More than 200 educational leaders from across the country gathered in Boston last September for a three-day conference focused on a particularly promising school improvement strategy. The “Instructional Coaching Conference,” organized by EDC’s Center for Leadership and Learning Communities (CLLC), featured success stories from several large urban districts across the country that have hired full-time coaches to provide ongoing professional development to teachers.
The conference was one of the first of its kind to focus on instructional coaching across several content areas—mathematics, science, and literacy. Next July, CLLC will offer a follow-up institute focused specifically on mathematics coaching and influence skills—in terms of how effective coaches are at influencing teachers’ practice. “We believe that influence is at the core of effective coaching, and that influence skills can be taught,” said Mark Driscoll, co-director of CLLC. “Unfortunately, preparation for coaches in this country appears to skip over influence skills. Our institute will address this missing piece.”
At the September conference, representatives from school districts including New York, Chicago, San Diego, Pittsburgh, El Paso, Portland (OR), and Boston came to the conference to share their experiences with various models of instructional coaching. “Throughout the nation, districts are making substantial investments in coaching programs with an eye toward improving instruction on a very large scale,” said Brian Lord, co-director of CLLC. “Yet, as participants at the conference acknowledged, we know comparatively little about the nature and effectiveness of these programs. The researchers, policy makers, and practitioners we assembled at the 2005 conference took an important first step toward improving our understanding of instructional coaching.”
Presenters provided insight into everything from the hiring and recruiting of coaches to strategies for evaluating the impact they are having on teaching and learning. For example, Regeta Slaughter, Director of Mathematics for Chicago Public Schools, talked about the hiring process the district uses to fill slots for 150 mathematics and science coaches and facilitators, who provide a range of support to the district’s 600 schools—including guidance on curriculum selection and implementation, collaborative lesson planning with teachers, critiques of videotaped classes, and ongoing advice on content and teaching techniques. The goal of the coaching program is to ensure high quality teaching and continuity across the district.
In San Diego, the district has identified four key learning goals for mathematics coaches, according to Kris Acquarelli, the Director of Mathematics for San Diego City Schools:
- Build a vision of effective classroom mathematics teaching and learning.
- Build expertise in designing and facilitating professional development.
- Build and contribute to a community that supports and promotes professional growth.
- Build competence in leading and supervising the mathematics instructional program.
In Pittsburgh, the district deploys mathematics coaches and resource teachers to schools throughout the city—particularly those who have been designated as schools needing improvement. The coaches are part of a comprehensive plan that also includes rigorous curriculum, increased instructional time, and increased time for professional development. Diane J. Briars, who oversees mathematics and science education for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, shared student test-score data showing the positive impact over the eight years of the program. The district has seen a steady rise in students placing in the top two levels on the state tests
Two prominent education researchers who attended the September conference commented on the promise of instructional coaching models as a vehicle for sustainable school improvement.
“The work you are doing is crucial,” said Charles M. Payne a professor of African-American studies, history and sociology at Duke University and an expert in urban education. “The only way to get the kinds of change we need in American schools is to make a much greater investment in the human capital we put in front of children. And the only ways of doing that which are scalable right now involve some form of coaching.”
“It’s not a matter of does it work?” Payne added. “It’s a matter of how do we make it work?”
Iris Weiss, President of Horizon Research, Inc., echoed those thoughts: “This conference has provided a really good opportunity to think about this work across contexts. Now I think we need to move forward with building a theory of coaching,” said Weiss, who also delivered the keynote address at the conference. “I would hope that our next steps would be to share some lessons based on the wisdom of practice, identifying some hypotheses that can be tested, and then proceeding to test them.”
Originally published on March 1, 2006