By Sarah Galey
This week’s Green & Write post will be the first in a two-part series on instructional coaching. In recent years, instructional coaching has emerged as an important policy lever for implementing curricular reform. Michigan, along with many other states, specifically includes instructional coaching in its ESEA waiver as a policy solution for struggling districts that need to develop and improve instructional capacity. In the era of the Common Core, instructional coaching has great potential as a way to help districts and school leaders implement the demanding new standards.
Closing the Implementation Gap
In education the term “achievement gap” is often bandied about, referring to differences in achievement scores on state or national standardized tests between various student demographic groups (i.e., high-SES and low-SES, white and non-white, urban and suburban, etc.). Just as problematic for educational equality, however, is another gap that is mentioned much less often: the implementation gap. According to a report by City Year, an organization that focuses on improving educational conditions in high-poverty communities, the implementation gap “results when school staff members’ time and school resources are not sufficient to meet the intensity of students needs at the required scale.”
Taking policy “to scale” is a key concept in public policy research, especially in education. Often, we see an innovative intervention, such as a new literacy program or professional development that works well in one school or district but not in others. Policymakers and practitioners alike see a policy or program they think will “solve” their school’s woes and jump to “fix” their problems. Frequently, however, there is a scalability problem when the costs of implementing an innovation in a different context are not fully considered. Significantly, a recent report from the National Education Policy Center notes that the “non-financial challenges, such as being able to find enough highly skilled people, can be just as significant and are often underestimated in discussions of scaling.” In other words, there is an issue in turning high-impact “small scale” innovations into “large scale” system-wide solutions.
In many reform contexts, particularly those focused on changing or developing core teaching practices, instructional coaches have the potential to address scalability issues by fostering local instructional capacity.
Building Instructional Capacity
Instructional capacity is a critical component of any curricular reform effort. According to a Stanford research team studying the issue, “Providing high-quality instruction every day to every student in every classroom requires the continuous generation of the capabilities and instructional capacities that teachers, schools, and school systems need.” Being able to identify and build such capacities requires both high-quality teachers and local leaders, like instructional coaches, with the knowledge and skills to develop organizational conditions that foster teacher learning in meaningful and productive ways. Broadly speaking, instructional coaches are on-site professional developers, including many former educators, who help teachers and school leaders improve instruction – often by emphasizing the use of evidence-based practices to improve student achievement (for more information, see the Kansas Coaching Project and the Pennsylvania Institute for Instructional Coaching).
Using coaches to build instructional capacity is a natural outgrowth of the lessons cognitive psychology has taught us about the nature of teaching and learning. We know that student learning includes much more than memorization and regurgitation; it also includes the capacity to use new knowledge in both traditional and innovative ways. To achieve this kind of learning, however, classrooms must provide students with problem-solving opportunities to apply new knowledge in complex ways. Likewise, in order for teachers to learn they must be given time and space to “fiddle” with new reform efforts, as recent work by Kenneth Frank shows. In this study, Frank and his colleagues find that the diffusion of knowledge for innovative school reform depends on teachers being able to adapt innovations to their unique context by experimenting with the innovation (i.e. “fiddle”) – a process that is supported by “friends, which can be formal or informal mentor-colleagues, like a coach.
As described by Barbara Neufield and Dana Roper in a report for the Annenberg Institute, “The goal is to engage educators in collaborative work designed to contribute to the development of intellectual capacity in schools. At its best, coaching helps educators make informed decisions about instruction and school organizations that will lead teachers to teach in ways that help students gain a deep knowledge of subject matter so that they can bring that knowledge to bear.”
Thus, in the same way teachers facilitate complex learning in their classrooms, coaches can facilitate teacher learning within schools, allowing teachers to better address instructional challenges. Look out for next week’s blog which will discuss the work of coaches in more detail.