When Debra Lane was an administrator in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, school leaders advocated for some say in how to use flexible funding. Many of them created instructional coaching positions.
Lane sometimes assigned coaches to work with struggling teachers. Other times, coaches were pioneers, testing new strategies with a few teachers. With that autonomy, “I found that I could quickly move the work much faster,” says Lane.
But now she’s the director of talent development for the nearby Alexandria City Public Schools, where she says principals are still making the transition from being managers to becoming instructional leaders.
And she finds that it’s helpful for districts to set some expectations around coaching and for schools to “hear from a central lens around curriculum content and best instructional practices.”
Instructional coaching has spread in recent years as a preferred professional development approach and as a way for teachers to move into leadership roles without becoming administrators.
Citing studies on coaching, Diana Quintero of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, wrote earlier this year that “professional development programs like instructional coaching are more effective than the traditional PD workshop model because they are integrated in a teachers’ day-to-day activities at the school and respond better to the active way teachers learn best.”
Working with Digital Promise, which offers microcredentials for teachers and has an online coaching initiative, Learning Forward — an association whose members work in educator professional development — is also collecting data on the "coaching landscape," asking questions about issues such as funding for coaches and the evidence that informs their decisions. A survey report is scheduled to be released in December.
Researchers are finding, however, that whether coaches are accountable to district leaders or local school administrators — data that is also being collected in the survey — can make a difference in how their time is used. And like Lane, experts suggest there are benefits to both approaches.
In their study, Britnie Delinger Kane of The Citadel and Brooks Rosenquist of the University of Colorado, Denver and Denver Public Schools, find coaches employed at the local school level reported spending more time working as substitute teachers, teaching intervention programs and analyzing data than coaches hired at the district level.
In other words, they weren’t doing a lot of coaching.
Time spent on non-coaching activities, such as testing-related tasks, also increased accountability demands on schools. “Principals were themselves experiencing heavy pressure to increase students’ standardized test scores, so they enlisted the help of their most trusted resources — school-hired coaches — to help them accomplish work related to this goal,” the authors write.
Such implementation challenges with coaching are also highlighted in a recently released guide from the nonprofit New Teacher Center, which lists monitoring lunch and recess among other non-coaching duties that coaches are performing.
“Then, what little time coaches do spend supporting teachers is often not focused on instructional practice but rather on gathering resources or working with small groups of students,” they write.
Opportunities for ‘relationship building’
Kane and Rosenquist did find, however, school-based coaches had stronger relationships with the teachers they were coaching. That’s also what Heather Clifton, a professional learning consultant to Learning Forward, finds when she works with districts across the country.
“When coaches are based at the school level, there is more opportunity for relationship building, and that is a big factor in having an impact on a teacher's practices,” she says.
Lane notes a coach’s ability to build rapport with teachers is especially important if they are working in more of an “interventionist” role than a coach. She notes that in general, however, she sees those as two separate positions.
Finding hybrid models
Kane and Rosenquist drew data from one of four large, urban districts that participated in the Middle School Mathematics and the Institutional Setting of Teaching, a National Science Foundation-funded project that aimed to learn what teachers need in order to adopt “more ambitious forms of instruction,” they wrote.
The researchers found coaches accountable to the district spend more time on what they call “potentially productive coaching activities.” Based on research, these include group approaches such as analyzing student work and participating in a lesson study, as well as individual approaches, such as modeling and co-teaching. A few other methods, such as book studies and observing and giving feedback to teachers, require more research, they note.
District-level coaches, however, were less likely to form strong relationships with teachers. And, they wrote, “The infrequency of district-hired coaches’ visits to schools also created problematic relationships with administrators.”
“We have found that it is critical for the coaches to be embedded in the culture of the building."
Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District
They recommend hybrid models that combine the strengths of district- and school-level coaches. Districts, they say, could hire coaches and offer them PD on productive activities, but they could also assign them to a single school to foster relationships.
In the Hawthorne Unified School District in California — recently recognized for being a “positive outlier” — Superintendent Helen Morgan also uses a hybrid approach.
“We have district-level coaches that work directly with the site-level coaches,” she explains. “They keep the focus on what the focus needs to be on. You take the best of both worlds.”
When a principal observes a teacher and feels “something is off,” Morgan says, he or she can bring in the district-level coach to be “that expert eye.” Then the principal knows more specifically how the school-based instructional coach can support that teacher.
Need for more study
Depending on how coaching positions are funded or how they are connected to a particular initiative, district and school leaders don’t always have flexibility in how coaches are assigned. In Michigan, for example, the state’s literacy coaching program uses a school-based model.
But in the Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Scott Koziol has begun to consistently track how teachers spend their time with teachers.
“We are very interested to see how that will support the student achievement data we receive back moving forward to evaluate if one use is more effective than another,” he says.
Koziol adds the coaches were supporting multiple schools, which the district has since “scaled back” to two. “We have found that it is critical for the coaches to be embedded in the culture of the building,” he says, “and that the relationship building is essential to success.”
While Kane and Rosenquist’s work is informative for those leading and making decisions about PD, it does focus specifically on coaching in math.
“Certainly there will be greater need to study the specific influence of content area, for example, as the field develops,” they write, “but since there is currently very little research on how district- and school-level policies relate to coaches’ time use, we see our findings as relevant to a number of domains.”