Instructional Coaching Works, Says a New Analysis. But There's a Catch
When teachers receive instructional coaching, the quality of their instruction improves enough to also lead to gains in student achievement, years of research show.
But there's a catch, a new analysis found: Larger coaching programs are less effective than smaller ones. So how can coaching be brought to scale while remaining effective?
The analysis, published today in the journal Education Next, was conducted by researchers Matthew A. Kraft and David Blazar. The researchers analyzed 60 studies on teacher coaching—all were randomized controlled trials and all focused on students' standardized test scores and measures of teachers' instructional practice as rated by outside observers.
They found that instructional coaching improves both instructional practice and student achievement—more so than other professional development and school-based interventions. In fact, the quality of teachers' instruction improves by as much as—or even more than—the difference in effectiveness between a new teacher and one with five to 10 years of experience, the research shows.
"Teacher coaching as a professional-development practice has expanded rapidly over the last two decades," said Kraft, who is an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University. In the 2015-16 school year, 27 percent of public schools had a reading coach, 18 percent had a math coach, and 24 percent had a general instructional coach.
But the researchers found that the effectiveness of the coaching program declines as the number of teachers involved increases.
"It's often the case that when coaching is taken to scale, the challenges of recruiting and developing and supporting a larger staff of coaches is hard for districts to do," Kraft said. "Financial constraints for what, at the end of the day, is a very resource intensive form of professional development causes districts to make adjustments that ... often weaken the intensity of the coaching."
Districts have to recruit and train effective coaches. While Kraft said there's no strong empirical evidence on what characteristics predict coach effectiveness, experts have some guesses. Being able to build relationships with teachers, understanding good teaching practices, and knowing how to use data are some of the skills associated with effective coaches, according to groups like the New Teacher Center, which helps districts implement coaching and induction programs.
But teachers also have to be open to feedback and be willing to adjust their practice in order for coaching to work. Kraft said that one of the downfalls of taking coaching programs to scale is expanding into schools where "the culture and climate doesn't support the work of coaching."
In order to scale up this form of PD while maintaining the full positive effects on student achievement, the analysis urged school leaders to seek teacher buy in, as well as maintain focus on the quality of the coaches.
"It's very hard to cut corners financially and maintain quality in teacher professional-development programs," Kraft said. Since coaching is so expensive—there are large personnel costs involved—districts have to consider how they're spending their PD dollars and perhaps reallocate some money to scaling up coaching programs, Kraft said.
Districts should also leverage technology to take advantage of virtual coaching, he said. The research found there was little difference in the effectiveness of coaching programs delivered online versus face-to-face.
Teachers could film their classroom practice and then discuss with a coach who "could be located anywhere," Kraft said. This cuts down on commuting costs and broadens districts' access to expertise in different subjects and grade levels. (This solution has become popular among rural districts in particular.)
It's important to note that even the larger coaching programs had "meaningful and statistically significant" impacts on student achievement, Kraft said.
"Coaching programs still have potential to improve practice in a way that many teacher professional-development programs have failed to do so," he said.
Image: Sue Grabe, left, an induction coach from Grant Wood Area Education Agency in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, takes notes while Kristin Weis teaches a reading lesson in her 1st grade classroom at North Bend Elementary School in North Liberty, Iowa. —Liz Martin for Education Week/File
Chart via Education Next