Coaching Teachers to Help Students Learn

By Bess Keller — December 11, 2007 9 min read
COACHED: Literacy coach Nancy McLean, right, advises Jessica Grojean in the 5th grade teacher’s classroom in the Adams 12 district outside Denver. Districts are putting more emphasis on coaching teachers as a strategy to improve student achievement.
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When the Adams 12 school district introduced a new mathematics curriculum to elementary schools several years ago, leaders here turned to an idea both old and new to make the change a success. They created a position dubbed “student-achievement coach” that gives each school a skilled teacher ready to urge her colleagues forward in three areas: putting math across, helping English-language learners in the classroom, and using assessment to improve instruction.

Adams 12 already had coaches for the teaching of reading and writing, and so had experience with the progress teachers can make when help from an accomplished colleague is woven into their work.

“We think the coaching model has been a critical component in the rise of student achievement,” said Superintendent Michael F. Paskewicz, citing three straight years of growth in state test scores, including two years in which Adams 12’s increases outstripped those of the other districts in the Denver metropolitan area.

Educational fads come and go, but coaching for teachers is fast becoming a tool of choice for striving districts. That’s in part because of a research consensus that teachers are the most important factor in student learning among those that schools can control.

Literacy coach Nancy McLean, left, takes notes while observing 1st grade teacher Charity Haviland working with students on a reading lesson at North Star Elementary.

It also reflects dissatisfaction with the standard ways districts have tried to help teachers get better. Workshops and courses, experts argue, don’t come close to doing the job. The assistance has to be sustained and as much a part of teachers’ daily work as possible, they say. Coaching fits that bill.

With old-style professional development, “there really isn’t any transfer to the actual classroom,” said Audrey A. Arellano-Davie, the director of professional development for Adams 12. “But to have a person on site, able to do problem-solving right there and part of the same community—we thought that was the most cost-effective way to build capacity.”

Jean Rutherford, an expert on educational best practices for the National Center for Educational Accountability, in Austin, Texas, said her group hears constantly from high-performing elementary schools about the value of a reading and a math coach. “We absolutely include that in our description of such schools,” she said.

In comparing coaches to other programs that bid to increase student learning, education economist Eric A. Hanushek has reanalyzed data from Washington state. He found that $100 spent on classroom coaches would net student-learning gains “very similar” to those that the same amount spent on full-day kindergarten would achieve. And the gains from coaching would be about six times more than those for class-size reduction, according to Mr. Hanushek.

The promise of such returns has made districts look to coaching, despite the high price tag and the many design decisions that have to be made about the programs.

Dallas is spending about $14.4 million of its $1.2 billion operating budget this year for just under 200 full-time coaches.

The program started toward the end of the 2005-06 school year when officials, heeding the recommendation of Ms. Rutherford’s group, began hiring more people for coaching and changing their job description. Before, subject specialists might be assigned to help teachers at as many as eight schools. With the new approach, content-specific coaches—literacy, math, science, or social studies—work at a single school chosen because of low test scores in that subject.

Coach Melissa Jennings points to test scores as she and Kendra Pollard try to figure out what version of math the teacher can offer a more advanced student.

To accommodate the program, 88 positions were axed from the central office, according to Denise Collier, the chief academic officer of the 160,000-student district. Unlike in Adams 12, where coaches are paid just the same as if they were classroom teachers, Dallas coaches get $6,000 added to their teacher salaries.

Memphis, Tenn., also recently upgraded its coaching program. Before this year, almost all of the district’s 197 schools had an extra teacher whose primary focus was helping ensure compliance with federal regulations for spending Title I anti-poverty money. Improving instruction was a secondary function.

Now, those priorities have been reversed, and the renamed “coaches” have to be screened for quality by the district. For the first time, too, significant training for coaching is part of the job. Also, coaches specialized in literacy or math have been deployed to the district’s lowest-performing schools.

In the old days, said Myra I. Whitney, an associate superintendent, the special teachers were not responsible for professional development schoolwide. “Now, they’re working with teams of teachers, and it’s not a unilateral decision of teachers to come or not.”

In the Adams 12 district on the northern border of Denver one day last month, Dana Sorenson, a coach of coaches, swung by North Star Elementary School to check in with one of her charges on the day before an important meeting.

Adams 12 is like many districts these days, investing in a teacher-coaching program even as funding challenges and a growing number of children from poor and non-English-speaking families put changes to it on the horizon. The 39,000-student district first acquired coaches in 2002, when a “building-literacy leader” job was redefined to emphasize teaching improvement.

What Is Coaching?

In the Adams 12 district, coaching is:



Covering classes so one teacher can observe another teacher for short periods of time


What coaching is not:

• Having your own students

• Acting as a teacher’s aide

• Doing individual student assessments

• Evaluating teachers

• Working as a substitute teacher

SOURCE: Adams 12 Five Star Schools

Ms. Sorenson, whose territory covers the district’s 10 elementary schools receiving federal anti-poverty money, pulls up to a table in the office shared by the school’s two full-time coaches. It’s down a dim, low-ceilinged hall away from the school’s modest lobby.

The academic news this year at North Star, situated in a worn neighborhood of brick ranch houses occupied largely by Spanish-speaking families, has not been good. The school failed to reach the mark set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act in both reading—as has happened in previous years—and math, which is new.

When the three 4th grade teachers meet with Melissa Jennings, the student-achievement coach, they will be talking about the many ways to assess how far their children have come in math and mapping out a lesson on fractions and decimals that incorporates some of those options.

“I’m giving them key questions, steps, and looking at the instruction a little bit more deeply,” said Ms. Jennings, who consulted with Ms. Sorenson about her handouts for the meeting.

Considerations in starting a teacher-coaching program:

• How to sustain funding

• How to define coaching

• How to evaluate coaching

• How to select coaches

• How to deploy coaches to schools

• How to provide support at the district level, including policies and professional learning

• How to prepare principals, the key to support at the school level

SOURCES: Taking the Lead: New Roles for Teachers and School-Based Coaches by Joellen Killion and Cindy Harrison; Richard F. Elmore

From the start, the coaching job was meant not just to support and challenge individual teachers, though that’s a part of the work. It was also meant to leverage the potential of teachers laboring in groups to advance their practice, both individually and collectively.

Janette Bills, a veteran 4th grade teacher who attended the meeting the next day, praised the get-together for affording the colleagues time “to figure out where to go.” Last year, the teachers got three such days; this year, it’s three half-days because of cost-cutting.

In her 11 years at the school, she said, teachers have always been willing to share what they know for the good of their students.

“But Melissa has helped enhance that,” Ms. Bills said. “She makes the focus narrower, such as on one lesson. Then you can go back to other lessons” and apply those same principles.

Principals in Adams 12 are enthusiastic about the expanded program using student-achievement coaches, or SACs. All but two or three of the 30 principals surveyed in 2006, at the end of the student-achievement-coach program’s second year, supported it at the highest level. One principal wrote, “I would think twice about being at a Title [I] school without the assistance of a full-time SAC. … Our SAC has been instrumental in elevating the level of instructional mastery in order to move us off correctional-action status.”

In a survey the following year, another offered, “Teachers now believe that they can get kids, no matter what, to achieve in math. … They are being more thoughtful about what and how they are teaching.”

Still, the coaching program could soon be in flux again.

Student-achievement coach Melissa Jennings, second from left, meets with 4th grade teachers, from left, Janette Bills, Sonia de Rivera, and Kendra Pollard to map out a new algorithm strategy.

Mr. Paskewicz, the superintendent, has warned that the district could be squeezed by as much as $6.7 million in the coming school year, mostly in order to pay the growing costs of employee health care and retirement.

“We are not necessarily going to do away with the [coach] positions, but we may think differently about them,” said Catherine Ortega, the assistant superintendent for learning services. In addition to about $3 million in salaries, the district puts money from its $250 million operating budget into benefits and support for the coaches, who get about two days of training a month and their own coaches from the central office.

Among possible changes could be combining the roles of the student-achievement and literacy coaches in elementary schools. Any new plan would steer clear, though, of reducing extra teaching staff at schools serving larger numbers of children from poor families where English is a second language, according to Ms. Arellano-Davie, the professional-development director.

The idea of doing away with the half-time coach/half-time teacher model used in a number of Adams 12 schools does not sit well with some, though. “I feel I have a lot more buy-in with staff because I’m doing what they are,” said Carridy Koski, who combines literacy coaching with teaching 1st grade at Glacier Park Elementary School.

Jan Killick, who oversees literacy coaches in the field, is concerned that one person with deep knowledge of the reading and math curriculum might be hard to find. Already, she said, the district has had to relax its requirement that literacy coaches hold a master’s degree in reading.

On such questions, no “tried and true formula” exists because coaching is too new, says a 2003 white paper on coaching from the Aspen Institute Program on Education and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Coaches are better attached to a single school at a time, if not for a whole school year, then for part of one, according to the paper. Otherwise, their work is too fragmented. But when it comes to whether coaches should retain part-time teaching assignments, there are pros and cons, the authors say.

Nancy McLean and Jessica Grojean, right, brainstorm ideas for the 5th grade teacher’s writing class.

Design questions are important, but some experts are concerned that coaching programs face a greater challenge than making the right choices for who is deployed where.

“I’m a big fan of coaching as a professional-development strategy,” especially when it is combined with “learning communities” among teachers, said Richard F. Elmore, a professor of education at Harvard University’s graduate school of education.

But, Mr. Elmore warned, school boards don’t tend to understand the importance of having enough talented people doing the work or of supporting them properly in the school and from the central office. So as a coaching program moves out of a pilot phase and costs go way up, it is hard to keep the money flowing, he said.

Coupled with that, Mr. Elmore argued, coaches won’t be effective in schools that lack the organizational capacity to take advantage of them, such as a focus on achievement and a good principal.

“I can see people saying, ‘Coaching is really expensive … and it didn’t have an impact,’ ” he said. That spells the end of the program and, worse, he said, “devalues the very strategy that could help the system get better.”

Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


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