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Which Is Better: Coaching or a Chat Room?

I'm not offering advice today, at least not to coaches. Coaches already know the answer to this question that's being asked by the Gates Foundation. Gates is doing a two-year study in Memphis comparing individual coaching to giving teachers access to an online learning community where "they can talk about classroom management, teaching fractions--anything that comes up--with other site members."

They're trying to see what kind of feedback leads to the greatest improvement in teacher practice.

Let me describe these two approaches to "professional development." There are 120 teachers participating and 8 coaches from Cambridge Educational Services in Des Plaines, Ill. (I couldn't find any information on what kind of coaching approach they use or who their coaches are. Anyone have any experience with them?) I can't tell if all 120 teachers are receiving coaching at the same time (which would make the teacher to coach ratio very high) or if teachers only receive coaching for a short period. I also couldn't tell if the coaching happens in person. Teachers describe recording a video of their class, posting it, and then "talking to" a coach. I wonder if there's any face to face meeting time. The coaching is focused on a set of high-leverage instructional practices.

Teachers in Memphis have responded enthusiastically to coaching. One teacher says this is the best PD she's had in a decade of teaching. She says coaching has helped her double the number of students reading at advanced levels this year. She imagines coaching would be very useful for new teachers.

Can we really be surprised by this? That the teacher likes individualized, focused coaching?

Now the other "form of PD" that coaching is compared to--an "online learning community" that 250 Memphis teachers are participating in. They get "a password and 24/7 access" to this community. Where they can talk. About anything. Four months into this study, the vice president of Cambridge Educational Services admits that it's been a hard sell. It's "less expensive to run," but teachers don't engage consistently or at a high level.

I'm also not surprised at all by this finding. And I'm really bothered that anyone ever considered this kind of online learning community to be professional development.

The data is pointing towards the conclusion that although coaching might be more expensive, it might yield greater results--in terms of teacher learning and student outcomes.

On the one hand, I'm incredibly annoyed that this study is happening. At the same time, I know it (and many more like it) need to be done in order for coaching to get the financial support needed, as well as a central place in all professional development initiatives.

I have fantasies of coaches working in every school across our country, coaching teachers individually and supporting teams to refine their practices. Coaching is not a quick fix, nor is it a panacea, but it does work--when done well, by coaches with a specific knowledge and skill set, when it's focused and coaches are trained and supported and their work is monitored--it works. Let the researchers come then, if they'll pave the way.

I look forward to reading the final report from the study in Memphis.

Coaches: What do you think? Big surprise?

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