KU Center for Research on Learning

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Instructional coaching: Better instruction through partnerships with teachers

Friday, January 06, 2012

Any good teacher can attest that an educator needs to keep learning, just like the students in his or her classroom. The Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas has developed an instructional coaching project that is helping teachers worldwide learn on the job and improve how they educate students.

The Kansas Coaching Project partners with schools every year to share proven instructional methods and develop coaches within the schools who work with teachers in the classroom to enact those practices. The coaches are mentors and partners the teachers work with throughout the year, as opposed to the traditional professional development practice of a class or in-service that shares information that is expected to be taken back to the classroom.

“Schools make a very large investment in professional development. Often the nature of the development they follow does not yield long-standing effects through no fault of the teachers,” said Don Deshler, director of the Center for Research on Learning at KU. “Schools are getting a much better return on their investment through instructional coaching. More importantly, the quality of instruction is improving dramatically.”

Under the direction of Jim Knight, the Kansas Coaching Project works with educators and instructional coaches throughout the year. Several annual workshops are held to train new coaches, and tools are available online at no cost to the schools. Videos of instructional coaches at work, discussion forums, reading material and teaching methods are all available for the thousands of members from 40 states and countries such as Canada, India, England, China and Russia.

While the instructional methods coaches use are developed by some of the world’s foremost educational researchers, they are not complicated or inaccessible.

“The idea of instructional coaching is pretty simple,” Knight said. “What are the little things that make the biggest differences? What is effective teaching, and how can we implement it?”

The coaching project uses a three-tiered approach, making effective teaching practices available and easy to use, working with coaches in training them to be effective and collaborating with school districts to help them bring the entire school on board and contributing to the project.

Usually full-time district employees, coaches work in the classroom with teachers as equal partners in ensuring students are receiving the highest-quality instruction.

“Who the coach is, is really critical. They must be seen as credible in the eyes of the staff,” Knight said. “A coach is a shoulder-to-shoulder partner with the teacher.”

Jadi Miller, principal of Elliott Elementary School in Lincoln, Neb., said her school’s three instructional coaches are indeed peers and partners of the teachers who help introduce new ideas and partner with them in the classroom.

“Some people originally viewed the coaches as additional administrators,” Miller said. “I wanted to make sure teachers wouldn’t have any reason not to go to a coach. They don’t have any performance review or supervisory duties. I feel like we make progress on our new ideas and implementation so much faster because of the coaches. They give them that ongoing feedback and support and help plan and contribute so much.”

All interactions between the coaches and teachers are videotaped and shared with the community of partners in the coaching project. Instructional videos are also shared to help coaching and instruction continue to evolve.

Schools that have implemented instructional coaching have seen marked improvement in student performance. Knight and project staff gauge the impact of the coaching and have found nearly across-the-board improvement in participating schools. While the rate of success varies by school, test scores have improved dramatically in many locations.

“It would be nice to say ‘with coaching your scores will improve 20 percent.’ What I can say is coaching leads to improvement in instruction,” Knight said.

Ken Geisick, superintendent of Riverbank Unified School District in Riverbank, Calif., said his district has seen marked improvement in student achievement, both in test scores and in general. One of about 25 school districts using instructional coaching in California, the districts scores have gone up, and teachers have improved their craft as well.

“We had the largest growth in terms of test scores of any district in our county,” Geisick said of achievement after implementing coaching. “Year-by-year improvement in achievement is not easy. Instructional coaching has been the absolute best return on our investment in professional development.”

Teaching, like any other endeavor, improves when its practitioners strive to improve throughout their careers.

“You wouldn’t dream of an Olympic athlete without a coach,” Knight said. “The best always have a coach. The reason they’re great is they know they always have to get better.”

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