Reading & Literacy

Middle School Reading Coaches Found to Build Teachers’ Skills

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 11, 2008 4 min read
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Reading coaches in Florida middle schools have helped teachers and administrators build their knowledge and skills, and have had a positive influence on students’ motivation to read, but their impact on achievement is mixed, a report on the little-studied topic says.

The study by the RAND Corp. also found that although state education officials recommend that reading coaches work with colleagues in all subjects, they tend to provide more services to reading teachers. And most coaches spend less than half their time working with teachers in the classroom, as state officials also recommend, owing to the demands of administrative tasks and other duties, the researchers found.

“One popular approach to improving student literacy is using school-based reading coaches—specially trained master teachers who provide leadership for the school’s literacy program and offer on-site and ongoing support for teachers so they can improve the literacy skills of their students,” says the report, released Sept. 5. Yet “there is little empirical evidence regarding the nature of coaching and its effectiveness in changing teacher practice and practically no evidence related to coaching effects on student achievement, particularly at the secondary level.”

The use of literacy coaches has increased over the past decade, particularly with the introduction of the federal Reading First program, which requires a coach in each participating elementary school. Such coaches are assigned to train and guide teachers and other staff members, as distinguished from the kinds of instructional tasks given reading specialists and resource teachers, who work primarily with struggling readers.

The use of middle school coaches is less common, but has emerged as a strategy for addressing the reading problems of older pupils who struggle with increasingly complex content. Without a national or federal initiative to fuel the trend, however, only a few states and a relatively small number of districts have created coaching positions in the middle grades.

Translating the Data

Florida has established some 2,000 coaching positions for grades K-12 through its statewide reading initiative, Just Read, Florida!, which was launched in 2001.

The middle school coaches were particularly effective when they spent time with individual teachers reviewing student data and devising strategies for meeting student needs, according to the study by RAND, a think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif. The Carnegie Corporation of New York, a New York City-based philanthropy, commissioned the study. (Carnegie also helps fund reporting by Education Week.)

“We found that the coaches’ review of assessment data with teachers was associated with positive outcomes,” said Jennifer Sloan McCombs, who was a co-principal investigator for the study with Julie A. Marsh. “That seems to be this key step in the push for data-driven decisionmaking: getting someone to help you actually translate what the data means and how to put it into an instructional strategy.”

Many schools, though, have had difficulty finding educators with the right mix of knowledge and experience to be coaches, who are generally hired from the teacher ranks. Coaches also report challenges in doing the job well.

In surveys and interviews, many coaches said they wanted additional professional development to help teach and work with teachers, and understand learning issues associated with adult learners. They also felt inadequately prepared to help teachers work with struggling students and English-language learners.

Moreover, coaches spend little time working with teachers to build literacy skills for social studies, mathematics, science, and other subjects that tax students’ reading proficiency, the study found.

Mixed Impact on Scores

The report recommends that officials develop a pipeline of qualified coaching candidates and provide stronger incentives for attracting good teachers to those jobs. Coaches should receive additional professional development, as well as more time for planning and helping teachers in their classrooms improve instruction, it suggests.

The study includes survey and interview responses from principals, reading coaches, and teachers in 113 middle schools in eight districts; interviews and observational data from six schools and two districts; and test-score data.

While principals and teachers reported that coaches added to their knowledge and professionalism, the study found that they had a positive impact on achievement in just two of the four cohorts of students tested between 2003 and 2006, as measured by scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.

Despite the mixed results, reading coaches have the potential to help schools meet adolescent-literacy needs, according to Nancy L. Shanklin, the director of the Literacy Coaching Clearinghouse, an initiative sponsored by the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English.

“You have to understand how thinly [coaches] are spread, considering the average size of most middle schools and having one coach to affect that many teachers,” said Ms. Shanklin, an associate professor of language, literacy, and culture at the University of Colorado at Denver.

“From the qualitative measures,” she said, “the report gives one the sense that coaches could have a big impact, particularly since they are helping principals to learn more about literacy, and they are really helping teachers improve their teaching strategies.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2008 edition of Education Week as Middle School Reading Coaches Found to Build Teachers’ Skills

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