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Teaching Profession Opinion

Coaching & Credentials: Does it Have to Be Either/Or?

By Sara Mead — October 18, 2011 4 min read

Ok, so I’m way behind in writing about this excellent recent Atul Gawande article on coaching. In the piece, Gawande makes the case that coaching--receiving individualized feedback and advice to improve one’s performance from an objective, expert observer--is a powerful tool for improving performance of professionals--and goes so far as to subject himself as a guinea pig (he thinks it’s working, even though it’s challenging for him).

This piece is, like most of Gawande’s work, interesting, and he includes an example from K-12 education of coaching as a strategy to improve teacher effectiveness. I found the piece particularly timely because I keep running into examples of very diverse organizations using coaching to improve quality in early childhood education programs.

There’s My Teaching Partner, which uses technology to provide pre-k teachers one-on-one coaching to improve their classroom practice, based on the Classroom Assessment Scoring Scoring (CLASS) tool. There’s Texas School Ready!, which includes coaching as a key component. The Ounce of Prevention‘s Center-Based Training Institute (CBTI) is using coaching to try to help teachers and administrators in community-based childcare settings replicate the practices of its the Ounce’s gold-standard Educare Centers. The Erikson Institute’s New Schools Project places coaches in schools to support teachers and administrators in improving practice and creating aligned PreK-3rd early learning experiences. Not to mention the high-quality early childhood programs that are building coaching into the basic structure of their operations because they know it’s an effective strategy for developing teachers and improving the quality of practice. Coaching is everywhere in early childhood these days, and the group of organizations and individuals that are implementing it reflect very different perspectives on some of the key ideological and philosophical divides in the field.

That shouldn’t be surprising. Research shows that the kind of job-embedded, on-going professional support that coaches provide is far more effective in changing and improving practice--in teaching or in other fields--than the kind of one-shot workshops that more typically come to mind when you hear “professional development.”

And yet---

For all that we’re seeing entities in the field seize onto and move forward with coaching and job-embedded strategies to develop early childhood educators’ skills and effectiveness, policies around improving the quality of the early learning workforce continues to be fixated on degrees and credentials. Even though the college coursework required to earn a degree or credential is not job-embedded professional development. And even though the evidence on the impact of degrees and credentials on student learning outcomes in early childhood settings is in fact mixed.

This is particularly apparent in the criteria for the federal Early Learning Challenge Grant competition (applications due to the feds tomorrow!). To score well on this criterion, states are expected to have a “progression of credentials and degrees” for early childhood educators, and/or to “implement policies and incentives...that promote professional improvement and advancement along an articulated career pathway.” States also are expected to articulate goals for increasing the number of early childhood educators progressing to higher levels of credentials. Sure, there’s also a criterion about expanding access to professional development (which could include job-embedded professional development), but the criteria make pretty clear that what the feds really want is for people to be getting degrees. And all the more so since degrees and credentials tend to be heavily weighted in the Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) that ELC also requires states to establish--meaning that to move programs up through the QRIS, you’ve got to get teachers credentialed and degreed.

And, in one sense, there’s nothing wrong with that. Credentials and degrees have value for increasing professionalism, providing routes to professional advancement, and increasing compensation. It’s disgusting that there are higher educational requirements for braiding hair in some states than there are for caring for children. The problem is that there’s a disconnect between what higher education institutions typically expect people to do to earn postsecondary credentials, and the type of job-embedded professional development that early childhood educators most need to get better at their jobs. I’m very concerned that federal policies here may push states to focus resources on getting early childhood educators through postsecondary degree and credential programs at the expense of proven coaching and job embedded strategies to really improve the quality of experiences early childhood educators are providing to kids in the classroom everyday.

This is what Kevin Carey and I were getting at in our recent paper calling for the creation of charter colleges of education. We believe that there shouldn’t be a choice between investing in high-quality job-embedded professional development for early childhood educators and helping them to earn degrees and credentials. Rather, there need to be ways for early childhood educators to earn degrees and credentials for completing high-quality job-embedded professional development that makes them more effective at their jobs. That’s what charter colleges of early childhood education are intended to accomplish.

Getting back to the Gawande piece: It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Gawande’s work, and think education reform folks should pay more attention to the implications of the issues he covers for our field. But this piece is particularly compelling because Gawande isn’t just reporting on coaching in a variety of contexts (including coaching of k-12 teachers), he actually subjected his own work as a surgeon to coaching, and writes about it. That’s an incredibly brave thing to do.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.