Scaling Instructional Coaching Programs For Impact

TL;DR: Research shows that instructional coaching is highly effective in improving teacher practice and student outcomes. However, its specialized nature makes implementing effective instructional coaching programs in large districts a challenge.

In this blog post, we'll explore several considerations in scaling coaching programs to address key challenges in building a corps of skilled coaches, gaining teacher buy-in, use of remote deployment, and the potential role of technological supports such as an educator success platform.

The data is clear: instructional coaching has a strong and quantifiable impact on teacher practice and student outcomes. A 2018 meta-analysis by education researchers Matthew Kraft and David Blazar finds that coaching can have a classroom practice impact as strong as 5 years’ worth of teaching experience, and that trickles down to significant and meaningful boosts in student achievement — more so than traditional PD and school-based interventions.

But there’s a caveat: Larger programs come with diminishing returns. The more teachers involved in an effort, the weaker the effect on practice and achievement. (But even large programs have a statistically significant impact on both, notes the study.)

Given the top-heavy nature of coaching as a practice, this is an unsurprising insight. Most districts just don’t have the resources to provide personalized, hands-on support for every member of a large teaching force. Economy of scale doesn’t apply: one hour of coaching time costs the same no matter how many individual coaches there are on staff. Districts are forced to either spread resources thin across many teachers (thus diluting the impact), or focus them on a specific subset of personnel (thus depriving the rest of potentially beneficial support).

That said, the overwhelming evidence that coaching works makes it a necessary consideration for any district hoping to improve teacher practice. A few considerations for bringing instructional coaching programs to scale at maximum impact:

Define and prioritize coach quality

Kraft & Blazar find little connection between coaching “dosage” — the actual number of meetings between teacher and coach — and program effectiveness. Frequent observation and feedback cycles can help, but coach quality is a much stronger indicator of success.

Instead of focusing on time spent as a metric, districts should define the specific skills of a high-quality coach and hire based on that rubric. The New Teacher Institute characterizes these skills as:

  • Understanding of teaching practice
  • Ability to build relationships with teachers
  • Experience with adult learners
  • Evidence of teacher leadership

Build buy-in among educators

Teachers may be understandably nervous about a new emphasis on instructional coaching. Even if a program is non-evaluative, it will be unsuccessful if teachers aren’t open to changing their practice based on feedback.

District and campus leaders have the responsibility to create cultures of support where teachers feel equipped to ask for help. In practice, this may look like non-evaluative walkthroughs focused on positive feedback, frequent single-question “pulse” surveys to get teachers’ feelings about how coaching is progressing, and intentional adjustments in response to that feedback.

Lubbock ISD’s Anna Jackson emphasizes that last point frequently in her work as former Director of Leadership and Professional Development. “When you’re doing training on such a large scale, it’s tough to be able to turn that quickly,” Jackson says. “We’ve found that people in our district are building their confidence in our data and in our responsiveness to that data, which has been really critical. I think they’ve been able to see ‘We said this and they did that.’”

And the proof is in the results: Lubbock recently showed strong gains in the Texas Education Agency’s Accountability Rating System, with the number of A- or B-rated schools nearly doubling, thanks to intentional and targeted conversations based on data.

Consider remote deployment

The research found little difference in the effectiveness of coaching programs delivered online versus face-to-face. This presents a compelling argument for creating teacher/coach pairs based on needs and strengths instead of physical availability.

If a teacher in a rural campus is flagging in student communication, for example, they could meet virtually with a subject expert in that area — without the need for that coach to travel.

Standardize frameworks and align simple tools to them

Supports should be grounded in evidence of individual practice and focused on concrete next steps, which means making it as easy as possible for coaches to record feedback and suggest new techniques.

Simple, framework-aligned feedback forms — or technological solutions like an educator success platform — offer quick ways for the coach to provide in-the-moment support. Coaches themselves should also have a deep and practical understanding of the framework, with access to the guidance and supports to ensure they’re implementing it with fidelity.

Instructional coaching has too much promise to remain a bespoke, small-scale effort. As programs expand, so do the opportunities to innovate — and create personalized benefits across the board.

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