Of all the school factors related to student achievement, the one that has the greatest impact is teaching quality. Not class size, not computers, not the curriculum, and not principals. The research is very clear: what a teacher says and does in the classroom each day is what matters most.
So it’s not surprising that the US education system spends more than $20 billion on teacher professional development every year. What is surprising, however, is that this massive expenditure (just slightly less than the GDP of Iceland) doesn’t seem to be making a difference.
Evaluations of the impact of PD programs repeatedly fail to show impact on instructional practice or student achievement. Why? Because many current PD programs don’t have the characteristics that make them effective.
So what does make PD effective?
The critical factors of effective PD
In the past decade, an increasing number of research studies have been launched to identify the qualities that are necessary for PD programs to have an impact. They consistently show that, to be effective, teacher PD must include:
- job-embedded practice
- intense and sustained durations,
- a focus on discrete skill sets, and active learning.
A model that is gaining attention in recent years and that is laser-focused on these “critical features” is teacher coaching.
Teacher coaching is effective PD
Coaching programs have all the hallmarks of effective PD. Coaches are instructional experts that work individually with teachers, providing them with intensive and sustained feedback. Teachers are coached on their problems of practice, in their classrooms, and with their students to implement specific research-based skills.
But what is the evidence that coaching has an impact on teaching practice and student achievement?
For the first time ever, a recent study from Brown and Harvard universities reviewed all of the empirical, causal literature on the impact of coaching. They pooled the effects of these 37 causal studies on coaching and found effect sizes of .57 standard deviations (SD) on instruction and .11 SD on student achievement. These are substantial effects, leading the authors to conclude:
“that teacher coaching programs hold real promise for improving teachers’ instructional practice and, in turn, students’ academic achievement.”
Interestingly, they also found that significant impact on student achievement requires relatively large improvements in instructional quality. This explains why PD programs that result in only small changes in teaching practice rarely lead to noticeable impact in student achievement. The coaching programs they reviewed were able to do both.
If we want to make a significant impact on student achievement, we must make a significant impact on teaching practice. And the research is clear: teacher coaching transforms both teaching and learning.
Caution: scaling coaching programs is hard
But here’s the rub: the authors of the research also found that scaling up effective teaching programs is really challenging.
In fact, when small coaching programs were scaled up to include lots of teachers, the impact on teaching and learning was cut in half. One of the biggest challenges they faced was developing a large enough group of coaches whose expertise matched the diverse needs of the school district. With high turnover and too few instructional coaches, administrators often tap expert teachers to serve as coaches. Ironically, this robs our students of the very objective we’re trying to achieve: effective teachers in every classroom.
The authors describe another possible approach to solving the problem of scaling coaching: combining coaching with the teacher evaluation process. However, this is also problematic. Mixing the roles of professional developer and evaluator undermines the trusting relationship required for coaching to be effective. As the authors put it: “Simply adding coaching responsibilities to principals’ and school leaders’ existing responsibilities with little training or support is not a recipe for success.”
The solution is video-based coaching
So how can educational leaders scale up coaching programs and enable our most effective coaches to work individually with teachers around an entire district? Video-based technology.
The authors explain:
“A third approach for matching effective coaches with teachers, for which we see great promise, is web-based virtual coaching. Leveraging video-based technology can lower coaching costs by eliminating commute time, increase access to high-quality coaches for schools or districts without local expertise, reduce possible reservations among teachers about mixing PD and evaluator roles by having their coach be both physically separate from and unaffiliated with their school, and increasing the number of teachers with whom an individual coach can work.”
Their analysis of video-based coaching programs also show that these programs maintain their quality of when they are scaled. Furthermore, virtual coaching had the same impact on teaching and learning outcomes as in-person coaching programs.
Transformational leadership through video-based coaching: ASCD Empower17
This March, thousands of educators will gather in Anaheim, California to attend ASCD 2017, one of the national conferences where PD is discussed, analyzed, and shared. A key area of focus for the event is Transformational Leadership.
The research described above provides a signpost for those educational leaders looking to achieve Transformational Leadership. The data show that teacher coaching programs are not only transformational, but through the use of video-based technology, they are also scalable.
To learn how schools around the world are using video technology to enable their coaching programs, visit the IRIS Connect booth (#1345) at ASCD Empower17.
We can provide you with a free trial account so that you can try virtual coaching at your school.
What's your opinion on video-based coaching? Have you ever tried it? Do you think it could help you? We'd love to hear from you in the comments section.