coaching programs I've studied as a researcher. I can only imagine how much I would have benefitted from one as a teacher. 

--Matthew Kraft

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