Instructional Coaching: Professional Development Strategies That Improve Instruction

Posted on March 03, 2010

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The Annenberg Institute for School Reform (AISR) at Brown University works with urban school systems across the country that are engaged in comprehensive school reform, especially in communities serving disadvantaged children. In our work, we support and encourage the use of instructional coaching, a promising new professional development practice in which teacher leaders serve as coaches to facilitate and guide content-focused professional learning for a school’s teachers.

Coaching aligns with the Institute’s interrelated focal areas for systemwide school improvement: district redesign, leadership, opportunity and accountability, and community-centered education reform. Indeed, effective coaching incorporates an array of interrelated approaches we advocate that promote coherence, focus, and alignment at multiple levels of a school system:

•  Investment in human capital. Effective coaches and coaching structures build instructional and leadership capacity by applying what is known about adult learning and change theory.

•  Sustainability. Coaching supports the systemic improvement efforts of school communities that push beyond individual teacher behavior or even the work of an individual school.

•  Equity and internal accountability. Coaching holds the potential to address inequities in opportunities for teacher and student learning by providing differentiated, targeted supports. The structures and culture that well-implemented coaching models promote can increase collective responsibility throughout a school system for students and their learning.

•  Connecting school and district. In cases where coaches are effective liaisons between school practice and district initiatives, emerging evidence shows that they can facilitate professional learning that supports systemwide initiatives more powerfully.

The Institute believes that—when employed and supported effectively—instructional coaching enhances district professional development systems by providing school and central office personnel with sustained, targeted supports to build knowledge, improve practice, and promote student achievement.

School-Based, Job-Embedded Professional Development

Instructional coaching is grounded in current research and clinical knowledge on leadership and schools as “professional communities of practice.” Recent research on professional development suggests that it is most effective when it includes components that are based in the school and embedded in the job and when it increases teachers’ theoretical understandings of their work (Miller 1995). Supports for improved teaching and learning are also more effective when they are tailored to needs identified by teachers and when their approach to learning is collaborative and inquiry-based (Darling‑Hammond and McLaughlin 1995).

Coaching provides such supports through an array of activities designed to build collective leadership and continuously improve teacher instructional capacity and student learning. These activities, ideally, coalesce in ways that create internal accountability due to the embedded nature of the work and people engaged in it (Barr, Simmons, and Zarrow 2003; WestEd 2000). A well-designed and -supported coaching program weds core elements of effective professional development with the essential goals of professional learning communities in ways that advance both school and systemic improvement.

Effective Coaching: Lessons from Research

The principles of instructional coaching are grounded in research on effective professional development and professional learning communities. Coaching appears to be a promising approach because it strives to blend what is known about effective professional development with school-based and school-specific needs regarding both content and school climate.

Evidence of increased student learning as a direct result of coaching is not yet well documented (Poglinco et al. 2003). But, as coaching is increasingly used and its impact measured, researchers expect more and more links to be established between coaching and student achievement. A growing body of research suggests that coaching is a promising element of effective professional development in some of the following ways.

  • Effective coaching encourages collaborative, reflective practice.

Coaching shifts professional learning from direct instruction outside the context of practice (such as workshops and conferences) to more varied opportunities to improve discipline-specific practice. Most studies show that coaching leads to improvements in instructional capacity. For instance, teachers apply their learning more deeply, frequently, and consistently than teachers working alone; teachers improve their capacity to reflect; and teachers applv their learning not only to their work with students, but also to their work with each other (Neufeld and Roper 2003; Poglinco et al. 2003).

  • Effective embedded professional learning promotes positive cultural change.

The impact of coaching often goes beyond improving content instruction. The conditions, behaviors, and practices required by an effective coaching program can affect the culture of a school or system, thus embedding instructional change within broader efforts to improve school-based culture and conditions (Neufeld and Roper 2003).

  • A focus on content encourages the use of data analysis to inform practice.

Effective coaching programs respond to particular needs suggested by data, allowing improvement efforts to target issues such as closing achievement gaps, supporting teachers across career stages, and advocating for equity (e.g., through differentiated instruction). A coaching program guided by data helps both to create coherence within a school and to bridge different levels of the system (Barr, Simmons, and Zarrow 2003) by focusing on strategic areas of need that are suggested by evidence, rather than by individual and sometimes conflicting opinions. Coaches can then be chosen who have the content expertise and organizational development capacity to lead their “cadres” toward more effective practice in these areas of need at various levels of the educational system.

  • Coaching promotes the implementation of learning and reciprocal accountability.

Coaching is an embedded, visible support—usually funded by the district—that attempts to respond to student and teacher needs in ongoing, consistent, dedicated ways. The likelihood of using new learning and sharing responsibility rises when colleagues, guided by a coach, work together and hold each other accountable for improved teaching and learning (Barr, Simmons, and Zarrow 2003; Coggins, Stoddard, and Cutler 2003; WestEd 2ooo). And because instructional coaching takes place in a natural setting—the classroom rather than a hotel ballroom—observation, learning, and experimentation can occur in real situations (Neufeld and Roper 2003).

  • Coaching supports collective, interconnected leadership across a school system.

An essential feature of coaching is that it uses the relationships between coaches, principals, and teachers to create the conversation that leads to behavioral, pedagogical, and content knowledge change. Effective coaching distributes leadership, supporting the goals of effective principals through the coaches by keeping the focus on teaching and learning. This focus promotes the development of leadership skills, professional learning, and support for teachers that target ways to improve student outcomes (Lyons and Pinnell 2001).

Research findings indicate that effective coaching structures promote a collaborative culture where large numbers of school personnel feel ownership and responsibility for leading improvement efforts in teaching and learning. Coaching attends to the “social infrastructure” issues of schools and systems (Payne 1998) that often impede the deep and lasting change that school reform requires. These issues include school climate, teacher isolation, insufficient support, and limited instructional and leadership capacity. The attempt to address these critical elements of school quality by incorporating new understandings of effective professional development is a primary reason that coaching holds significant promise toward improving teaching and learning in urban schools (Neufeld and Roper 2003).

Lessons and Implications from the Institute’s Work

As coaching has emerged as an increasingly common component of systemic reform, the Annenberg Institute has had the opportunity to work with, learn from, and observe in districts that are considering or engaged in instructional coaching as part of their professional development systems. Over time and in varied settings, we have observed some noteworthy challenges to effective coaching.

  • Too great a focus on the classroom isolates coaching from systemic goals.

One of the strengths of instructional coaching is that it is grounded at the school and classroom level, allowing coaches to work as responsive, constructivist models for professional learning. This same strength, however, can create an array of divergent approaches to teacher learning and to building content knowledge, particularly in large or decentralized systems.

We have found the greatest coherence where coaching is guided by districtwide goals and standards that are grounded in research and experience, thereby avoiding disparate approaches at the school level and ineffective, diluted supports from the central office. To position coaching as a districtwide effort, a school and district need to develop decision-making systems that show commitment to a coaching program as a part of a shared practice. They need to identify strategies for communicating the coaching approach to a wide audience, designate the personnel required to do so, jointly invest in and create professional development for coaches, and clearly define criteria for hiring, and evaluating coaches.

Clarity about the districtwide nature of a coaching program also takes the focus off individual classrooms and teachers. Clarifying that the coaches’ role is supportive rather than supervisory avoids potential problems with the teachers’ union and contract issues.

  • Coaching is one element of a professional development system, not the only answer.

Coaching is no silver bullet. It can sustain professional learning and act as a bridge between school practice and broader district goals. However, for coaching to accomplish those ends, it must be explicitly linked to other professional development opportunities and broader components of systemic improvement such as small learning communities or districtwide frameworks. If coaching is the only form of professional learning, it runs the risk of creating isolated pockets of effective teaching and learning in individual schools, rather than supporting improvement both schoolwide and districtwide.

  • Coaching models are often not adapted well.

Instructional coaching emerged in and is more commonly found in elementary schools. While certain elements of good practice hold true across the K-12 spectrum, trying to apply what worked in elementary schools will often undermine the work in secondary schools. Effective coaching recognizes and adapts to the structural, cultural, and instructional differences of different school levels. Key differences such as size, departmentalization, student load, and planning time affect the ways in which a coaching model can be implemented, supported, and assessed.

  • Whether voluntary or mandated, coaching can fail to reach resistant teachers.

Instructional coaching goes beyond building awareness and knowledge to help sustain changes in practice. But in cases where participation in coached “cadres” is voluntary, resistant teachers are able to opt out of the process. And in cases where participation is mandated, resistant teachers often feel resentment and develop no real ownership of the work. In both examples, the real benefit resides only with those teachers who most likely would have engaged in reflective, ongoing improvement efforts regardless of the structure within which it takes place.

  • School and central office supports are often underused or inaccessible.

Central office supports for instruction and school-level efforts to improve instruction are often not consistently aligned and coordinated. While coaches can serve as liaisons between school and administration, clear routes of access to supports and communication of needs between central offices and schools remain ongoing challenges, particularly in large or decentralized districts.

  • Coaching programs often lack assessment indicators and systematic documentation of impact.

As coaching is a relatively new approach to instructional capacity building, there is increasing demand for evidence that it improves teaching practice and increases student learning. Effective coaching structures use indicators to measure the changes in their practice and assess the effectiveness of their work. However, the time, knowledge, and investment required to systematically gather a range of evidence continue to be a challenge. The lack of documented examples of coaching allows districts to construct their own process and content, but these new models must then be tracked in order to share the lessons learned.

  • A focus on process limits the rigorous analysis of data and content.

Just as rigorous instruction and high expectations are the goals for student experiences, the same holds true for the professional learning of coaches and the teaching teams with whom they work. “Process” activities such as collegial exchange and developing group processes and facilitation skills are highly valued and essential in coaching. But to be effective, the processes need to be grounded in content- and instruction-focused learning geared toward individual and organizational improvement through the use of evidence, research, and keen observation of practice.

  • Coaching often focuses on broad strategies to the exclusion of differentiation and equity.

Coaching must move beyond a “universal best practices” approach to instruction in order to effectively deal with complex equity issues such as language diversity and special needs. For example, a literacy coach cannot simply help his or her teaching team learn a menu of “reading strategies,” but must also attend to the unique learning needs of English-language learners. These considerations hold true at the school, coaching, and district levels.

  • Teachers are typically the “learners,” but learning must occur at all levels.

Instructional coaching is often focused—understandably so—at the school level and considered an issue between school administrators and school staffs. However, insufficient support or commitment not only from the school-level leadership, but also from district leadership, can derail even the best-laid plans. It is important to engage not only the school-level personnel who do the work, but also central office personnel to support and align the work across the district as well as community-based or other organizations knowledgeable about particular content-based issues.

Editor’s note: This article has been edited from the original document to fit this publication.  The entire article, including references, can be accessed online at: www.updc.org. For more information regarding the work of the Annenberg institute, visit: www.annenberginstitute.org.